Fri 25 Jul 2014

Pearls of Wisdom from the ‘Wild Boy of Wine’, Jim Clendenen


We were recently treated to a staff tasting and talk from California’s ‘Wild Boy of Wine’, Jim Clendenen, owner and winemaker at Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara.

With his flowing locks, fast-pace talking, random asides and funny anecdotes, Jim does still cut something of the ‘Wild Boy’ image, but this all belies his 40 years’ winemaking experience and steadfast commitment to making classic, restrained, ageworthy wines. Jim speaks fluent French, has made wine in Australian and Burgundy, and knows his craft. If you were still in any doubt, just one taste of his wines would dispel this.

'The Wild Man' Jim Clenenden and The Society's fine wine manager Shaun Kiernan. No prizes for guessing which is which!

‘The Wild Boy’ Jim Clenenden and The Society’s fine wine manager Shaun Kiernan. No prizes for guessing which is which!

The Au Bon Climat wines have been described as ‘Burgundian in sensibility but with Californian style’ and it’s the Au Bon Climat chardonnay and pinot noir that have made its name. Why Burgundy? These are the wines that Jim likes to drink himself – wines that won him over as a young student in France; wines with moderate alcohol, refreshing acidity, that can be drunk with food and that are capable of ageing.

Jim was studying for a law degree but a student trip to France introduced him to its wines and culture and he was hooked. He completed his law degree but decided to get into the wine trade rather than continue with law – he didn’t think at first that he could be a winemaker. ‘I turned 21 in Bordeaux, looking around I thought that you had to own a big château in order to make wine, but in Burgundy I saw that even if you just had a couple of rows of vines and a garage to make the wine in you could be successful.’

Returning to France, Jim spent time in Champagne and Burgundy travelling around and talking to winemakers. ‘I spent a lot of time in 1981 with the late Gérard Potel, a brilliant, very technical winemaker. I learned a lot from him.’ He also went to Australia to make wine for Tyrrell’s and McGuigan Wines in the Hunter Valley and ‘Australia’s second only barrel-fermented chardonnay’ in the Goulburn Valley in Victoria. ‘These were great days,’ Jim told us. ‘Everyone had an open attitude and we shared knowledge and experience.’

abc qupe2This kind of openness continues to this day – Jim still spends time in France and speaks to the friends he made on the phone regularly, exchanging ideas and advice. ‘There are lots of Burgundian kids coming to California to learn about winemaking from a different perspective,’ Jim tells us. Climate change is seeing an increasing amount of information and advice flowing back from the West Coast to the Burgundian Côtes. But Jim is quick to point out that they both learn from each other. He tells us that he has worked closely with Dominique Lafon on research into premature oxidation.

It was during one of his visits to Burgundy that Clendenen came up with the idea for one of his pet projects. Waiting at Dijon tasting for a delayed train he bought a copy of the magazine Bourgogne Aujourd’hui and was shocked to read that the famous Corton-Charlemagne vineyard was originally planted with pinot beurot (a clone of pinot gris), pinot blanc and aligoté. The story goes that it was Charlemagne’s young wife Hildegard who insisted on these grapes being planted around 800AD. Interestingly, when the wines of the region were widely acclaimed in the 8th century, it was probably field blends of the above grapes that were behind the wines, not chardonnay, the only permitted variety today. What caught Jim’s eye was the fact that the house of Louis Latour didn’t grub up their vines until 1836, some 70 years or so after the official edict. ‘They clearly thought this blend of grapes, which generally ripen earlier than chardonnay, worked well here; I was intrigued so decided to recreate the wine in California.’

Au Bon Climat

We tried the 2010 ‘Hildegard’ White Table Wine; on the nose there were hints of maple syrup and almonds with deceptively complex texture and palate. You certainly wouldn’t have thought it was made in California.

In fact you would be hard pushed to put any of the Au Bon Climat wines in California – they couldn’t be further in style from the high-octane, full-throttle, sweetly fruited wines that one might associate with the region. So how does Jim get that old-world restraint and finesse into his wines?

Au Bon Climat vineyardJim’s connection with Burgundy’s top winemakers we have covered. But Clendenen points out that the geography of his chosen region is very important. Au Bon Climat is based in the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, three and a half hours south of San Francisco and a good deal south of the more famous Napa and Sonoma Valleys. ‘Napa is NOT a cool climate,’ Jim thunders. ‘They practice a lot of cool-climate techniques there but the grapes then end up lacking in phenolic maturity.’

In Napa there are two mountain ranges between you and the coast. This means that the climate ends up being quite continental and the summers are really hot. In Santa Barbara there are three parallel valleys running east to west. They filter in the fog and sea mist that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean, helping to keep temperatures down, extending the growing season and keeping a freshness in the wines. Clendenen says that he is often the last to pick. Adding acid back into the wines is common practice amongst Californian producers; in fact Jim says that they used to do this too until 2001 when a change to more organic farming methods meant this was no longer necessary.

Towards the end of the eighties the Au Bon Climat wines were scoring high with such influential tasters as Robert Parker and he was also shortlisted as one of the best wineries in the world. But when tastes changed generally (and Parker’s specifically), his same wines were no longer the gout du jour. Jim didn’t change what he was doing to follow fashion but continued to make the wines that he likes to drink. Today, a new generation of Californian winemakers are pursuing the cool-climate style of winemaking – often picking the grapes too early, Jim says, but then he does have considerable experience at this game and a hotline to his mates back in Beaune.

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Find Au Bon Climat wines currently in stock here

Our opening offer of 2013 white Burgundies, the wines that first turned Jim’s head can be found here

Categories : Rest of the World

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