the areaSanta Barbara is a coastal town about 150km north of Los Angeles and is as far south as quality winemaking gets in California. Santa Ynez Valley AVA is 30 minutes inland and within it is Santa Rita Hills AVA, which is the coolest AVA in California. Winds and fog come from the Pacific Ocean, cooling pocketed microclimates that are ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Further north, about an hour and a half from Santa Barbara, is the large Santa Maria Valley AVA which is also cooled by coastal fog and which became famous for its Pinot Noirs in the 1980s. There are lots of vineyards here, but most wineries prefer to base themselves within the more attractive area of Santa Ynez.
|Santa Ynez Valley|
Further south along the coast, Santa Barbara is a university surfing town. The main street is State Street, a long boulevard lined with shops, restaurants, and palm trees, leading to the ocean. Further away from the centre is Isla Vista, the university area known for its party scene, populated with tanned students on skateboards wearing back-to-front baseball hats. I only got to spend a couple of hours in Santa Barbara, but I liked the relaxed, easy, seaside way of life.
|view from Au Bon Climat|
Au Bon Climat
The purpose of my visit to Santa Barbara was for a wedding, but that enabled me to meet Jim Clendenen at his Au Bon Climat winery in Santa Maria Valley - not only that, but to share a lunch cooked by Clendenen himself.
Au Bon Climat make almost exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The major exception is Hildegard, a wine that demonstrates Clendenen's willingness to challenge preconceived truths. The blend is Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Aligoté, the three grapes that were planted on Corton-Charlemagne, before Burgundy changed the rules to allow only Chardonnay in the Grands Crus. Clendenen wished to name the wine C. Charlemagne, but was advised that was not a good idea, so called it after Charlemagne's wife instead. An historic, world-class tribute to a style of wine that Burgundy refuses to make any more, the Hildegard is one of my favourite wines and I got to try the 2012 and 2006 side by side. The 2006 proved just how ageworthy this elegant but bold wine is, retaining its rich creaminess and acidity while gaining mature nutty notes.
For non-Burgundy wines, Clendenen uses the Clendenen Family Vineyards label. The 2008 Syrah-Viognier is a fruity wine that has a classy, concentrated structure: I was lucky to take an open bottle back with me and it was still drinking wonderfully well two days later. The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc is outstanding too, fermented and aged in a small amount of new oak: the grape is taken seriously instead of being a New Zealand wannabe.
The lunch was predictably epic, with risotto, chicken stew, vegetables, bread, and salad to choose from, accompanied by 15 wines. The rich Chardonnays worked less well with the heavy food than the Sauvignon Blanc and Qupé's 2011 Roussanne, both of whose light acidity balanced the food. Of the several different Pinots, the Isabelle - named after Jim's daughter - was my favourite with its dark fruits, smoky intensity, and gripping tannins.
|view from Riverbench winery, Santa Maria Valley|
The AVAs of Santa Barbara are young, with quality wine dating back only to the 1980s. In that time, they have quickly established themselves as producers of world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - though the Rhône grapes deserve more recognition too. It's quite a different area from Napa for instance, cooler in climate but also in sensibility. The producers are quietly learning their trade, aware of their inexperience but unpretentiously and rightly confident in the quality of their wines.