On the second leg of her Californian road trip, Christine Austin enjoys a largely liquid lunch with Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climate

It was the lunch of a lifetime.  In the corner of a barn-like shed with stacked barrels as a backdrop there was a long table laid out for lunch.  Fussing over the food was one of California’s top winemakers, explaining that the vegetables and herbs all came from his own garden, and urging us all to sit down.  Down the length of the table were over a dozen bottles of wine – from various vineyards and vintages.  This wasn’t a segregated lunch laid on for press and visitors; everyone in the building sat down to eat at the same time. There were assistant winemakers, interns from various places around the world, the lady who normally does booking keeping, but who had taken time off to have a baby and had brought baby in, plus the famous winemaker who was conveniently wearing a T-shirt identifying himself as ‘famous winemaker’.  A small terrier dog named Emmy, roved under the table, making friends, scavenging for food.  Our group of press and UK wine trade swelled numbers, but this lunch happens every day, whether there are visitors or not.

This is the world of Jim Clendenen and Au Bon Climat.  Located a long way up an unmarked track in the Santa Maria Valley, there are no signposts to ABC as it is generally known.  There is no chic tasting room, and you can’t just drop in, but when appointments have been made the welcome is impressive.

Jim Clendenen was heading for a career in law but 1974 he decided to spend a month in Burgundy and Champagne.  That was the turning point and he gave up law for wine.  After stints at various wineries learning his trade in 1982 he started a winery with the aim of focusing on Burgundian varietals. At first he used locally grown, bought-in grapes, then later bought some vineyards of his own, but he still sourced  fruit from those original growers.  Now he has established an worldwide reputation for top class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and beyond these Burgundian varietals he has as a scattering of other grapes too, produced in tiny quantities.

While the rest of California headed down the path of over-ripe flavours and lots of oak, Clendenen worked the Burgundian way, exercising restraint and picking grapes at the right time when flavours are fresh.  Au Bon Climat translates as ‘a well-placed vineyard’ and that describes exactly Clendenen’s attitude to sourcing grapes.  He started in the right place by buying fruit from the large Bien Nacido vineyard which lies 20 miles inland from the coast and was first planted in 1973.  Even over that distance, the combined influence of morning fogs and afternoon breezes keep temperatures down and flavours fresh. Later he purchased 100 acres of nearby land, which he named Le Bon Climat, and planted it with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on vigour-reducing rootstocks. Since then there have been other purchases, each vineyard contributing different characteristics to the fruit.  Key to the success of this region is that rainfall is low and autumn weather is generally dry so there is no rush to harvest the grapes.  A long, slow ripening period allows flavours to build gradually and develop complexity.

Despite the stacks of barrels in the winery Clendenen has a restrained approach to the use of oak.  There are lots of older barrels that add texture and help the ageing process, without adding oak flavours.  Tasting wine straight from the barrels I found that the overwhelming taste was of fruit, not wood.

It would be difficult to give detailed descriptions of the wines tasted over lunch since they ranged from 2014 Chardonnay which was elegant, lively and  balanced to a 1999 Hildegard, possibly named after Charlemagne’s mistress, consisting of a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Aligoté.  This went fabulously well with the homemade ravioli that arrived at some point.  There were silky, elegant, fragrant Pinots,  such as the Isabelle 2001 and the firm, savoury Knox Alexander 2014 while the 35thPinot, celebrating 35 vintages and made from a single clone Pinot Noir was intense and packed with flavour.

One point that struck me as we tasted through this apparently random but probably carefully curated selection of new and old vintages was that each one hit the mark perfectly.  The Chardonnays were precise, elegant and focused; the Pinot Noirs were fruit-filled, supple and complex.  The best way to approach these wines, if you haven’t tried them before is to start at the most affordable price point and work up.  Field and Fawcett in York and Latitude in Leeds both stock a good range from Au Bon Climat with the 2015 Chardonnay at around £23.90 and Pinot Noir around £27.  Hildegard 2014 is also in stock at Field and Fawcett at £29.95.  If you think California wines are big and blousy then these wines will reset your tasting parameters.

Also at the lunch was Bob Lindquist, a winemaker whose quiet, thoughtful personality contrasts completely with Jim Clendenen’s loud enthusiasm. He has been working in the same building for over 25 years, producing his own ‘Rhone Ranger’ style of wines under the name Qupé.  He also sources grapes from the Bien Nacido vineyard, in particular from a high-density, steep slope that catches the best of the afternoon breezes.  As in the ABC wines, the focus is on fruit and complexity, not muscular, over-strong alcohols. There is a definite streak of Rhône pepper and spice in the Syrahs adding depth and character to the layers of plums, black fruits and liquorice.  Find Qupé Central Coast Syrah at Bon Coeur (£21.98) or head to The Wine Society for Linquist’s version of Côtes du Rhône with his 2014 blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre  (£16.50).

Qupé Hillside Roussanne was exceptional.  Tasting the youthful 2013 vintage against the 2003 demonstrated the way this grape ages, developing waxy, lemon characters with some tropical fruit and savoury spice. This wine is difficult to find locally but Bon Coeur should be able to help.



About The Author

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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