Sunday, October 26, 2008

Two For a Recession

Recent conventional wisdom had it that $15 is the new $10. But during a severe recession, $10 is the old $10. So here are two priced under $10 that put a lot of bang into my buck.

Monte Palma Rueda 2007
This 50/50 blend of verdejo and viura costs a mere $8 and it performs above its price point. If some Ruedas are saddled with obnoxious, even nasty residual sugar, most are of the clean-and-inoffensive camp. This is a notch above that, with its round body and suggestions of tropical fruit joined to crisper notes of apple and citrus as well as some interesting herbaceousness. For those who argue that Rueda should be based solely upon Spanish varieties rather than be blended with sauvignon blanc, this wine will probably reinforce your point.

Antigua Cava Mendoza Malbec 2006
Most Argentine malbecs are overextracted and sweet for my taste, but this is a dry and earthy malbec with lovely smoke overtones on the nose. It's medium bodied and its refreshing acidity showcases red fruits on the palate. To close, there's some nice spice on the finish. It's a complete and satisfying package that costs only $9.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


I've been feeling indecisive about a lot of things in the last few weeks, and likewise I've placed all manner of wine on my table. Take, for example, the three disparate reds below.

Albet i Noya Tempranillo Penedès Classic 2006
While Albet i Noya subjects the biodynamically-grown grapes for this wine to carbonic maceration and eschews oak entirely, this is nicely structured and not at all overly fruity. That syrah comprises 10% of the finished wine has something to do with this, but it's primarily due to its acidic spine. It's quite affordable ($14) and should go well with a variety of foods, from cold soup to grilled meats.

Vini Biondi Outis 2002
The volcanic soils on the slopes of continually-erupting Mt. Etna are extremely young and very black, so you'd be excused for presuming that the wine would also be black and brash. Instead, the 2002 Outis is red-fruited and quite the elegant number. Now, it helps that this nerello mascalese-based blend (some nerello cappucino is here) is sourced from 2,000 foot elevation vineyards, and so we get a quite acidic wine with chalky and smoky red fruit aromas and mineral-laden sour cherry and strawberry flavors. This very good food wine needs air and there's still a lot of life left in it.

Jean-Louis Chave St. Joseph Offerus 2004
If this is my favorite of the trio of wines mentioned here, just know that I'm a sucker for ageable syrah that's simultaneously rustic, elegant, and deep. I first drank this 18 months ago and it continues to evolve slowly but surely, and I recommend a good decant if you want to drink this in the near future. While the stemmy, almost gritty tannins have an elbow-throwing charm when first opened, only by night three are they fully integrated into a wine of structured, masculine elegance. It has a great spine of acid and minerals, the tannins are briary, and the grilled meat and blackberry notes are great on both the nose and the palate. If I can find a few more bottles I'll sock 'em away.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

J.K. Carriere Pinot Noir 2005

I love it when my informed guesses turn out well. Over a year ago I tasted the 2004 vintage of J.K. Carriere's "standard" Willamette Valley Pinot Noir — which is sourced from vineyards up and down the valley — and I was impressed to the point that I bought several bottles of the 2005, the vintage that was available. Until now I'd never actually tasted the 2005, but I can tell you right now that I'm glad I stocked up.

2005 was a genuinely cool vintage and if the vintage trends toward elegance, this wine follows through. Now, I can describe this as aromatic and well-structured, and I can tell you that it serves up a kaleidoscope of rhubarb, cola, cherry, strawberry, orange rind, damp red earth, and mineral characteristics, and I can say that the acidity is prominent and the tannins are just beginning to melt into the wine. But what you really need to know is that this is excellent with all kinds of food, from fresh heirloom tomatoes to a savory pasta, and on the third night open it was still truckin'. It's the kind of wine that gives Oregon pinot a good name.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Visit to Renaissance, Part 4 - Clos Saron

After the barrel tasting (see part 3), I was essentially finished with my visit to Renaissance. But I wasn't finished with my visit. You see, winemaker Gideon Beinstock also runs his own winery, Clos Saron, and he generously invited me down to his home vineyard.

I say home vineyard because his home and his vineyard are on the same few acres of land. No prizes for the genius who guesses the source for Clos Saron's Home Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Wait, pinot noir? In the blistering heat of the Sierra Foothills? Ah, but this is where the story gets interesting. But then, Gideon Beinstock is himself interesting. An Israeli native, he spent the 80s in France, where he worked with several winemakers. In California he was an assistant winemaker and then winemaker at Renaissance. The first wine that is "his" is a 1991 cabernet sauvignon.

