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.
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.