Tasting the grape styles of California

By Louis Vogel - Montreal Branch

(Originally appeared in Wine, Food & Friends, Issue #82, Summer 2007)

Santa Barbara County is unique in North America in that the mountains run west to east, rather than north to south. This permits the cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean in daytime, and cooling fog rolls in the evening to further cool the vineyards. The weather thus encourages Burgundian-style wines where Pinot Noir is king; with excellent Chardonnay, Viognier and Syrah.

The principal vineyard areas, or American Vitacultural Areas (AVAs), are Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley. The Festival’s opening
Iberian-themed dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel featured seven wines from the county exposing us to seven different grape styles. Perhaps the two best were Clendenen Family Chardonnay Santa Maria 2004 and Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noir Santa Rita 2004.

At Clos Pepe Estate in the Santa Rita Hills we tasted Chardonnay 2005 (good Chablis style); Pinot Noirs 2004 (classic Pinot); 2005 (more fruit driven); and 1999 (a bit tired, only two barrels were produced as a home wine, before their first Estate Pinot in 2000).

Our next Santa Rita Hills visit was ampelos cellars located in a warehouse in Buellton. Peter and Rebecca Work hosted us, along with pioneering grower Richard Sanford who showed many of the wines from his family’s new Alma Rosa Vineyards venture. Tasted were 2005 Alma Rosa La Encantada Pinot Gris (nice fruit); 2005 Alma Rosa La Encantada Pinot Blanc (dry, mineral style); 2004 Gainey Vineyard Chardonnay (wellbalanced); 2005 Alma Rosa Pinot Noir (high acid); and 2004 ampelos cellars Pinot Noir (drier finish).

The evening dine-around dinners were at three Santa Barbara restaurants, each having different wines to match the meals. At Olio e Limone, we started with a very good Grenache Blanc, Curran, Santa Ynez Valley 2005; next an excellent Sauvignon Blanc, Brander Santa Ynez 2005; a Sangiovese, Palmina, Santa Ynez, Eleven Oaks Vineyard 2004; then a Mouvedre/Syrah/Grenache Tablas Creek Vineyard, Esprit de Beaucastel, Paso Robles 2003; and Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Santa Barbara Winery. All with delicious cuisine.

We visited the Santa Maria Valley for an area seminar and luncheon hosted by the charismatic Valley wine pioneer Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat Winery, along with a panel of five other producers. Their interaction was enlightening and entertaining. This Valley, located 16 miles from the ocean, produces wines that are non-jammy, not-fruit driven, not chaptalized (sweetened) or acidified. The results are natural long-lived wines resembling classical Burgundian Pinot Noirs.

Our apertif was a Qupé 2005 Bien Nacido Cuvée (50 percent Chardonnay/50 percent Viognier) from winemaker Bob Lindquist. Then the panelists spoke about their vineyards and Pinot Noirs.

✤ Gary Burk on Costa De Oro – 2005 Reserve Oro Roja Gala Coast (typical PN nose, nice blended finish)

✤ Greg Linn on Ambullneo – 2005 Rancho Ontiveros (fruity nose, spicy finish)

✤ Jim Clendenen on Au Bon Climat 2005 Knox Alexander (astringent berry nose, dry long tannin finish)

✤ Jonathan Nagy on Byron 2004 Nielson Vineyard (similar nose, balanced acid-tannin finish and great today)

✤ Bill Wathen on Foxen 2005 Santa Maria (red fruit and hard spice nose, balanced fruit finish)

✤ Jeff Fink on Tantara 2005 Dierberg (closed nose, some fruit, and masculine finish).

With lunch, we also had Byron 2005 Pinot Blanc; Ambullneo Big Paw 2005 Chardonnay; Tantare 2005 Pinot Noir Solomon Hills. Another enjoyable event showing wines from Santa Maria Valley.

The Le Cumbre Country Club offered a “Library Wines” dinner beginning with an uninspiring Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut 2000. With first course though, the Brewer-Clifton Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay 1998 had a long-lasting, rich, excellent body. Next serving, the Ojai Pisoni Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir
1998 was delicious. Then a Qupé Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Syrah 2001, Santa Maria Valley had a hot alcoholic finish. Lastly, a nice Santa Barbara Winery Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 1999, Santa Ynez Valley.

The highlight of our catamaran cruise/luncheon was Sea Smoke Southing, Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2004. A powerful nose, body and aftertaste, it sells for over $100 per bottle, retail.

Our group was treated to a Wine and Food Pinot Pairing Symposium late in the week. The first flight, four wines from Santa Rita Hills, had winemaker Greg Brewer comment on his melville Terraces 2005 (nice fruit and spice) and Brewer-Clifton Rio Vista 2005 (less fruit and good spice). Winemaker Kris Curran spoke about her Sea Smoke Botella 2004 (more fruit and tannic finish). The fourth, as described by winemaker/owner Bruno D’Alfonso, was Badge 2004 (forward fruit nose, good spice finish).

The second flight, also four wines, was Flying Goat Dierberg 2005 Santa Maria Valley (lots of fruit and spice, not rounded). Next Paul Lato Gold Coast 2005 Santa Maria Valley, (nice fruity nose, good spice finish). The next two were from the Santa Rita Hills; a Clos Pepe Estate 2004 (less fruit, excellent finish); and Ojai Clos Pepe 2003 (barnyard nose, more fruity finish).

The panel also consisted of colorful James Sly, Executive Chef at Lucky’s Restaurant in Montecito; writer Laurence Hauben, who offered her own perspective on the pairings; and entertaining moderator Mitchell Sjerven from bouchon santa barbara restaurant. For our day in the Santa Ynez Valley, we had a Creole picnic lunch and tasting at Rideau Vineyards. Owner Iris Rideau was joined by fellow winemakers Steve Beckman, Fred Brander and Greg Longoria.

The wines experienced: Rideau Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Santa Barbara (very good finish); Rideau Estate Viognier 2005, Santa Ynez (excellent); Rideau Château Duplantier 2004 Santa Barbara (60 percent Syrah, 25 percent Grenache, 15 percent Marsanne – fruity style); Beckman Le Bec Blanc 2005 Santa Ynez (57 percent Roussane, 30 percent Marsanne, 13 percent Grenache Blanc – good body); Brander Sauvignon 2006 Santa Ynez; and Longoria Tempranillo 2004, Santa Ynez.

The Gala Dinner, featuring keynote speaker Richard Sanford and his wife Thekla, started with Roederer Estate L’Ermitage Brut 2000. The first course was served with Vogelzang Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Santa Ynez (good dry finish). We then had three wines served for the next two plates. Alma Rosa El Jabali Chardonnay 2005, Santa Rita (good finish); Alma Rosa La Encantada Pinot Noir 2005, Santa Rita (fruit and tannin not balanced).

Chris Bonsall (London Branch) donated his Caledonia Australis Wine Company Reserve Pinot Noir 2003, Leongatta Gipsland, Victoria (finish too tannic). For the conclusion, Andrew Jones (Cayman Islands) donated Justino Henriques Malmsey Madeira 1933. This was a rare treat.

The Santa Barbara recent plantings have grown in years, and the wineries, I believe, are able to sell out their production, particularly the Pinot Noirs. We were fortunate to experience these wines which appear to be relatively unknown (e.g., “Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2007”* lists only a few), or unavailable in the marketplace.