2017 Au Bon Climat “Hildegard” White Blend, Santa Maria Valley.
One of the first blended California white wines to reach a cult like following and a totally unique mix, with this vintage of Hildegard comprised of 50% Pinot Gris, 40% Pinot Blanc and 10% Aligoté. Winemaker Jim Clendenen first started making Hildegard in 1998, in era dominated by Chardonnay, which of course he made as well, it was somewhat of curious that it was such a hit, but tasting it always brought rewards and drinking pleasure. The Pinot Gris, Clendenen notes, planted next to the winery (Block 12 of Bien Nacido Vineyard) was amazing with small yields and the grapes were intensely flavorful and concentrated. Adding that the wine made from these Pinot Gris vines was more like a dry Alsatian Pinot Gris, rather the dull and flat Pinot Grigio style that lack density or complexity. The 2017 Hildegard is quite marvelous in structure and detail, it’s rich and luxurious on the palate, but does feel heavy and has a cool steely frame with layers of green apple, peach, green melon, zesty lemon and orangey citrus fruits. There is a whiff of smoky sweet oak and the opulent/creamy smooth body shows in was barrel aged and went through malolactic conversion, but you’ll be fantastically surprised by this wines mineral tone and the zing of the natural acidity, seemingly provided by the zingy/crisp Aligoté. Pinot Blanc doesn’t get much mention, but also performs a major role in this wine without being overt by giving texture and flinty notes, making the Hildegard great with an array of dishes from calamari to cracked crab as well as soft cheeses.

The Hildegard white blend was fermented in separate lots, with the Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and the rare Burgundian varietal Aligoté being aged for two years in new French oak barrels, after which it was blended, as Clendenen reveals, and then released after a short settling in bottle. Clendenen explains that the name Hildegard is a salute to the history of Burgundy, from which he drew much of his inspiration, and to her husband the King of the Franks, Charlemagne. During his rule, with Hildegard by his side in the early 800s the importance of wine and viticulture exploded on the continent. The Catholic Church and Charlemagne ruled most of Europe and both were interested in wine and viticulture leading to more and more vineyards were planted from Burgundian hillsides to steep river valleys of Germany. This is an interesting side note, but the wine itself is just as intriguing, especially after it opens up in the glass, where it fills out in mouth adding brioche, honeycomb and hints of hazelnut. There is a heightened aromatic quality here that brings white flowers and also delivers vanilla, sweet toasty notes from the Francois Freres Burgundy barriques, and wet stones, making this vintage of Hildegard extra compelling. Known mainly for his fabulous Pinot Noirs, Clendenen also does a tidy collection of high quality whites to, as this one proves. Au Bon Climat continues to be one of California’s most prized treasures, and it was great to get a chance to a few of the latest wines, all of which were impeccable and delicious! There is a lot to like and value in Au Bon Climat’s lineup from the basic Santa Barbara Pinot and Chard, which outstanding for the price to this golden yellow Hildegard, which I highly recommend as well.
($35 Est.) 92 Points, grapelive

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