Santa Barbara County is certainly one of the most unique wine regions in California. Its location between transverse mountain ranges allows for cool maritime influences to funnel inland, creating the perfect conditions for growing a wide variety of grapes.
Despite its diversity, Santa Barbara County has made a name for itself as one of the world’s premier regions for chardonnay and pinot noir—two of the main grapes used in traditional Champagne. It’s not surprising, then, that an increasing number of Santa Barbara-area producers have added sparkling wine to their portfolios, taking inspiration from France while forging their own paths.
Like the Champagne region of France, which is the only place in the world that can legally label sparkling wine as “Champagne,” Santa Barbara enjoys a long, cool growing season that allows grapes to ripen while retaining high levels of acidity—the perfect conditions for sparkling wine. As winemaker Dieter Cronje of Presqu’ile Winery explains, “Santa Barbara’s cooler climate allows our grapes to get enough acidity to create a good base wine, so producing sparkling wine was really a no-brainer.”
There are several different methods for making sparkling wine, but the most famous and highly regarded method is Méthode Champenoise, also known as the traditional or classic method for Champagne production.
Méthode Champenoise starts with a dry high-acid base wine that goes through a second fermentation in the bottle after the addition of sugar and yeast (known as tirage). The fresh yeast converts the sugar into alcohol, forming carbon dioxide in the bottle. As the yeast cells dissolve and absorb into the wine, they release compounds that create complex toasty, nutty flavors. The longer the wine remains in contact with the decomposed yeast, known as the lees, the more nutty characteristics are imparted into the wine. Many producers are “leaning toward extended time on the lees,” says Cronje, “to get those classic yeasty aromatics that we all love about Champagne.” Adds winemaker Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers and Potek Winery, “It’s a process that can’t be hurried along. Wines can be disgorged earlier, but they won’t achieve that bread dough note that is so damn tasty.”
When the wine has rested on the lees the desired amount of time, the sediment needs to be removed. A labor-intensive process known as riddling is used to collect the yeast, in which each bottle is turned upside down and gently shaken to encourage the lees to collect near the cap, then rotated every day for several weeks or months. When the lees have gathered in the neck of the bottle, the sediment is extracted through disgorging. The bottle is opened, the sediment shoots out and the wine is topped off, then resealed as quickly as possible. At this stage, a winemaker will sometimes add sweetness to the wine, known as dosage.
Despite requiring special equipment, a lot of handling and additional time in bottle, this is the method most Santa Barbara producers use today because of the payoff in flavor and complexity. “It can be a daunting process,” says winemaker Blair Fox, who first started making sparkling wine in the late 2000s with the help of Norm Yost of Flying Goat Cellars. Continues Eli Parker of Fess Parker Winery, “We’re purely doing it for the love of it.”
Although Champagne is traditionally made from three grapes—chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier—a few producers in Santa Barbara are branching out and experimenting with different varieties and styles. For Municipal Winemakers, Potter has produced a sparkling syrah called Fizz since 2007, and Fess Parker Winery now produces an estate sparkling grenache called Sibling Bubblery. In Los Olivos, Solminer Wines makes a small amount of sparkling dosage-free syrah known as Nebullite. Owners David and Anna deLaski, who look to the Old World for inspiration, are also experimenting with a sparkling riesling, which will be released next year. “The fun of sparkling wine is contagious,” says David deLaski, who thanks winemaker Steve Clifton for getting them started with sparkling wine. “It’s a celebratory drink, and it’s a great food-pairing drink. We love it.”
It’s that love for bubbles that has led winemakers throughout Santa Barbara to try their hands at producing sparkling wine; and, due to the quality of the fruit and growing conditions, everyone agrees the sparkling wine business is only going to keep expanding. “More and more producers are looking to do a sparkling project,” shares winemaker Nick de Luca of Alma Rosa Winery. “Overall, Santa Barbara is just a great place for it.”
There are dozens of Santa Barbara producers not mentioned that make sparkling wine—like Riverbench, Palmina and Sea Smoke—and everyone brings something a little different to the table, but be sure to check out these featured wines:
2013 Alma Rosa Brut Rosé: With its light salmon color, this 100% pinot noir is dry and crisp with beautiful aromas of wild strawberries, chalk and orange zest. Well-integrated minerals and yeasty characteristics lead to a refreshing and lingering finish.
2014 Fesstivity Brut Cuvee: Made of 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay, this pale-colored wine has enticing aromas of baked pear and white nectarine, with apple and citrus on the palate. It finishes with a subtle nuttiness thanks to extended time in tirage.
2011 Presqu’ile Blanc de Blancs: Made from 100% chardonnay, this complex wine comes with expressive notes of toasted brioche, Fuji apples and hints of honey on the nose. Four years of aging sur lie leads to tasty bread dough characteristics that continue to persist on the lengthy finish.
2014 Solminer Nebullite: Only two barrels of still syrah were set aside to create this dry sparkling syrah, which was aged on the lees for seven months. Aromas of blackberry, licorice and herbs are followed by flavors of cherry, black fruit and light, powdery tannins. It’s a unique and fun wine that should be served around 55 degrees.
This story was originally printed in the Winter 2016-17 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.