Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara County is one of the most recent grape growing regions to attain the American Viticulture Area classification, or AVA. This little sub-region sits on one of the most picturesque drives in California. Ballard Canyon Road starts at State Route 154 (aka San Marcos Pass) and bends and winds its way to a little south of Buellton (home of the famous Pea Soup Andersen’s) on State Route 246. The road is only 7 miles long and full of native oak trees, rolling hills of vines, and even a few bison to complete the scenery straight off a vintage Americana postcard.
Wine drinkers are soon to hear more of Ballard Canyon as it is becoming one of the red Rhône hot spots of this great state, especially Syrah. Before receiving its official nod, Ballard Canyon was already getting a buzz of approval from sommeliers and winemakers alike. Vineyards and producers within the AVA’s boundaries include Stolpman, Beckman, Rusack, and Jonata, are all being touted for their red Rhônes. However, after a recent tasting, it was the Roussanne that was really a surprise.
Roussanne is not the most recognized white wine from Southern France, which is of course Viognier – the two are most commonly blended with a third grape Marsanne. It is rare to see a 100% Roussanne wine – last year there was 1277 tons of Roussanne picked while the total for Viognier was 28,000. There are distinct differences between the two: Roussanne has flavors of peach and apricot compote while Viognier tends to lean on the more tropical side of the fruit spectrum, also with characteristic pear notes. Both are on the fuller side in mouthfeel.
The first Roussanne I tried was from boutique producer De Su Propia Cosecha, a winery that firmly puts all its concentration in the vineyard. The name is Spanish for “Of One’s Own Harvest” and proprietor/winemaker Chris King personally tends the vineyards from which he buys fruit. This is a very uncommon procedure as most just buy the grapes, while King is probably in the vineyard more than the winery. King sourced these grapes from Stolpman vineyard, and this is a wine that stands out. There was a fresh apricot nose with hints of honeydew, also some flavors of almond and water chestnuts; nectar in its full definition.
I tried Stolpman Vineyard’s own Roussane a few nights later. Stolpman was the first to plant Rhone varieties in Ballard, and really began the trend across the canyon. Their Roussanne is named “L’Avion”, French for airplane, as the vines grow on a former airplane strip on the property which started out as cattle ranch. This wine too is quite special, with a lovely nose of peaches and cream, some hints of honeysuckle and with clean cut minerality on the finish.
To put these two wines in perspective I took a quick jaunt out to my local bottle shops in search of a French Roussanne. Although I came up empty handed in 100% Roussanne wine, I did find a 50/50 Rousanne Viognier made by Mas des Bressade in the Costières de Nîmes, one of the more southern bits of the Rhône . Although this is made up half of Viognier it is still full of Roussanne flavor, lots of peaches, apricot compote, fresh minty tea leaves and tropical melon.
The Ballard Canyon wines were very fragrant and what made them stand out was the pureness on the palate. Both had such ripe stone fruit flavors and an underlining acidity mixed with minerality that adds a fresh note. Food-wise and because of the medium weight of Roussanne these wines will go perfect with most poultry, fish or seafood and citrus sauces. Fish or shrimp tacos with mango salsa or grilled salmon with a lemon cilantro sauce, the weight of the wine will counter light lemon or lime sauces. In fact, I would go as far as saying it will stand up to medium spicy Thai dishes as well. I am just imaging a chicken yellow curry matching perfect to the peach and apricot flavors of Roussanne.
So, remember the name ‘Ballard Canyon’ particularly if you come across one of these delectable Roussannes, a perfect match for your spring and early summer.
De Su Propia Cosecha is available here, at their online store, for $28
Stolpman Vineyard’s L’Avignon is available here, at their online store, for $38
Mas Bressade is available at various merchants here, for around $17