The Santa Rita Hills area of Santa Barbara County is California’s hottest new region for cold-weather wines — specifically the Burgundian varietals of pinot noir and chardonnay. The area is located along an inland part of the Santa Ynez River, a bit removed from the Pacific’s influence, and is a relatively new AVA or appellation. The "Santa" is officially not spelled out, being abbreviated to "Sta. Rita Hills" in deference to Chile’s large Santa Rita brand, which got there first.
One of the many bright spots in SRH is Hilliard Bruce — the owners are the married couple John Hilliard and Christine Bruce — which makes small volumes of estate-grown chard and pinot from their 21 acres planted 10 years ago. In deference to different clones and parts of their vineyard, Hilliard Bruce produces three or four fancifully named pinot noirs, all quite good.
A quick, but broad over-thought: California pinots — and some from Burgundy — have a tendency to be too ripe and concentrated, which can seem beautiful on first sip but quickly tires the palate. In this way, pinot is not all that different from merlot, which makes the whole Sideways superiority argument so amusing. I have the feeling that Hilliard Bruce recognizes this danger and is trying to avoid the trap, which it mostly does.
The current vintages are:
2011 Hilliard Bruce Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay ($45). Very Burgundian in style, fruity but lean with flavors of apple, apple skins and dried apricots, notes of chalkiness and minerality with pleasant, toasty, not obtrusive barrel notes. Delicioso.
2011 Hilliard Bruce "Sun" Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir ($55). Ripe, rooty and concentrated pinot flavors of cherry and cola. It is the fruitiest of the three and is on the edge of being sappy or syrupy in the finish, though it’s not the least bit heavy. It seemed more balanced when tasting it the second day, and I believe it will be much better a year or two from now. It should have considerable aging potential. My guess is this would be the favorite of those adorable pinot-nuts who like high-profile California pinots. If you want to drink it now, decant it a few hours in advance.
2011 Hilliard Bruce "Sky" Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir ($55). My Pick of the Litter. The more I tasted the three pinots over time, the more this one stood out — tangy flavors, less-concentrated fruit, noticeable and very welcomed tannins, herbal notes; a bit more masculine, seemingly the best-structured, yet “lightest” of the three.
2011 Hilliard Bruce “Earth” Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir ($45). It’s somewhere in the middle in terms of fruit intensity, and is the most savory of the three — light garrigue notes, a little balsamic, a little peppery. Very well-balanced and very approachable.