Beinstock prefers to drink wines that are coming down from their plateau, when, as he says in his slightly pan-European-accented English, "they have nothing left to hide." He needs wine to be honest, although even when a wine is honest, he wants it to be more than that. I paraphrase here: "The first sip of a wine might be delicious, but what comes next?"

Back to that pinot noir thing. While we are now but one mile and a ridge away from the Renaissance vineyards, it turns out that the mesoclimate here is quite cooler. Whereas Renaissance is rarely hit with frost — the rampaging frosts of 2008 being a notable exception — it is a significant, yearly threat at Clos Saron. Beinstock explains that this 1,600 foot elevation, northeast-facing slope greets not one but two cool air streams that are funneled around a hill. He can look out his window in the morning and see a Y-shaped pattern of frost in his vineyard where the two air streams join.

Remarkably, the vines are planted on their own roots. When Beinstock and his wife Saron moved in, the site was already planted to cabernet sauvignon, and yet the grapes did not perform as well as they might. In 1995, then, he grafted pinot noir onto the vines (originally planted in 1980), then in '99 planted two more acres. Remarkably, these latter vines aren't yet producing much, as Beinstock forces them to compete with the grasses. The man has patience.

The soils here are considerably different than at Renaissance. There: granodiorite and a thin layer of clay loam. Here: alluvial layers of clay loam and granodiorite coexist with volcanic material toward the top of the property, and then toward the bottom of the slope we find a thick layer of volcanic ash as well as quartz. As Gideon pointed out the ash near a reed-filled hole, he noted that John McPhee's book Assembling California, which masterfully conveys the region's ultra-complex geology (I read it a while back), practically begins its narrative in the nearby area. Regrettably, man contaminated the area: when he dug to plant the 1999 vines, he found oil spills and machine parts, so this was probably an old manufacturing site or mill. Fortunately, the soil is almost returned to complete health, thanks to a biodynamics regime. This regime has also encouraged native grasses to return to the site, supplanting an invasive species.

One thing that Clos Saron does have in common with Renaissance is the extremely low yields, with 2008 clocking in at a mere 0.75 tons per acre! Now, some of this is due to the 2008 frost, which was quite bad, but Beinstock aims to keep yields low, regardless. One interesting point he makes about low yields is that, contrary to common belief, they do not increase body and richness. Rather, they increase aromatic intensity. Something to consider when you're drinking a Parkerized bottle of liquid road tar.

As at Renaissance, Beinstock irrigates minimally, ferments solely with native yeasts in open-top wood fermenter, and eschews sulfur at bottling. Likewise, here he pushed ripeness levels up in 2004 as an experiment; although having had to add water to the 2004 vintage with regret (not that I'd know it tasting the wine), he thus returned to his previous standard for ripeness, wherein the grapes are harvested at no more than 26 brix, and often less, with no need to adjust alcohol levels in the winery. The pinots clock in a just over 13%.

Home Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006
I will not describe any American pinot as "Burgundian." Just because a pinot is restrained and more earth-driven than fruit-driven, it is still its own thing, and hopefully expressive of its terroir. Still, I wouldn't fault anyone for using the adjective here, as this elegant wine is driven by earth and minerals, although it's hardly bereft of red fruits. It is also a very pure wine. It does need time, as the tannins and the finish are not yet resolved, and so has yet to become completely itself. But this is already very impressive. The vineyard is planted to a multitude of clones: 115, 113, 777, Pommard, Wente, and a few others.

Texas Hill Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006
Beinstock also farms the nearby Texas Hill Road site, which I did not visit. This wine is a darker animal than the Home Vineyard, with blacker fruit on the nose and palate. It has more power and less grace than the Home Vineyard bottle, but its earthy funk has its own beauty. The vineyard is planted exclusively to the 115 clone. Regrettably, a combination of frost, hail, and humidity destroyed 100% of the crop in 2007 and frost also affected the 2008 crop.

Syrah Heart of Stone 2004
Beinstock farms this syrah on Renaissance property. Now, whatever the drawbacks of having harvested later than is Beinstock's usual practice, this is actually a very pretty wine, with (as the name suggests) terrific minerality; you will not find "gobs" of fruit and/or baked characteristics. A la a Côte-Rôtie, viognier was added to the tune of 4%.

Holy Moly 2003
The first sip of this GSM (58% grenache, the rest evenly split between syrah and mourvedre) was so fruit-driven. Beinstock and I then started talking about the Loire (he is also taken by the way chenin blanc is expressed in the Loire Valley), at which point I admired two of his '71 Coteaux du Layon, and then I took another sip — but it was so tannic and structured, I thought he had poured the next wine. "Well, you've tasted a lot of wine today," said Beinstock. And it's true: though I had been spitting all day, I am not used to tasting so many different wines in a single day. So in addition to being easily distracted at the best of times, I was likely suffering from palate fatigue. I regret I must take this entire note with a grain of salt.

