Saturday evening saw an opportunity to taste the wines of one of California’s most famous names: Jim Clenenden of Au Bon Climat, Santa Barbara. ‘Wild boy Jim’ – this is California after all – has been making wine for nearly 25 years, concentrating on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These two grape varieties tell you that this wine maker is in love with Burgundy, but of course has a very different climate to work with. So what are the wines like?
We tasted seven from a large range of bottlings. The whites split our tasting group. There was no doubt about the quality – substantial, aromatic wines, lots of oak, intense citrus notes, quite a high level of acidity. Our Italian visitors were deeply puzzled by the style – ‘it’s not like a wine’! That, of course, is understandable if you mainly drink wines from the Veneto or Tuscany. White wines in Europe, on the whole, are not this big, oaked or substantial. Others liked the style, noting that by Californian standards it is quite restrained. The Sandford and Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 gave off waves of caramel and toffee and then those lemon and grapefruit notes. The Los Alamos Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 was less oaked, rather sharper and full of edgy fruit. Finally, we had the chance to compare these young wines with the Sandford and Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay 2006 – after a further two years in the bottle, there was much better integration of the oak effects and fruit, a long creamy after taste, mushroom and toast throughout. The wine was slightly puzzling as while the oak had settled down the fruit also seemed not just more rounded but less prominent, giving a rather long-aged effect for a wine that was only five-year-old wine. I was pleased to try these wines but I’m not sure I will be buying them – too big, chunky and oaky for my taste.
By contrast, the Pinot Noir was met with universal acclaim. These wines had a better balance between clove-laden wood and red fruits. Of the four we tasted, the two stars were the instantly attractive Los Alamos Pinot Noir 2007 with its excellent raspberry fruit, savoury notes and complexity and the more structured and profound Isabelle Pinot Noir 2007. Also very good were Sandford and Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006 and La Bauge Pinot Noir 2007.
This was a splendid evening of transatlantic exploration and Anglo-Italian friendship. To celebrate we ate Ribollita, the classic Tuscan soup of white beans and Cavolo Nero, a nearly black cabbage.