I am so excited to finally get a sip of Riverbench — a winery out of Santa Maria, California I’ve heard so much about but had yet to taste. Even if you’re not familiar with the winery itself, you may recognize the name, as many iconic wineries have sourced grapes from this little piece of Santa Barbara County since the vineyard was established in 1973. The Riverbench Vineyard consists of 115 acres of Pinot Noir and 15 acres of Chardonnay. The team recently planted a few acres of Pinot Meunier, which they hope to have ready to play with this year.
Thanks to the movie Sideways, Santa Barbara is probably one of the most popular Pinot Noir regions in our Golden State. But regardless of what you think of the film, Santa Barbara has earned its positive reputation. Something about the consistently cool climate, the sedimentary sea-influenced soils, not to mention the winemaking culture in the area — it all seems to create the perfect Pinot atmosphere. As Karen MacNeil says, “Within an hour of being in the South Central Coast, you’re so mellow that drinking really good Pinot Noir strikes you as a constitutional right.” I’ll pledge allegiance to that…
Hello Cinsault, you are usually blended with Grenache, Syrah, and/or Mourvèdre. Because of your light skin, you’re a fun grape to blend into a Rhône-style rosé (often using the saignée method), adding a bit of funky-perfume to the mix. Hello Cinsault, meet Mr. Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines — he loves you just as you are.
“I refer to this wine as my ‘MTV Unplugged’ wine,” says Larry, “It’s like a young singer sitting in the corner playing acoustic guitar and singing unmiced, more of a ‘whisper’ of a wine – it does not scream like so many other red wines do.” So…let’s jam shall we?
Mourvèdre is a funny grape. It thrives in warm weather, is a late bloomer and, thus, is usually the last variety picked in the vineyard (and is often the bane of a grape grower’s existence). What’s more, the grape clusters are quite compact, making it more susceptible to disease and mildew. But it’s these somewhat frustrating qualities that give the Mourvèdre wine its signature tastes and textures: high alcohol and high tannins. Wonky and somewhat imbalanced on its own, Mourvèdre tends to serve best as a blending ingredient (most notably as the M in Rhone-inspired GSM blends). But every once in awhile, if the weather and the harvest are just right, vintners can craft a Mourvèdre that can stand on its own.
What I love about Marsanne is it’s anti-white-wine attitude. Native to the Northern Rhône valley, it’s most commonly associated with its counterpart, Rousanne, creating the classically-styled white Rhône blend. Most often, the dominant varietal in the blend is, in fact, the Rousanne, which brings out a bit more fruit and floral flavors, along with a smooth, rounded texture. It’s Marsanne, however that highlights more of the “meatiness,” if you will — often with a bit of nuttiness, spices, and a textural mouthfeel. In other words, it gives the white blend its substance.
However, we don’t see a lot of Marsanne bottled on its own. Despite being a seemingly “strong” wine, the grape is a hard one to grow — one must not pick it too early, lest the grape is underdeveloped and lacking in flavor, nor can one pick it too late, lest it over-ripen, producing a funky-colored skin and a perceived sweetness with flavors like honey or even raisens. So how do you get this Goldilocks of a grape “just right” — with the proper ratio of flavor to texture — and produce a stand-alone, single-varietal wine? Let’s ask an expert, Larry Schaffer, of Tercero Wines who (spoiler alert to this review) definitely got it just right.