Tue 4 Sep 2007
Jim Clendenen is undoubtedly a fine wine-maker, and he has made Au Bon Climat, founded in 1982 in Santa Barbara County, into a great source for powerful, eloquent and sometimes eccentric versions of chardonnay and pinot noir wines. Clendenen’s best work goes into small lots of vineyard-designated pinot noirs that have a way of satisfying and defying expectations simultaneously. In their rarity and cost and as bold expressions of a personal vision, they’re not for neophytes.
But I come today not to speak of such high-toned matters but to expound on Clendenen’s basic red wine, the Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir that carries a straight Santa Barbara County designation. The year in question is 2005. The price is generally about $25.
I was in my friendly neighborhood wine and liquor store last week and came across this wine. I picked up a bottle, and I said to the floor manager, “You know, I haven’t tried this in quite a while. I think I’ll get one of these.”
“Look at the label,” he said wisely.
“O.K, sure, what?”
“It’s not 100 percent pinot noir.”
I looked closely. Mon dieu! The wine contains 18 percent mondeuse grapes!
Let me backtrack for a moment.
Most grapes fit for making wine may be used alone (100 percent varietal, as they say) or blended with other appropriate grapes. The procedure depends a great deal on geography, climate and tradition. In Bordeaux, for example, the red wines are blended from various combinations of cabernet sauvignon grapes, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot (malbec is little used nowadays). In the Loire Valley, however, cabernet franc makes its own wine, with no blending. You can find 100 percent cabernet sauvignon or merlot wines all over the world. Going back to the Loire, the white wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume are made from 100 percent sauvignon blanc grapes, but in Bordeaux, the white wine is always a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon and sometimes muscadelle. The most blended of all blended wines is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which tends to be primarily syrah, grenache and mourvedre but may contain amounts of up to 10 other grapes, In other parts of the world, however, you find syrah, grenache and mourvedre bottled on their own. You get the idea.
But of all the so-called “noble” red grapes, pinot noir has been sacred. Pinot noir, either in Burgundy, its homeland and apotheosis, or in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, several regions in California and increasingly in New Zealand, the grape is considered to possess such distinctive characteristics, such pure and intense inevitability (or, ideally, such inevitably purity and intensity) that it is never blended, unless, let me add, unscrupulously.
But here we have a widely-known and available pinot noir that includes 18 percent mondeuse grapes. Mondeuse is found in small quantities in the vineyards of France’s Savoie region, an alpine area just west of Switzerland. Most of the wine produced in Savoie is white, but the mondeuse grape is supposed to produce the best reds, which all accounts describe as spicy, peppery, deeply flavored, robust and rustic. So what’s it doing in pinot noir, which ought to be a model of suavity and subtlety and satiny texture?
To my palate, the mondeuse element in the Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 2005 acts like coarse sandpaper to a fine piece of handmade wood furniture, roughening the surface and lending anomalous rusticity, turning — to extend the metaphor, which, given the chance, I will do nine times out of 10 — a sleek Bauhaus chaise into an Adirondack chair. Not that the wine isn’t pleasant and enjoyable. It’s dark, spicy, exotic, wild, earthy and bold, more like a combination of a zinfandel and a Cotes-du-Rhone than a pinot noir. If that’s what Jim Clendenen wants, who am I to object?
Except that I am, of course. It’s difficult to believe that Au Bon Climat’s basic pinot noir needed “pepping up” in 2005, an excellent year. Why not just let the grapes and the wine speak for themselves? What’s interesting is that nowhere on the Internet, not on the site of any wine retailer, not even on the winery’s website (AuBonClimat.com) is there a mention that the wine is not 100 percent pinot noir. So, readers, you’re saying, “Fer crissake, F.K., if nobody else cares, why do you? Yer making all this fuss about one damned wine!”
Well, readers, that’s just me, and on this blog, I’m the boss of you. It’s my substitute for being Boss of the World. In any case, every wine counts, every wine is an experience (not always good), an education (not always edifying) and an opportunity (not always to be missed). And it’s not that I’m against experimentation or wines inspired by individuality; such wines are often the treasures that we remember above all the other wines.
But pinot noir, my pinot? Leave it alone.