Wed 28 Nov 2012
I think I first wrote about the wines of Renaissance Vineyards and Winery in 2001, when I mentioned in what was then my weekly newspaper column (distributed nationally by the Scripps Howard News Service until 2004) the Renaissance Late Harvest Riesling 1993 and, under the winery’s second label, the Da Vinci Late Harvest Riesling 1987. In the succeeding 11 years, I have reviewed numerous wines from the small producer in the remote North Yuba appellation of the Sierra Foothills north of Sacramento. Renaissance became noted, under the tutelage of Gideon Beinstock, winemaker there since 1994, for its hands-off approach that produced wines of admirable spareness and elegance, low alcohol, an almost fanatic resistance to new oak and an unheard of delay in releasing wines, as in sometimes 10 or 12 years after harvest. The winery and vineyard occupy a large estate on land purchased by the Fellowship of Friends in 1971; the group is controversial in its beliefs or at least its former leadership, and as a business entity (separate from but owned by the Fellowship) Renaissance has had to shake off the perception that the Fellowship is a cult.
The inspiration for creating a vineyard came from German-born Karl Werner, the founding winemaker at Callaway Vineyards, way south in Temecula. Under his guidance, members of the Fellowship chiseled terraces from the steep slopes at altitudes of 1700 to 2300 feet and drilled 150,000 holes to plant vines. The first harvest, in 1979, took 20 minutes and produced one barrel of cabernet sauvignon. Werner died in 1988, and his wife, Diana, took over winemaking duties. When Beinstock became winemaker early in ’94, he turned the winery away from its former goals of deep extraction and heavy, densely tannic wines to minimal manipulation, gentle extraction, no yeast inoculation and, gradually, to organic methods in the vineyards. Due to Beinstock’s efforts, Renaissance has produced a series of remarkable, authentic and largely age-worthy wines (in minute quantities) that are like nothing else in a California besotted by super-ripeness, toasty new oak and sweet alcohol.
Beinstock, for the past few years, has worked on a side project, that is, his own winery Clos Saron. He is no longer winemaker at Renaissance, and I would say, Alas that such is the case, except that I don’t know the circumstances of his departure. I do wonder what the direction will be for Renaissance without him.
What I offer today are notes on three of Beinstock’s red wines, the Claret Prestige Red Wine 2001 and 1997, the Renaissance Premier Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, and, a piece of history, the Renaissance Cabernet Sauvignon 1984, one of the last wines made by Karl Werner. Yes, a small amount of the latter wine is still available, and I urge those who are fascinated by the history of the California wine industry or who are looking for a unique and quite wonderful wine to track it down.
These wines were samples for review. Image of Gideon Beinstock from mobile.indievinos.com.
The Renaissance Claret Prestige Red Wine 2001, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba, is a combination of 29 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent merlot, 19 percent malbec and nine percent each syrah, cabernet franc and petit verdot, a sort of classic Bordeaux blend except for the presence of the syrah. The wine aged 25 months in what is described as “old oak 225L barrels (American and French),” exemplifying Beinstock’s typical avoidance of new oak. The color is radiant medium ruby shading to lighter ruby at the rim. At eleven years old — and the wine was released just two years ago — this Claret Prestige is ripe and spicy and buoyant, with notes of macerated red and black currants and cherries profoundly framed by gripping acidity and graphite-etched tannins in a package so complete, so well-balanced that it feels timeless. A whisper of black olive and dill adds detail to the expansive depth and breath of the wine’s structure and replete yet spare flavors, though the whole feeling of the wine is deftness and lightness. A true marriage of elegance and power. 12.6 percent alcohol. Production was 128 cases. Now through 2020 to ’25. Excellent. About $65.
The Renaissance Premier Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba, at 15 years old, is, in four words: Not. Ready. To. Drink. A blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 15 percent merlot and six percent cabernet franc, the wine aged 27 months in American, French and German oak barrels. It was bottled in March 2000 and released in September 2010. This Renaissance Premier Cuvee 1997 features towering (but not astringent) tannins; stunning (but not sharp) acidity; forceful (but not overwhelming) granitic and graphite-like mineral elements; and glimmers of ripe, fleshy, spicy and slightly roasted flavors of red and black currants and mulberries. For all this and despite its forthright rigorous character, the wine feels fresh and invigorating, but I wouldn’t touch it until 2015 or ’16, and it’s a cinch to go the long haul, say 2027 to ’30. Alcohol content is 13 percent. 370 cases. Excellent. About $65.
For 1997, the Renaissance Claret Prestige, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba, is a blend of 43 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc, 6 percent each syrah and sangiovese and 3 percent malbec; the wine aged 27 months is “old oak 225L barrels (French, American and German).” Benefiting from fine weather, the vintage was excellent overall in California, with potentially long-lived cabernet-based wines of exceptional quality; certainly this Claret Prestige and the preceding Premier Cuvee exhibit the deep and profound structure of true vins de garde. The color is dark ruby at the center with a slightly lighter rim; it takes some coaxing, but after a few minutes a ripe, fleshy bouquet emerges, shot with notes of macerated and smoky black cherries and raspberries with touches of black currants, dried fruit, potpourri and sandalwood. Gripping acidity animates the package, while pretty darned hard, unyielding tannins — dusty and granitic — lend deep support through an engaged through fairly austere finish. 12.6 percent alcohol. Production was 430 cases. As with the previous wine, try from 2015 or ’17 through 2027 to ’30. Excellent. About $55.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Now for the treat. Only 54 cases remain of the approximately 1,200 cases that Karl Werner made of the Renaissance Cabernet Sauvignon 1984, North Yuba; Werner was the estate’s founding winemaker. This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon that aged — are you ready? — 34 months in new German oak barrels; that’s right, German oak. At 28 years old, there’s not a thing either fragile or sharp or diminished about this wine, which feels like a finely sifted amalgam of every essential element a cabernet sauvignon should possess but in a barely perceptible autumnal mode. It fills the mouth with a packed yet supple sensation of dried red and black fruit, potpourri and pomander, woody spices like cloves and sandalwood, soft powdery tannins, still lively acidity and bass notes of underbrush and graphite. Truly lovely. 13.5 percent alcohol. I wouldn’t be surprised if this wine drinks well for another decade. Excellent. About $65.