Something Mistaken in the State of Denmark
March 11, 2011
You always hear that Jerry Lewis is big in France, and Germans love David Hasselhoff. Well, it turns out that I am big in Denmark. Or at least I was. I had my fifteen minutes. Now, my moment is over, and the Danes will have to find another wine commentator to follow.
It all goes back to the autumn of 2008. Gideon Bienstock, the winemaker at Renaissance Winery in California’s Sierra Foothills, was visiting New York to show some of the wines from Renaissance as well as his personal estate, Clos Saron. Renaissance, in my opinion, is a national treasure, making cabernet-based wines with a singular goût de terroir unlike anything I’ve ever tasted from California and often rivaling Bordeaux first growths. (With their earthy, tarry minerality, they remind me of a sort-of cross between Haut-Brion and traditional Barolo.) I first became acquainted with them after reading a Matt Kramer column about an older Renaissance “Vin de Terroir” he had found in a corner of his cellar, which of course turned out to be glorious stuff. For years, Renaissance had divided its production into a number of different cuvées, including the Vin de Terroir, a single-varietal bottling selected to highlight particularly expressive sections of the vineyard; the Premiere Cuvée, which shared flagship honors with the Vin de Terroir but aimed to show off the vintage’s best lots in a Bordeaux-style blend; and the Claret Prestige, which with its restrained profile always seemed to me to be modeled on old-style, British-palate Bordeaux, as the “claret” moniker would indicate. There was also a basic Cabernet Sauvignon, which I had never paid much attention to because the higher-end bottlings were already plenty affordable.
Anyway, one of the wines Gideon brought to New York that autumn of 2008 was the basic Renaissance 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a stunner. In Bordeaux, the second wines are often decent-enough quality but seldom showing much of the personality of their grand vin brethren, and I suppose that’s what I had expected out of Renaissance’s basic cabernet. I was wrong. It exhibited all of the unmistakable earth-based flavors I’d associated with the higher-end bottlings but was less structured and, consequently, ready to drink much sooner. The 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon Vin de Terroir poured beside it was still tough and austere and was not nearly as compelling in comparison. I felt ashamed I had always ignored the basic cabernet in favor of the higher-end bottlings, having deprived myself of perfect drinking experiences in favor of academic excursions into wines that needed more time in the cellar. I wrote up some tasting notes on the dinner, posted them on CellarTracker and on Mark Squires’ no-longer-public bulletin board at erobertparker.com, and gave the 1999 cabernet my highest rating of the group, a score of 95/100.
So what does any of this have to do with Denmark? It happened that some 1999 Renaissance cabernet got exported to Denmark last fall. Renaissance is obscure enough in the United States, even in California; the Danes certainly wouldn’t have known anything about it. Evidently the importer scoured the Internet for some favorable press and stumbled upon my notes. The wine proceeded to be advertised throughout Denmark as “95 points! Keith Levenberg, erobertparker.com.” Suddenly my humble little bulletin board post had acquired the imprimatur of the Emperor of Wine! You can probably guess what happened next. The wine sold like hotcakes.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t the slightest inkling any of this was going on. Then someone forwarded me a thread on Parker’s board about the mysterious rating being attributed to his publication of a wine he had never, to anyone’s knowledge, consumed, which concluded with someone’s putting two and two together and tracing the reference back to my old post. Suddenly all those puzzling emails I had been getting from Danish email addresses with non-sequitur queries about the drinking windows and other arcana about Renaissance’s wines made sense. Especially the one from a guy whose name sounded like a Viking explorer asking me if I could confirm my dates of employment with Robert Parker.
Parker never would’ve hired me. We see things rather differently. He gives his highest California ratings to wines in the so-called “cult” genre which he praises primarily for their inky concentration, while I favor the lighter but more characterful touch of a Renaissance. Responding to the post on his bulletin board asking if he’d ever reviewed Renaissance’s wines, Parker was less than charitable. He said (ellipses in original):
It has been some time ago but I found at least 2-3 vintages of the cabernets excessively tannic—with rustic,jagged,and bitterly astringent tannins….wine like that never comes into balance….one of the fundamentals of wine-tasting you can never forget if you are to survive in this profession…and it is the exact quote from the late Henri Jayer who said it to me in 1984…”if a wine tastes too tannic,it is too tannic”….profound and simple…. moreover,if they had magically discovered great terroir for Bordeaux grape varieties….wouldn’t the region have received more recognition for high quality wines?
I can’t let that one slide without comment. The thing is, the reason I had recommended the 1999 Renaissance cabernet so highly in the first place was precisely due to its lack of noticeable tannin: unlike the Vin de Terroir and Premiere Cuvée which required more time in the cellar for the tannin to melt away, the basic cabernet was already harmonious, suave, and ready to drink. What’s more, Henri Jayer’s comment might have been true about Burgundy and pinot noir, but certainly nobody ever thought it true of cabernet sauvignon. After all, Parker himself gave a barrel sample of the 2009 Château Latour a provisional 98-100 rating despite its having “the highest level of tannin ever measured at the estate” (and if you know Latour, you know that’s going to be very tannic indeed). Château Mouton-Rothschild 2009 garnered a nearly-as-impressive 96-98+ score from Parker despite his noting that “the index of tannins, the highest ever measured, [is] a whopping 20% higher than the next highest vintage.” This is not a new phenomenon. Parker described the 1986 Château Margaux as “frightfully tannic” and “the most powerful, tannic, and muscular Margaux made in decades,” yet went on to rate the wine 96 points. Plainly, a young cabernet’s tasting tannic has never been treated as a disqualifier. The fact is, different types of wines consume their tannin in different ways, at different rates. A level of tannin that would be alarmingly high in a young Burgundy might seem alarmingly low in a young Barolo and just right in a young Bordeaux.
I recently had the pleasure of drinking Renaissance’s 1995 Premiere Cuvée. The last time I had that wine was about five years ago, and it was interesting but the tannin was rough. The most recent bottle had totally resolved the tannin and was entering a prime drinking zone. And it wasn’t merely drinkable, but a poster-child for its terroir, as Renaissance’s unique gravelly minerality was plastered all over it. The phrase “soil-to-glass transfer” coined by Rhône wine writer John Livingstone-Learmonth was apropos. So if I were to taste a young Renaissance and find it too tannic, it would behoove me to reflect on the evolution of the 1995 Premiere Cuvée before writing off the wine as fundamentally imbalanced. I’m not a professional wine critic, despite what a few thousand Danes might think, but I do know enough not to disparage a wine as too tannic without having experienced how its similarly built predecessors have developed. I definitely know enough not to disparage a wine as too tannic without even having tasted the wine in question.
For further reading:
- The web sites of Renaissance Vineyard & Winery and Renaissance winemaker Gideon Bienstock’s personal estate, Clos Saron.
- Matt Kramer on Renaissance in the sadly defunct New York Sun.
- Blog posts on Renaissance at Vinography and Bigger Than Your Head.
- Germans Love David Hasselhoff.