Spotlight on “The New” California Chardonnay: Hilliard-Bruce Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2011

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While only first offering wines in 2008, Hilliard-Bruce is special for its vineyard location and its highly scientific philosophy. Initially John Hilliard and Christine Bruce also used consultant Paul Lato, a Pole and former sommelier from Toronto who moved to the central coast in 2002, though he first visited in 1996 to learn from Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat. Lato became famous with those in the know from working his way from a $10 an hour cellar rat to making highly in demand wines praised by Parker and supported by Keller at his French Laundry restaurant in Napa. Lato’s knowledge and harmonious style was clearly influential on Hilliard-Bruce who now operate without his assistance.


As for the vineyard, it is located in the most westerly part of Sta. Rita Hills (just 11 miles from the ocean) and thus is one of the coolest, windiest and lowest yielding vineyards in the hills. The vines are planted in light, sandy soils (vs. the sedimentary diatomacious soils in other parts of the region) and make potent, aromatic wines.

They are anti-biodynamics simply because they believe in hard science rather than rituals. This doesn’t mean they don’t care about ecosystem farming. As one example, Hilliard Bruce hired a company that does bioreclamation for industrial sites to put in 1500 square feet of floating islands ade out of recycled water bottles on their water reserve. The purpose was to absorb excess nutrients and heavy metals out of water to be used for irrigation using microscopic bacteria and plants contained on the islands. This greatly improves the water quality for vineyards. The water status of the vines is monitored by sensor.

The vineyard is surrounded by oak trees, fruit trees, many flowers and vegetable gardens, creating a complete ecosystem.

The Chardonnay vines are planted Dijon clones 76 and 96 (vs. the old heritage clones such as Wente used by many other wineries). The Chardonnay blocks are located in the coldest part of the vineyard. The planting density is 6’ x 3’ with 2420 vines per acre and Hilliard ties all his shoots vertically to allow air flow and reduce disease pressure.

Vinification and The Wine

The single estate Chardonnay is kept on its lees for 16 months in 30% new French oak barrels before being racked into a tank for cold stabilization before bottling. In 2011 the wine did not complete malo.

2011 is a cooler year and so the wines have higher acid than in many other years. The wine itself offers up front banana and lemon custard with intensely aromatic papaya on the nose. This is highly expressive wine. The fruit is more traditionally tropical than the other two central coast Chardonnays I’ve profiled so far. However, there is also a wonderful apricot skin quality that is truly fantastic and pleasurable.

The wine shares bracing acidity and a saline quality with the Sandhi and Brewer-Clifton Chardonnays. The freshness and cut of the acid-driven finish makes the wine quite clean despite its up front opulence. Ultimately, this Chardonnay is all about balanced and integration, but in my mind a less philosophically interesting wine compared to the Brewer-Clifton or the Sandhi. That is not a criticism, but an observation. It’s hard to argue with the structure and the sheer deliciousness of this wine and I frankly enjoyed it more than the Brewer-Clifton, which I found less integrated. Sandhi remains at another level of quality and interest.

Very Good+
$45 at K&L SF

Conclusions on Santa Barbara County

Until the very end of this spotlight, where I plan to come briefly full circle, this is my last wine from the unique and important Santa Barbara County – and the Sta. Rita Hills in particular, which has become one of the best places to grow Chardonnay in California. While somewhat premature to draw deep conclusions from merely three wines, my observation is that the simultaneous freshness and ripeness that is possible here give winemakers tremendous variety of choices, but also ensure even the richer wines are high in acid and suitable for food. There is still much to be discovered in the central coast and Sta. Rita Hills and I can only see better and better wines in the future. I highly recommend you seek out some of the best producers and rediscover what is possible with California Chardonnay from these parts. My personal favourite was Sandhi.


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