When I started working at Au Bon Climat a decade ago, I was amazed at how many great wines they produced. So, when I was introduced to Hildegard, my first thought was, why would you make another wine that’s a blend? Was it a gimmick?
Once tasted, I had my answer. Hildegard immediately became one of my favorites. It has an opulent texture yet light on its feet. The fruit is expressive but reigned in and complimented by the oak. The wine also has a great story that is part of a legend and, as in all folklore, has many versions; this is mine.
Burgundy’s wine history goes back centuries to the King of the Franks, Charlemagne. During his rule in the early 800s, the importance of wine and viticulture exploded. A bon vivant, Charlemagne enjoyed his wine, often having boisterous parties causing red wine to stain his white beard. This made his wife Hildegard, miffed. The solution? White wine. To appease her, Charlemagne planted white varietals Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Aligoté. Chardonnay did not come to the famed Corton Charlemagne region until centuries later.
As a frequent visitor of Burgundy starting in his 20s, Jim Clendenen established friendships with many winemakers there, and soaked up their knowledge. These were the kingpins of Chardonnay the rest of the world looked up to, including him. France has been making wine for centuries while California had training wheels. Even so, discussions and comparisons ensued. I believe some bragging was involved. This triggered Jim to ask, ‘Can I make a great white Burgundy like Corton-Charlemagne in Santa Barbara?’ In his deep dive for answers, Jim went all the way back to Burgundy’s roots.
Intrigued by its history, Jim decided to recreate the original plantings of Corton Charlemagne. He sourced Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Aligoté from vines planted in the Santa Maria Valley that has terroir similar to Burgundy. Each varietal was made individually using Old World techniques with the finest barrels. The blend created a complex, creamy white wine with a fruit profile and personality separate from Chardonnay yet had similar qualities. It was wonderful. It was Burgundy-esque, but not white Burgundy. Nonetheless, a worthy name was needed and since the title Charlemagne was taken, the wine was deemed Hildegard, after his queen. An instant hit, Au Bon Climat has been making Hildegard ever since.
Moral of the Story
Great Burgundies will never be precisely replicated anywhere else. At ABC we can create world class, Burgundian-styled wine that may resemble its French counterpart, yet it will always reflect the inherent properties of our region. That is what makes it special. We can never be Burgundy, nor would we want to.
While Chardonnay and our Hildegard Estate White share similar traits, Hildegard has a more expressive fruit character and crispness that makes it incredibly food compatible. Its velvety mouthfeel and bright citrus notes are a heavenly pair with creamy, rich chicken dishes, like Chicken Gérard.
By Katie O’Hara