Au Bon Climat - a stellar vintage for Jim Clarendon - 13/01/14

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I first met winemaker Jim Clendenen and discovered Au Bon Climat wines a few years ago in London at a Decanter Fine Wine Encounter where he was, almost literally, on fire! Pouring his wines with frenetic energy, his long blond curly locks swooshing around frantically as he chatted to the tens of people all gasping to get a taste of his wines. Giving individual attention to each and every guest (most probably remembering all their names as well!), I realised that one of Jim's key strengths is that he's an incredibly charismatic people person. So when I got the kind invite from Berry Bros & Rudd last week to pop by their HK office for a tasting of the 2010 vintage with the man himself, I could hardly refuse. 

Jim had mellowed somewhat since our first encounter (he was on the final day of a 3 week tour of Asia) but was by no means less inspiring, in fact I thought more so. His humour is present in bucket loads and he has that incredible ability to personally engage with each and every person he speaks to, giving his time to anyone who enquires for it. He is incredibly passionate about what he does and is able to translate this passion very easily through his humorous yet informative anecdotes. He's a great storyteller which enables you to connect with him immediately and therefore remember, not just the man himself, but the wines about which he speaks. Something no doubt each and every winery wishes their winemaker could have the ability to do!

I tasted through the wines, my notes for which are below, and then managed to snatch ten minutes with Jim to discuss some questions I had. Jim confirmed for me that the 2010 vintage was indeed an exceptional one. He is clearly excited about the wines he's made and looking forward to seeing them in 8 years time which he tells me is the perfect point at which to start drinking them, at least in the case of the Isabelle and the Knox Alexander Pinot Noirs. 

I questioned Jim on his reasoning behind the blend in Hildegard, one of his most renowned white wines which is made from 55% Pinot Gris, 40% Pinot Blanc and 5% Aligote. He explained that this was his way of reminding people of the original history of the Burgundy Grand Cru Corton-Charlemagne (Jim's wines are all made very much in the Burgundy style). The story goes that Emperor Charlemagne, who owned the hill of Corton, was partial to more than a few drops of red wine, many of which often ended up on his long white beard. This annoyed his fourth wife so much that she ordered a portion of the hillside to be replanted with white grapes. The grapes which were planted were not Chardonnay as they are today, rather a mix of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Aligote. No longer a blend made in Burgundy, Jim makes a wonderful wine probably not too dissimilar to the one Emperor Charlemagne regularly enjoyed.    

History lesson over, we then discussed the key differences between the Isabelle and the Knox Alexander. Isabelle is a blend where Jim focusses on the smoothness and elegance he can achieve with Pinot Noir sourced from a number of different sites around Santa Barbara, while Knox comes from a single vineyard at high elevation and is thus more structured and longer lived.

As I thanked him for his time, it was suddenly announced that it was Jim's birthday the following day so Champagne and cake were dutifully presented. A rather cacophonic rendition of Happy Birthday followed and Jim was asked how he'd be celebrating. The answer was a good one: first in HK with Champagne, followed by breakfast on the plane washed down with a glass or two of Chablis, lunch at a sashimi bar in Tokyo airport no doubt with more Chablis, a second lunch on the plane with one or two more glasses, a third lunch on arrival at LA at a top steakhouse no doubt with lots of red, and finally dinner at home in Santa Barbara with as much Au Bon Climat as he could manage. Was he looking forward to it? Yes he most certainly was! 

2010 Chardonnay Bien Nacido "SBHVC" - nice aromas of lemon citrus, lime, grapefruit, a touch of vanilla, crisp and fresh. Lovely acidity and well balanced. 17 

2010 Santa Maria Valley "Hildegard" - creamy, nice ripe lemon, some toast, rounded mouthfeel, sharp to finish. 17 

2003 Santa Maria Valley "Hildegard" - developing, almond, ripe red apple, nutty and complex, rounded and full on the palate with lovely balancing acidity. 18 

2009 Chardonnay Nuits-Blanches Au Bouge "Compelling" - ripe lemon, peach, a touch of tropical fruit, mango and pineapple, mouthwatering high acidity, hint of toast. Rounded and full. 17.5 

2004 Chardonnay Nuits-Blanches Au Bouge "Compelling" - wonderful aromas, very complex, honeyed, nutty, almond, very concentrated and bold. Full on the palate with mineral notes. Tangy. A touch of lingering toast on the finish with a savoury, meaty note. Very tasty. 18 

2010 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley - lovely fresh berry fruit, vibrant with good acidity. Raspberry and strawberry on the rounded, fresh palate. Good value. 17.5 

2009 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley "La Bauge Au-Dessus" - Red fruits, plum, cranberry, a touch of development, herbal notes, not as vibrant as the 2010s. 17 

2010 Pinot Noir Isabelle - very elegant nose, fresh red fruits, raspberries and plums, a touch of floral, rounded with lovely body. Very concentrated yet elegant palate. Lovely long finish. 18+

2006 Pinot Noir Isabelle - touch of development but still very fresh and lively. Red fruits combine with herbal touches. A lovely smooth wine ready for drinking now. 18

2010 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley "Knox Alexander" - a touch closed on the nose, plum and raspberry fruit, creamy. More tannic than the Isabelle. Fuller structure. Lots of concentration. Will age very well. Revisit in 8 years time or in between if you can't wait! A great wine. 18.5 

2002 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley "Knox Alexander" - some nice development, forest floor, mushroom notes, cranberry. Rich on the palate and still vibrant. Lovely layers of concentration and complexity. Full bodied with nice bright acidity. Perfect for drinking now. 18

All wines are available to buy exclusively from Berry Bros & Rudd HK

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