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The Other Rhône Zone

Inside Santa Ynez Valley's band of cool-climate Rhône producers
February 13, 2012

February 13, 2012 – (Los Olivos, CA) In recent years, Paso Robles has received its due as “The Rhône Zone” for producing rich, full, gregarious Rhône - varietal wines that have been applauded as a top wine region of the world. But just under 100 miles to the south lies another Rhône Zone – the Santa Ynez Valley – with a distinctly different climate, and wines whose personalities mirror that of Northern Rhône. The coexistence of two divergent terroirs and styles within a major wine region is not unlike that of France’s Rhône Valley itself, whose cooler climate North produces structured and elegant Syrah-dominant wines, while the South is known for juicier Grenache-based wines.

The primary distinction between the Paso Robles Rhône Zone and that of the Santa Ynez Valley is geographical orientation. The Paso Robles appellation is situated in a valley that runs north-south with the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west and the Cholame Hills to the east. With the largest diurnal swing of any appellation in California (40 to 50 degrees in summer), heat-loving varieties like Grenache have put the region on the map for big, ripe flavors much like those of the Southern Rhône.

Conversely, the Santa Ynez Valley takes more after the Northern Rhône, with an east-west transverse range that allows the Pacific Ocean a significant influence over the area with near-daily fog and crisp ocean breezes. This cooler climate leads to trimmer wines than those from Paso Robles, with firm structure, plenty of secondary flavors like white pepper and tobacco, and great potential for aging.

Even within the Santa Ynez Valley, a small band of vineyards on the northern end produce wines that bear a distinct resemblance to those of France’s famed Northern Rhône.

At the northernmost edge of this band lies Zaca Mesa Winery, whose estate vineyards host the oldest Syrah plantings in Santa Barbara County. With cool coastal winds hitting vines at 1,500 feet, Zaca Mesa’s vineyards are ideally situated to produce graceful Syrah, while other neighboring producers also boast cool climate growing conditions suited to a restrained, Old World style of Syrah.

“You really notice the impact of a cool climate in our wines,” said Zaca Mesa Winemaker, Eric Mohseni. “Our vineyard is located 1500 feet above sea level in the northern most portion of Santa Ynez Valley AVA. Unlike most of California’s coast, our valleys orient east-west, opening to the Pacific Ocean’s influences with its cooling morning fog and afternoon breeze.”

In recent years, the American palate has grown accustomed to wines made in the full-bodied Southern Rhône style, but sommeliers, chefs, and industry trendsetters cite cool climate varietal Syrah as their personal wine of choice. The complexity and elegance of cool climate Syrah allows the fruit and spice flavors of the wines to pair elegantly with a variety of foods and preparation styles. Some delicious examples include grilled meats with Moroccan spices, spice-rubbed pork tenderloin, and a host of ethnic dishes. Is Syrah an insider’s secret?

About Zaca Mesa Winery
Zaca Mesa Winery, located in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County, California, is dedicated to estate grown and bottled Rhône varietal wines. They hand craft their wines with integrity using traditional methods from grapes sustainably grown in their vineyard. Since 1973, they have farmed and nurtured their vineyard to produce wines that are true to the unique spirit of their land. For more information about Zaca Mesa Winery call (805) 688-9339, fax (805) 688-8796, or visit Zaca Mesa Winery is located at 6905 Foxen Canyon Rd., Los Olivos, CA 93441.

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