Au Bon Climat – the perfect place to start the California adventure!
As a prequel to our Californian wine adventure we advanced upon Vegas and what a place it is! Its not like Disneyland for kids, as many people have told me, it’s more like 6 Disneylands all packed either side of 4 miles of heavy-duty traffic! I couldn’t get my head around the scale of the place before I got there… now having been I think I’d still struggle to describe it to anyone. In a single word, it’s MENTAL… but already I can’t wait to return!
After 3 days of mentalness we flew into LAX, hired a car and drove up to Santa Barbara. I have really fallen for the Pinots and Chards of this region and one of the main reasons for the visit was to call upon the door of Au Bon Climat. Unfortunately Jim Clendenan, founder, owner, and superstar yet understated winemaker of ABC, wasn’t around the day we visited but the staff on hand were equally brilliant and enthusiastic, leading to one of my favourite and most fun tastings yet.
The tasting room itself is delightful and comfortable and there were 2 tasting options. The first option was the “Classic” flight at $10, which navigated a few unexpected grapes as well as the world-renowned Burgundy varieties. The second “Pinot Reserve” flight focussed purely on Jim’s true love. The Fish was with me so we went for both… purely in the interest of you readers of course!
The Au Bon Climat story started back in 1982 when Jim decided to start his own winery, which means “a well exposed vineyard”. The winery focused on Burgundian varieties and also many techniques from the region; in my experience of tasting the wines, Jim manages to get a wonderful balance of old and new world style, many of the Pinots are reminiscent of Volnay and Chambolle, wines with wonderful elegance, finesse and a very gentle touch. Over the years the number of varieties increased as did the number of labels (Jim now has a family label as well as another venture with his barrel-maker) but the one thing that always seems to stand out is a stylish grace and refinement; this truly is one of the great modern winemakers.
The Classic flight:
Au Bon Climat Pinot Gris Pinot Blanc 2012 ($5 glass/$18 bottle)
75% Pinot Gris and 25% Pinot Blanc – a real summer glass of sunshine. Fresh and bright with lots of apple and citrus fruit. The finish is a touch creamy but lovely acidity cuts through for a very satisfying and enjoyable finish. If I could get this for $18 (£12) at home I’d have a case in the fridge! 90 points
Clendenen Family Vineyards “The Pip” Chardonnay 2012 ($6 glass/$25 bottle)
The first of the wines produced by Jim, his daughter Isabelle and son Knox, with fruit from the Santa Maria Valley, aged in older oak. Bright and fruity again but with a touch of buttery richness. On the palate there is a ton of apple and lovely flourishes of tropical goodness. A fab wine and one that reminded me of a 1er Cru from Puligny. 92 points
Au Bon Climat Los Alamos Chardonnay 2011 ($6 glass/$25 bottle)
Single vineyard wine aged for 12 months in 40% new French oak. Tight and tense with lots of minerality but the trademark freshness and acidity makes this very drinkable right now. The apple and citrus fruit is complimented with a slightly smoky finish with just a hint of coconut; a little short on the finish but now I’m just being picky. 92+ points
Au Bon Climat Los Alamos Pinot Noir 2010 ($8 glass/$30 bottle)
Smells and tastes like a bowl of red summer fruits – it’s like a firework display of summer for the nose and the tongue. Elegant and delicious and just lots and lots of fun and enjoyment; the long wild strawberry finish is sublime. 93 points
Clendenen Family Vineyards Le Bon Climat Pinot Noir 2008 ($9 glass/$35 bottle)
All of the fruit is sourced from a vineyard Jim bought in 1998 and has been certified organic since 2003. Once more the red fruits are to the fore in this wonderful wine but now we have layers of earth and spice; leather, clove, smoke and fruit combine beautifully to produce an elegant, delicate and downright beautiful wine that could be tipped as a top-end 1er Cru Volnay. Brilliant. 95 points
Clendenen Family Vineyards Petit Verdot 2008 ($9 glass/$35 bottle)
Very unusual to find a Petit Verdot single variety bottling, this is a single vineyard bottling from Bien Nacido and just shows how Jim can lend a gentle touch to more than Pinot and Chard. The nose is herbal and menthol but the palate retains the freshness and red fruit I’ve come to associate with the label. The fruit is concentrated and there is plenty of body building tannin but I’m still left with a lift and freshness that keeps you going back for more. A winemaker with great skill. 91 points
The Pinot Reserve flight:
Clendenen Family Vineyards “The Pip” Pinot Noir 2012 ($6 glass/$25 bottle)
Lashings of red fruit on the nose and palate but also a hint of something savoury – bay leaf maybe? This is a very easy drinking wine, simple and enjoyable and the guys suggest to serve it slightly chilled – I can see that working. 89 points
Au Bon Climat “La Bauge Au-deussus” Pinot Noir 2010 ($7 glass/$30 bottle)
Lots of elegance here with plenty of raspberry, strawberry and cranberry fruit and a delicate touch with the sweet but beautifully balanced oak. There’s a lovely mineral note to the wine and just a hint of leather adds to the complexity. A beautiful wine. 93 points
Ici/La-Bas “Les Révélés” Pinot Noir 2009 ($7 glass/$30 bottle)
This is a collaboration with barrel broker Mel Knox, made with fruit form Anderson Valley. There is a very nice smoky attack along with the usual red fruit but this one has a hole in the middle. I really liked the earthiness but wanted everything to come together a little bit more. 88 points
Au Bon Climat Talley Pinot Noir 2009 ($10 glass/$40 bottle)
In 1991 Jim started a relationship with Brian Talley to make Pinot Noir from two of his vinyeards, Rincon Adobe and Rosemary’s Vineyard, both located in the Arroyo Grande Valley. The grapes for this wine come from a 1.2 acre block from that contains some of the oldest vines on the property.
So far all of the wines have been about the fruit, The Talley is all about the earth. The wine is smoky and slightly spicy upfront with cool mineral notes, then comes the bright red fruit and beautifully judged acidity, fine tannin and exceptional length. This is a wine with fine body and great concentration. Wonderful. 94 points
Au Bon Climat Sandford & Benedict Pinot Noir 2012 ($12 glass/$50 bottle)
The Sanford & Benedict vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley is the benchmark site for California Pinot and ABC’s offering is delightful. The fruit is back to the forefront in this still young wine but there is a delicious savoury edge of bay leaf and leather just starting to show it’s head. The elegance is there as you would expect and all this baby needs is a little more time to come together. 93+ points
Au Bon Climat “Isabelle” Pinot Noir 2011
This one wasn’t on the tasting list but there was a bottle open and it would have been very rude to say no! “Isabelle” is named after Jim daughter (there is also a wine called Knox after his son) and is a blend of the best barrels from the vintage from all of the ABC sites, hence the California designation. All of the vital ABC signs are there with lashings of red fruit, a touch of spice, cool minerality and a delicate touch… unfortunately this one has a clipped finish and leaves you wanting more… but I’m not sure it’s going to get there. 90 points
A brilliant couple of flights from a master winemaker – all of the wins have a delicate touch and show a delightful balance of concentration and elegance; the best are top-notch and the others are still wonderful wines. Get yourself a bottle soon… you deserve it!