Spotlight On New World Pinot Noir: Au Bon Climat Santa Rita Hills (Mt. Carmel, Sanford & Benedict, Le Bon Climat) Pinot Noir 2004

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santabThe second theme in the spotlight series is New World Pinot Noir. I chose this theme for a few reasons. On a personal level, because I have been trying for years to find New World Pinot that I love and appreciate as much as good Burgundy and have yet to be fully successful. On a trend level because since Sideways hit the box office Pinot Noir sales have jumped and the interest in the grape has skyrocketed. But, I wonder, has anyone in the new world really pushed the boundaries of this grape in the last few years? And, lastly, I am excited about this spotlight on a ‘professional’ level because I want to see if I can detect differences not only in stylistic approach, but also in ‘terroir’ between some of the New World’s most famous Pinot Noir growing regions.

With all these goals in mind I will be surveying the most famous regions for producing Pinot Noir in the new world, including California’s Central Coast and Sonoma Valleys, Willamette Valley in Oregon, Central Otago and Marlborough in New Zealand, and the Adelaide Hills of Australia. I am not convinced that Chile is close to the level of these regions when it comes to Pinot Noir so I won’t be including it in this series.

To get the fun started, I am going to be taking a look at the inspiration for the Sideways movie in the first place: Santa Barbara County. Or, more specifically, the Santa Rita Hills. The Santa Rita Hills were the first and most important site for growing Pinot Noir in Central California, and are home to perhaps the most famous Pinot Noir vineyard on the Central Coast: the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. This vineyard lies in a sheltered area in the hills that sees ocean mists and fog sweep in over the vines in the morning, and burn off by the afternoon. I think this vineyard is no more than 15 or so miles from the Coast, which means cool breezes are a fact of the vines’ life.

Interestingly, the current robust wine scene in the Central Coast region started only in the early 1990s, when vineyard land was incredibly cheap and a good alternative to the ever-increasing expense of Napa Valley in the north. More specifically, the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys of Santa Barbara County proved themselves to be the ideal sites for growing chardonnay and pinot noir, due to the relatively cool climate compared to Napa. The Santa Rita Hills (part of the westernmost reach of the Santa Ynez Valley), is a series of rolling hills that tends to get quite cool. It has a mixture of soil types, including sand, silt, and clay. The key conditions that make growing Pinot Noir here so unique is that there is very low rainfall here compared to Sonoma County, for example, and so the growing season is very long, allowing the fruit to ripen slowly and fully develop its aromatic potential. The cool ocean air keeps the grapes quite high in acidity, however, which means that if the vines are overcropped the wines will be overly acidic. The best winemakers, however, produce wines with great vibrancy and a rich fruityness that is unique in California.

IMG_4619Au Bon Climat, and Jim Clendenon (the winemaker), are an iconic standby in the region, making Pinot Noir from grapes grown in the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys, as well as in the Santa Rita Hills. Starting in the 1970’s at Zaca Mesa winery, Clendenon went on to form Au Bon Climat with Adam Tolmach (now of Ojai fame). These wines have always been made with, as David from Marquis suggested, one big foot in France and one little one in California. You can detect this style with each wine of his that you drink.

The wine itself is, for me, classic Santa Rita Hills, and it reminds me much of the Alma Rosa wines made from similar fruit. This wine is actually blended from the fruit of three vineyards located in the Santa Rita Hills (including the westerly portion of the Sanford and Benedict Vineyard). On the nose this wine had a rich character of strawberry, cherry, spice, and rhubarb with underlying hints of earth and a fine stemmy burgundy-like character. The palate was similar to the nose, but added licorice and had good weight to the mid-palate, some stems and earth. The wine’s bright fruit gives it a sweetness and, along with the clean and ripe tannin structure, makes this very easy drinking. I quite enjoyed it, although I must admit it is hard to notice the difference between this and pinots made with similar fruit from other vineyards. I will be curious to compare the ‘terroir’ of Santa Rita with that of Sonoma, which will be the subject of the next post in this series.

Very Good+
$48 at Marquis


  1. Ryan Reichert
    January 13, 2010

    I forgot to mention Chile… I think you’re doing yourself a dis-service by not including them! I’d definitely try some. Also, if you happen to make a trip down to the Willamette let me know, and I’ll be happy to take you around/introduce you to some of the great people I’ve met so far. Cheers!

  2. Paul Watkin
    January 13, 2010

    liked your 1st post. New World Pinot is no different than old world Pinot in that it is just as “hit and miss”. More times than not we look to compare new world Pinot to Burgundy (benchmark), which is as effective as comparing Aussie Shiraz to Northern Rhone Syrah. We have all hopefully been left speechless by that truly “amazing” Burgundy, but what we forget is how many unforgettable Burgundies we drink before and after that bottle. If Pinot Noir is truly a personal and heartbreak grape, then each bottle of Pinot should be evaluated independent of everything else. If you look to compare New World styles to Burgundy, it will leave you truly heartbroken and unfulfilled. I look forward to your next posts.

  3. Shea
    January 13, 2010

    Ok, I will give Chile another chance – do you have recommendations? And, thanks for the invite! I will definitely be making it down there at some point.

  4. Shea
    January 13, 2010


    I like that perspective and think you are right. However, I DO think there are some massive stylistic differences btwn the New World and Burgundy. I want to explore those, and see if my preference for burgundy is just stylistic preference or if there are New World pinots that can tantalize me in the same way as a good village burgundy.



  5. Weston
    January 13, 2010

    Well don’t go with the Cono Sur Pinot Noir, Did not like them at all had that Entry level approachability where they leave a touch of residual sugar [ie Yellow Tail]

  6. Paul Watkin
    January 13, 2010

    Fair point. Fun journey! I await the future posts. Try the Tabali Pinot Noir from the Leyda Valley. Kits Wine Cellar has it for about $30

  7. Shea
    January 13, 2010

    Thanks Paul, that sounds like a wine worth giving a whirl.

  8. Shea
    January 13, 2010

    Weston – I will definitely avoid their entry level bottlings. I’ve never been a fan despite some liking them.

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