The 15 Best Santa Barbara Pinot Noir Wines and Producers

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

view of santa barbara county vineyards

Wine collections aren’t static creations – they morph over time as you consume, share and sell off certain vintages. If you’re in the market for a new addition to your collection, you should get to know Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara.

Pinot Noir vs. Santa Barbara Pinot Noir

Largely a Burgundy-region specialty, Pinot Noir is thought to be an ancient grape variety dating to Roman times. This variety, with its smaller leaves, more delicate vines and cone-shaped clusters of grapes, may be a challenge to cultivate, but in the glass it releases a heady mixture of earthy, fruity and herb-rich aromas.

This exceptional taste is what excites producers and leads them to cultivate a grape known for its occasionally finicky nature. Pinot Noir currently sits as the 10th most planted grape around the world.

Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County experiences a lengthy and cool growing season that is similar to the climate of the Burgundy region of east-central France. Unlike Burgundy, though, many parts of Santa Barbara County experience dense fog that rolls in off the Pacific Ocean; this fog contributes to the ideal climate for Pinot Noir, offering just enough moisture to be beneficial without lingering too long.

Throughout the Santa Barbara winegrowing region, this varietal typically leans toward excellent structure and earthy notes with modestly sweet fruit and balanced acidity. In slightly more inland regions of Santa Barbara County, candied fruit becomes prominent.

Wine Regions in Santa Barbara

You’ll find four main American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Santa Barbara County, although only three are suitable for Pinot Noir. The fourth AVA – Happy Canyon – sits inland in a warmer region more suitable to varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Additionally, there are two AVA's both contained within the larger Santa Ynez AVA - Ballard Canyon and Los Olivos.

Santa Maria Valley AVA

Formed in 1981 as the first AVA in Santa Barbara County, Santa Maria Valley AVA offers a wide valley with cooling fog and coastal freezes. It lies to the east of the city of Santa Maria, just 15 miles from the coast. More than 57 percent of vineyard acreage goes toward Pinot Noir, which grows well in the sandy-loamy soil; limestone contributes a degree of calcium-richness and higher acidity. Some of the top producers include Au Bon Climat and Foxen.

Santa Ynez Valley AVA

This second AVA, formed in 1983, sits between the San Rafael Mountains and the Santa Ynez Mountains, with Lake Cachuma on its western border. As with the Santa Maria Valley AVA, cool breezes and dense fog make their way into the valley. Pinot Noir thrives in this valley, especially at the western end where the fog layer is densest. A few of the best wine producers in Santa Ynez Valley AVA include Fess Parker and Ken Brown. Within this AVA you'll also find two smaller AVA's. Ballard Canyon, situated east of Sta. Rita Hills, is well known for red varieties Syrah and Grenache. The Los Olivos AVA, bordered by Ballard Canyon in the west and Happy Canyon in the east, produces both reds and whites including Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

Sta. Rita Hills AVA

Found at the western edge of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, which formed in 2001, is considered the prime wine region for Pinot Noir along the Central Coast. Cool breezes enter this AVA from three sides, while a free-draining soil rich in marine deposits leads to wines with minerality and acidity. You’ll see top names like Dragonette Cellars, Paul Lato, The Hilt, Sanford and Brewer-Clifton in this AVA.

15 Best Santa Barbara Pinot Noir Wineries and Wines

Here are 15 of the best Pinot Noir wineries and wines produced in Santa Barbara County.

1. Melville

2015 Melville Pinot Noir Estate Sta. Rita Hills - $29.94

This vintage, with its medium body and lengthy finish, showcases red currant and cherry, along with cinnamon, herbs, eucalyptus and cedar notes.

2. The Hilt

2014 The Hilt Pinot Noir Vanguard - $57.94

Harvested from Sta. Rita Hills, the 2014 Vanguard has luscious black raspberry, licorice, florals and plenty of seductive spice. Supple and smooth, this wine unveils its dimensions along with plenty of structure.

3. Brewer-Clifton

2013 Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Machado - $69.94

Full-bodied and textured, the 2013 Machado reveals a rich medley of black and dark red fruits that deepens when mixed with violets, spices and dried herbs.

4. Foxen

2013 Foxen Pinot Noir La Encantada - $54.94

Bright red fruits mingle with plums, anise and black tea, later revealing deeper complexity and a strong, memorable finish.

5. Belle Glos

2017 Belle Glos Pinot Noir Clark & Telephone Vineyard - $44.94

Bursting with red fruits, this wine has hints of ginger, cedar and sweet florals. Excellent balance comes through before the lingering final notes.

6. Sandhi

2016 Sandhi Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills

Bold, rich and supple, the 2016 Sandhi Pinot Noir has plenty of expression with blue and dark red fruits, savory notes, lavender and rich earth.

7. Bonaccorsi

2013 Bonaccorsi Pinot Noir Bien Nacido

Harvested from the Santa Maria Valley, the 2013 Bien Nacido is big on blending fruits like mulberry, cherry and strawberry with earthy beets, rhubarb, and spices like anise and clove.

8. Paul Lato

2013 Paul Lato Pinot Noir Solomon Hills Vineyard Suerte

The 2013 Suerte is a big and racy wine, dishing out flavor notes of stone fruit, currents and florals. There is plenty of structural integrity, with a splash of minerality and acidity to balance out the oakiness.

9. The Ojai Vineyards

2014 Ojai Pinot Noir Fe Ciega

This wine, harvested from the western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills, mixes sweet with savory. The dark color reveals complexity, where red berries and herbs play off one another, and rustic earthiness blends with citrus and spices.

10. Fess Parker

2015 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Bien Nacido

This medium-bodied Santa Maria Valley wine loves to mix tart fruits like cranberry with sweet cherries and plums, along with cedar and lavender. The 2015 Fess Parker Bien Nacido leaves a memorable spicy finish.

11. Sanford

2014 Sanford Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict Vineyard

Fresh, spicy fruits lead in this medium-bodied wine, along with rose, hibiscus and juniper. The 2014 Sanford Pinot reaches wide with its firmer tannins, solid structure and layered elegance.

12. Au Bon Climat

2014 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir La Bauge Au-dessus

This displays classic characteristics for wines from the Santa Maria Valley, including complex flavor notes that shift from sweet red fruits and roses to fennel, thyme and sagebrush.

13. Sea Smoke

2015 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir Ten

Intense and velvety with firm tannins, the 2015 Ten is big on dark blue fruits, chocolate, spices and rose petals.

14. Domaine de la Cote

2016 Domaine de la Cote Pinot Noir La Cote

This complex wine reveals an intriguing mix of sour cherry, citrus, black tea and forest floor earthiness, leading to a lengthy and impressive finish.

15. Dragonette Cellars

2015 Dragonette Pinot Noir Fiddlestix Vineyard

In this highly complex wine, pomegranate, plum and raspberry mingle with sassafras, cinnamon, smoky sandalwood and anise.

To discover these and other outstanding wines from JJ Buckley Fine Wines, we invite you to visit our growing collection of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir.

Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Vintners.