Black Pearl 2004
This is a blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, and sauvignon blanc (!). Beinstock likes to use petit verdot for its richness and spiciness, while the sauv blanc adds freshness and aromatic interest not unlike the role that viognier plays in the Heart of Stone. This vintage is ripe and very nice, but the 2006 vintage tasted from barrel struck me as deeper and more interesting.

By then the sun was setting and we said our goodbyes. As I drove my rented Versa back to Nevada City, I popped Rollerball's clamorous, shimmery new disc into the CD player and I rolled past rocky, green and gold hills. I thought about the good day, and the goodness of the day. I would return if I could and I will if I can...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Visit to Renaissance, Part 3 - Barrel Tasting

After completing the tastings from bottle (see part 2), John Brooks and I drove back up to the winery to taste from barrel. We were greeted by Shawn, the cellar master, whose wine revelation came from tasting a 1988 Beaucastel. Now he gets to work hands on with many of the Rhône varietals that Beaucastel uses alongside the Bordeaux varietals.

As you can see from the photos, Renaissance ages much of their wine in barrique. Most barrels are 2-4 years old, although there's a smattering of both neutral and new oak. But they also have some old German oval barrels as well, which if my memory is intact was used for aging riesling in the old country, although Renaissance is not afraid to use them for cabernet and syrah.

Shawn was kind enough to run around during a busy time of year — the cabernet and syrah had only been harvested from the Granite Crown the day before — and as the barrel tasting session was quick, my notes were sparse. So I apologize for the brevity. Anyway, I only use proper nouns below when I am sure that I was tasting what will end up as-is in bottle.

semillon from 2008
Still cloudy like glacier water, as you'd expect from a wine just put to (neutral) barrel, this is already showing very well: it has terrific acidity and the minerality is strong.

sauvignon blanc from 2008
Renaissance no longer bottles a varietal sauv blanc, to the dismay of their older customers. And considering the length and spice I found here, could I blame them? I have a feeling that the Bordeaux blend, the Carte d'Or, will really be something in '08.

cabernet sauvignon slope 1 from 2008
I'll just admit right now that I can't say anything insightful; I am too inexperienced to taste such a young red to know where this is going. But it did strike me as good material. Sourced from slope 1, which I understand is not a source for the top bottles.

Syrah Vin de Terroir 2006
This stuff is absolutely phenomenal, with great balance and depth. This needs plenty more time, but already I'm getting violets for days on the nose.

Clos Saron Black Pearl 2006
Renaissance winemaker Gideon Beinstock has his own label, Clos Saron — more about this in the next post — and the Black Pearl is a blend of cabernet, syrah, a bit of petit verdot for richness, and possibly some other grapes (Beinstock has used sauvignon blanc in the past for this blend). This is a beautiful and multidimensional wine: like a great short story, I can come at this from many directions, although the minerality stood out for me.

Cabernet Sauvignon Vin de Terroir 2005
There's a lot to chew on here; my response to this is intellectual for the time being. It certainly has the potential for great harmony, as everything is in its place. Though it may not be released for many years, I will eagerly seek this out.

Granite Crown 2005
This cabernet/syrah blend is more approachable now than the above cab, and it's beautiful stuff. The licorice notes that are not uncommon in Renaissance wines are already apparent. It seems to me, based upon this wine as well as the '99 Le Provencal, that these Granite Crown blends are earlier drinkers when compared to the Premiere Cuvee or Vin de Terroir bottles. So stuff that info in your back pocket and keep it handy. Unless, of course, I'm wrong.

Up next: a visit to Gideon's own winery and vineyard, Clos Saron. It may be but a mile away from Renaissance, but it has its own story...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Visit to Renaissance, Part 2 - The Tasting

Renaissance vineyards - looking down on semillon and syrah
Here we go with the tasting. As I mentioned in Part 1, Renaissance holds back many of their wines for years prior to release, which allows us to drink history. The practice also reflects the values of patience and generosity.

I was talking to Shahar, the new vineyard manager, as he finished his lunch with his toddler. As we discussed the winery's conversion to biodynamics and the difficulty in finding cow horns, his happy toddler kept plucking noodles from her bowl and placing them on his plate, giggling all the while. She wasn't playing with her food as much as she was having fun feeding daddy.

What follows are wines that reflect that generous spirit.

