Champagne-Inspired: Riverbench Growing Santa Barbara’s Only Pinot Meunier

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
vineyard photos by Laura Booras
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/23/15

When it comes to Santa Barbara County sparkling wine, two grapes reign supreme: pinot noir and chardonnay.  The quality, acidity and flavor of these sister Burgundian grapes, which flourish in growing zones like the Santa Maria Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills near Lompoc, make world-class bubbles.  But now, three’s company.

Pinot meunier grows at Riverbench
Earlier this month, and by all accounts, Riverbench became the first vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country to grow pinot meunier.  This red grape variety flourishes in Champagne, France, where it is readily blended in with pinot and chard to add a bit of richness to the world’s best sparklers.  But the focus in Santa Barbara, where more than 30 producers are now making at least one sparkling wine a year, has never included this silent partner.  Until now.

“This shows how seriously we’re taking our sparkling wine program,” Riverbench GM Laura Booras told me this week.  “We’re not trying to imitate Champagne, but we’re inspired it.  We’re taking cues from the experts and applying them to what we’re already doing.”

Riverbench's Santa Maria tasting room (Bob Dickey, wineguydotcom@yahoo.com)
Riverbench has been growing top-notch wine grapes in the Santa Maria Valley since 1973, and they launched their sparkling wine program in 2008.  Today, they produce 1000 cases of four bubbly bottlings a year, including a blanc de blancs and a demi-sec, both chardonnay-based, and a blanc de noirs and brut rosé, both pinot-based.  Riverbench’s winemaker is Clarissa Nagy.

“Clarissa and I absolutely love Champagne – it’s a big part of our lives and we’re inspired by it, “ Booras insists.  Seeking out pinot meunier stemmed from their mutual desire “to get experimental.”

A grafted pinot meunier vine
The closest source vines they could find were at a nursery in northern California.  They grafted them with existing pinot gris vines – the pinot gris trunks were removed and the new vines were fused right onto the older root system – to produce three rows of pinot meunier.  Their first fruits will be harvested in the fall of 2016.

Booras says, “Grafting was a lower-risk way to start.  If we like the results, we’ll invest more and can look at planting it outright.”

The results are promising, at least.   “We’ve got ripening conditions that seem to be very similar to Champagne,” adds Booras.  The new pinot meunier would then be added to select sparklers “to add an interesting austerity to the wine.  Chardonnay in Santa Maria tends to have really bright citrus fruit character, so pinot meunier might help tone that down some, for the sake of achieving a truly balanced, flavorful wine.”

Clearly, this is a step forward for Riverbench and their very focused sparkling wine program.  But this moves all of Santa Barbara County wine country forward, too, by tapping what has always been part and parcel to local winemaking: pioneering, experimenting and pushing the envelope.  The results are delicious every time.

For more information on Riverbench, including its tasting rooms both in the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Barbara's Funk Zone, check out  riverbench.com.


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