While researching Santa Barbara I came across a very small winery that only produces three hundred and fifty cases per year called Gypsy Canyon. The draw was one of the two wines made here – a dessert wine called Angelica.
I’ll begin with some geography. Two mountain ranges form the north and south borders of the Santa Ynez Valley. They funnel the cool ocean air and fog into the region. The cooler, western portion of the valley has been granted its own region called Santa Rita Hills. Canyons run between those mountains and are generally a bit warmer, especially as one moves away from the coast. Gypsy Canyon is on the northern side of the valley and is closer to the ocean than most, but the morning fogs do not always make their way up the canyon to the vineyard.
Deborah Hall originally intended to plant a few acres of Pinot Noir to sell the local winemakers, but while the vines were being planted, some nearby brush was cleared to reveal an old vineyard of scraggly vines. They were identified as a grape called Mission, which was originally brought to California by Spanish missionaries. After researching the history of her property, she concluded that the vines were probably planted in 1887; that makes it the oldest vineyard in Santa Barbara County.
In the modern wine making era Mission has fallen out of favor because the table wine it produces has little character. Deborah thought it a crime to let these old vines go unused, so she looked to the history of the missionaries for inspiration. The mission in Santa Barbara has collected the annals from all the missions in California. There she read correspondence among missionaries about the various wines they produced.
Mission is a red-skinned grape, so it can be used to produce red and white wine. For sacramental purposes, a table wine was produced. The missionaries also made a wine for themselves and their guests called Angelica. Deborah decided to make her own wines and resurrect this long lost style. She follows the historic model as closely as she can.
The grapes for Angelica were left to hang on the vine as long as nature would allow, making them as ripe and as sweet as possible. For Deborah, the Mission is harvested in the middle of December. Both red and white versions of Angelica were made, but the white was more highly prized. For the white, the grapes were pressed and the skins were quickly removed. Halfway through the fermentation the wine was fortified with grape spirit, which raised the alcohol content, killed the yeast and protected the wine from oxygen. This left some degree of sweetness in the partially-fermented wine.
After fortification, it was transferred into barrels. Typically a wine barrel is filled to the top to prevent oxygen from getting to the wine, but the Angelica barrels were only half-full. This allowed oxygen to turn the wine an amber color and change the fruit characteristics. When they were ready for a new batch of bottles, they blended wines from a few years to increase the complexity in what was akin to a solera system in Spain.
Deborah’s homage is an amber color with ruby highlights. It tastes like butterscotch, toffee, sour cherries and orange-flavored liqueur. In keeping with the historic theme, she sought out a glassmaker to individually craft each bottle. The labels are handmade and the neck is dipped in beeswax. She also signs every bottle.
Her Pinot Noir is in similar packaging. It was a very elegant style, perhaps the lightest I have had on the journey. I would have never guessed that she had been working with wine, let alone a grape as difficult as Pinot Noir, for less than ten years.
Too few wines in California are able to claim a sense of the state’s viticultural history, and even less live up to the quality of the reputation. Deborah’s Angelica succeeds on both fronts.