After speaking with Shahar at the winery, marketing manager John Brooks and I drove down to the tasting room. Midway through the tasting, we were joined by winemaker Gideon Beinstock. All the below were tasted from bottle and most were opened at least a few hours prior to tasting but not, to my knowledge, decanted.

Though each wine is distinct, the hallmarks of nearly every Renaissance wine, white or red, are: sane alcohol levels, excellent acidity, and most importantly, sustained chords of tensile minerality that become both deeper and louder over the wines' long lifespans. The mineral expression is particularly true (in all senses of the term) in the syrahs and the cabernets.

Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2007
As I mentioned previously, Renaissance makes low alcohol wines naturally, despite the climate, and here we have a wine that clocks in at a mere 12.4 degrees. A foxy note joins peach fruit, and with its good minerality and acidity, it drinks like a white, with excellent presence on the midpalate. I was unable to taste the '06 rosé, which a la Bandol had a significant proportion of mourvedre, but apparently it was quite a different beast.

Carte d'Or 2006
As you'll see in the next post, I was extremely impressed by the 2006 reds I tasted in barrel; my good feelings about the vintage extend to this Bordeaux-style blend of sauvignon blanc (60%) and semillon (40%). The grassy notes here are soft and there's just a hint of brown spices on the finish; even more exciting is a concluding note of ginger. It's really well-balanced and long-lived on the palate, and it hits but 13.2% abv. Wish I could have tried other '06 whites.

Roussanne 2004
This impressive wine leaves a broad impression in the mouth, but it's absolutely balanced. It's nutty but not waxy and it tastes quite young and fresh, with yellow orchard fruits predominate. Beinstock feels this will age for 10-15 years. 2004 was a warm vintage, and I am all the more impressed that this wine displays such balance.

Syrah 2004
In this vintage (and to a lesser extent 2003) Beinstock experimented with pushing up ripeness levels before harvest. The result is what you might call a "delicious vintage" — the wines are tasty, and they are neither overripe nor bereft of terroir, but the fruit envelops the mineral backbone like a pelt. It's quite a good wine, but I still want to pluck the fruit out of my glass to get to the bones. Beinstock says "I went too far," and since the 2005 vintage Beinstock again picks grapes at 26 brix or less; and he feels that 24.5 brix is the perfect level of ripeness here. In contrast, many California producers pick at 28, 29, or even 30 brix.

Mediterranean Red 2004
I smell a raspberry patch here, stems and all. I also smell some heat, but there's no heat on the palate, and this softly peppery blend of grenache (54%), mourvedre (26%) and syrah (20%) has a fair amount of tannins and structure.

Claret Prestige 2000
2000 is a vintage with a lot of fruit and richness, but as I noted last month, the wines are quite structured and, with its robust acidity and mineral frame, this long-lived wine demands further aging. Just terrific stuff. If only right bank Bordeaux were typically this good.

Cabernet Sauvignon Vin de Terroir 1999
John Brooks thinks this is perhaps the most elegant of Gideon's reserve level cabernets, and certainly I swirled and sniffed and swirled and sniffed this beguiling wine for some time, trying to get a handle on what it's all about. Even now, at nine years old, it's still young, fresh, and just beginning to exhibit its deeper nature. Behind the lovely black and red fruit, layers of clove, gravel, and earth keep unfolding on the finish. Interestingly, the wine's tannic structure sat toward the front of my mouth and not toward the back. No new oak was abused during the making of this wine. Note: "Vin de Terroir" is the label that Renaissance gives to their very best site-specfic wines, be they cabernet, semillon, or syrah. The grapes for this wine were sourced from slope 16 near the top of the mountain.

Le Provencal 1999
Renaissance now makes a line of wines labeled Granite Crown, which is typically (but not always) a 50/50 blend of cabernet and syrah. This was the first such blend and in this vintage was labeled Le Provencal. The nose here is rich, soft, and trends to blueberry-laden port. There's still plenty of structure here, but this wine is almost fully evolved.

Merlot 1997
I rarely take to even terrific merlot as it lacks the structure I seek. But this wine, which has 10% cabernets franc and sauvignon blended in, has structure in spades. The nose is dominated by dust, cranberry, musk melon, and mulberry. It's very drying on the palate, even if it was aged in 2-4 year old barrels, and it demands food.

Cabernet Sauvignon Premiere Cuvee 1995
This top-level cabernet was released in September 2007 — it took that long to come around. And what a wine it is, with the legs to last many more years. This has a lot of earth, gravel, and dry red dust notes, but in contrast to the above merlot, it's not at all drying. Rather, there's a hidden richness here, and it is a very elegant wine, with great balance and length. Again, no new oak was abused here. And you wanna know what's really crazy? The alcohol clocks in at 12.7 degrees. Yep.

Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest 1991
We now enter the pre-Gideon Beinstock era; this was made by his predecessor, Diana Werner. This is very fresh tasting and it would be silly to leave this until after a meal, as it's so light on the palate with subtle ginger and brown sugar notes that you could easily pair this with a cheese course, if not a rich entree. Oh, and this was just released this last year! Astonishing.

Riesling Late Harvest 1985
Back in the day Renaissance made its name with late harvest dessert wines, including this beerenauslese-level riesling. Gideon notes the irony, however, that their sauvignon blanc has proven to be longer lived than their rieslings. This is very advanced in aged. It's still pretty tasty and the sugars are well-integrated, but this very dark wine lacks the required acidic snap and has little steam left (an overly long cork often resulted in an incomplete seal, which of course does not help with aging).

The tasting from bottle thus concluded, Brooks took me back up to the winery to taste from barrel, which I cover in part 3.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Visit to Renaissance, Part 1

On the road to Renaissance
In late September I flew into Reno, drove a rented car over the harsh Donner Pass, and wound my way through the semi-arid hills of the low Sierra to the hamlet of Oregon House, California. As The Pretenders' "Brass In Pocket" blasted from a Chico-based radio station, I reveled in the fact that I was in the middle of nowhere on my way to somewhere — the Renaissance Vineyard and Winery, the producer of some of the most distinctive and sometimes astonishing naturally-made wines found in the New World.

Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I'm interested primarily in French and Italian wines and rarely interested in California wines; and yet since tasting the revelatory 2002 Renaissance Syrah last year, I have been drawn to this producer. The cabernet and claret I tasted since then confirmed that this was a producer I needed to understand better. Thus, the visit.

More than a decade ago Renaissance made a commitment to producing terroir-driven wines by uprooting more than 300 acres of vines and focusing on the best 45 acres. So as you turn a corner and are greeted by a steep, terraced hillside that Matt Kramer aptly said, "looks like Hermitage," there are few vines to be seen; and in fact marketing manager John Brooks had to point out to me the cabernet and syrah vines at the 2,300 foot crest of the hill, the should-be-famous Granite Crown (although their best wines are often labeled "Premiere Cuvee" or the block-specific "Vin de Terroir" — "Granite Crown" is the name of a blend). Hidden from view were still more red grapes as well as white grapes such as roussanne, semillon, and sauvignon blanc. But more about these later.

Thanks to the gracious hospitality of John Brooks and winemaker Gideon Beinstock, I was able to spend five hours (!) touring the vineyards, discussing their viticultural and winemaking practices, and conducting tastings from both bottle and barrel. In fact, there's so much to say that I'll document my experience over four separate posts.

The soil at Renaissance
First things first: the site and the terroir.

This is an undeniably harsh land. The soil here is a thin clay loam and the rocky, decomposed granodiorte is sometimes only inches thick above bedrock. Look at that red soil, at that scrub! The vines here work hard. And if deep-rooted conifers cover many nearby hills, wine grapes are stressed by heat and low rainfall. Irrigation is a necessity. Happily, a spring burbles endlessly from the winery's property, which allows Renaissance to not only nourish their well-tended gardens but to also irrigate their vineyards without drawing from the highly stressed regional resources — as testified by a nearby reservoir, down to sad bones.

Still, Renaissance never use irrigation to plump up their wines like so many Hollywood starlets. Some vintages are rich with fruit, some are not, but are balanced in any case. Most reds clock in at 14% alcohol or less, and even some dry whites only hit the high 12s. What's the secret? I asked winemaker Gideon Beinstock. Even with the cool nights afforded by a high elevation site, how can you avoid high alcohol levels in such a hot climate? "We just pick before 26 brix," was his reply. Ain't no reverse osmosis here, my friends.

The people of Renaissance adhere to the principles of minimal intervention. They practice organic viticulture, use native yeasts exclusively, and add 35 ppm of SO2 at crush only — none at bottling. Few of the barrels are new; most are two to four years old; many others are neutral. Moreover, Renaissance began converting to biodynamics last year and expect to be fully practicing by next spring. And if that weren't minimal enough, they sold their bottling line last year and now bottle all their wines by hand.

Now, as I mentioned, this is an undeniably harsh land, and in the best years the yields are typically only 1 to 1.5 tons per acre. But due to a rare spring frost, yields in 2008 were reduced by up to 80% (!). Still, I was able to taste some 2008s just committed to barrel. And Renaissance executes the rare practice of releasing wines only when they're ready — some wines from the 1990s are only now being released — so we have the blessing of being able to taste history. More about this in part 2.