The wines of Au Bon Climat
Impressive Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from California's Central Coast


Next time you fancy visiting California wine country, consider giving Napa and Sonoma a miss and instead visiting Santa Barbara County. Just two hours' drive northwards from LA, you'll find it less crowded and possibly more interesting; home to a bunch of energetic, creative producers, among the best of which is Au Bon Climat. Begun in 1982 as a partnership between Adam Tolmach (who now runs Ojai) and Jim Clenenden (you'll probably have seen lots of pictures of him—he looks a bit like a 1980s heavy metal lead guitarist, just off the set of Spinal Tap), they quickly established a stellar reputation for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (a bewildering range of different bottlings of each).

The grapes for these wines come mostly from the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys, which are both cooled down by the coastal fogs, and have extremely low rainfall. Some are also sourced from the Arroyo Grande and Edna Valleys, further up towards San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast. The good news: most of these wines are pretty interesting and some of them are excellent, especially the Pinot Noirs, and bearing in mind this is California the prices are pretty sane.

Production levels are around 30 000 cases annually.


Au Bon Climat Wild Boy Chardonnay 2007
Smooth, refined and yet really intense with some nuttiness. Broad, mealy fruit here. A big wine. 90/100

Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Chardonnay 2007
Dense and nutty but with real citrus freshness on the finish. Bold but beautiful. 91/100

Au Bon Climat Santa Maria Pinot Noir 2008
Very pale in colour. Beautiful sweet cherry aromatics. Bright and fresh. Light, elegant palate shows bright, fresh cherry fruit. 90/100

Au Bon Climat Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay 2006
Aromatic and focused. Fresh but rich at the same time, with citrussy fruit and a nice minerality. Complex and balanced. 92/100

Au Bon Climat Hildegard 2004 Santa Maria Valley
Mainly Pinot Gris. Lovely matchstick reduction on the nose: mineral, intense, toasty, rich. The palate is bold textured and complex with mineral notes, toast and some richness. 92/100

Au Bon Climat La Bauge Pinot Noir 2006
Pale cherry colour. Hint of spice to the smooth, elegant cherry fruit. Some warm pluminnes and spiciness. Elegant style. 90/100

Au Bon Climat Isabelle Morgan Pinot Noir 2006
Fresh, focused, bright cherry fruit nose with spicy complexity. The palate has lovely fruit and some oak currently showing. 91/100

Au Bon Climat Knox Alexander Pinot Noir 2005
Herby and spicy with bright fruit on the nose. Warm, smooth balanced palate with some earthy notes. Nice wine. 91/100

Wines tasted 09/09

From a tasting at the IPNC in July 2008:

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 1996 Santa Barbara County
Evolved and quite earthy but there's some freshness to the fruit here: this is still alive and drinking very well. A ripe expression of Pinot but interesting with it. 88/100

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict 1999
This is brilliant. Earthy, spicy nose leads to an expressive palate that's quite pure with lovely focus and depth. Quite profound, and drinking perfectly now. 94/100

Notes from an earlier tasting (in 2001):

Wild Boy Chardonnay 1999
Starts off with a nice, restrained nose, but the palate is like a caricature of Californian Chardonnay, with bags of new oak and concentrated tropical fruit flavours. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Jim Clenenden made this wine as a tongue-in-cheek jibe at the Californian style, which would explain why this is so at odds with the rest of the range. Very good, but odd

Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 1999, Santa Barbara County
Nice rich nutty nose shows complex toasty and fruity notes. The palate is classy, nutty and intense. It's a very savoury style with some rich but high-quality oaking. Very good+ (£14)

Chardonnay Reserve Le Bouge D'à Côte, Bien Nacido Vineyard 1998, Santa Maria Valley
There's a smoky, almost vegetal edge to the nose. This is a powerful style, with a savoury, nutty palate. Quite an austere style, with a very distinct savoury oaky character. It's still quite tight. Very good+ (£18)

Chardonnay Alban Vineyard 1998, Edna Valley
Very intense, smoky nose shows spicy, nutty notes and some toast and figgy fruit. The intense, savoury palate displays smoky, toasty, caramel and coffee notes, and there's good acidity. A very bold wine, quite oaky, but still classy. Very good/excellent (£27)

Chardonnay Sanford and Benedict Vineyard 1998, Santa Ynez Valley
Ripe elegant nose, with a rounded, toasty, nutty character and rich caramel and toffee notes. Full and quite rounded on the palate. This is a classy Chardonnay in a ripe style, and it's well balanced despite the oak. Very good/excellent (£27)

Chardonnay Talley Vineyard 1998, Arroyo Grande Valley
The attractively open, nutty and toasty nose shows ripe fruit. The palate is nicely textured, with buttery fruit and nutty, toasty oak, together with some toffee notes. This is riper and fuller than some of the other Chardonnays here. Very good+ (£18)

Pinot Mondeuse 1999, Santa Maria Valley
50% Pinot Noir, 50% Mondeuse. Lovely intense nose with rich, herby, pungent fruit. Relatively firm tannic palate with some green olive notes. Good concentration; and interesting wine. Very good+ (£14)

Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict 1998, Santa Ynez Valley
Pale colour. Sweet spicy nose with some savoury cherry notes. Very savoury and spicy on the palate; quite rich in character, this is impressive. Very good/excellent. (£27)

Pinot Noir Laetitia & Rincon 1998, Arroyo Grande Valley
Quite pale in colour. Lovely pungent cherry and herb nose is profound and complex. The palate is rich and powerful with some lovely medicinal notes and cherryish fruit. Real interest here. Complex. Excellent (£27)

La Bauge Au Dessus Pinot Noir 1999
Lovely pungent herby/cherry nose with some smoky notes. The palate shows attractive, rich, savoury dark-cherry fruit and smoky, toasty notes. With good concentration, this is a rich wine. A touch of undergrowth adds complexity. Lovely stuff. Excellent

Pinot Noir Knox Alexander 1998, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
In a huge bottle, and with a different label than the others. A premium wine from the top of the Bien Nacido vineyard, this is one of two top cuvées from Au Bon Climat. Lovely, complex herby, spicy, medicinal nose, this is lovely stuff that is varietally true. Quite a splendid palate: savoury, rich, complex and still balanced, with ripe berry elements and great power. Excellent (£33)

Ici La-bas Les Révelées 1998 Pinot Noir, Mendocino
Jim Clenenden's own label. This is a restrained Pinot Noir, with a nice savoury palate with some leafy, savoury fruit. Quite understated with a toasty edge. Very good+ (£27)

Cold Heaven Viognier 1998, Sandford and Benedict Vineyard, Santa Barbara County
Launched with Clenenden's second wife, this is a weird wine. It's very concentrated and there is a pronounced herbal character to the nose. The palate is slightly bizarre with a herbal tinge to the fat spicy fruit. There's a hot finish. Poor. (£20)

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