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The Independent Culture
What better than vineyards and winemaking to occupy the spare moments of "a community of friends dedicated to realising the highest standards of noble, balanced and joyful culture"? That's how the Renaissance Vineyard leaflet describes the 500 residents of this stunningly beautiful estate up in the wild and piney Sierra Nevada foothills of North Yuba, a remote part of Northern California scarcely heard of in wine circles. The "friends" are arty and philosophical rather than religious. Their fine arts museum boasts a famous collection of Ming Dynasty Chinese furniture, they have their own opera, theatre and ballet companies, enviable sports facilities and a Montessori school. Students participating in music and fine arts courses help tend the vineyards.

There's no other vineyard for 80 miles, which leaves the rest of North Yuba County to its forests. But this is the largest mountain vineyard estate in North America, its 365 acres of terraced vines said to run 230 miles of rings around the red-soiled, rocky hills. A third of the vines are Cabernet Sauvignon, but the friends have a partiality for luscious dessert wines. It's a partiality no longer shared, however, by many of their fellow Americans. Unsold stocks have built up, back to vintages of the 80s.

That explains the wickedly cheap price of the honeyed, tangy and nuttily maturing 1986 Madrona Late Harvest Riesling (pounds 3.93 per half bottle Adnams of Southwold) and the mature and complex 1985 Madrona Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc (pounds 3.93 per half Adnams, pounds 3.99 Oddbins), a characterful dessert wine, full of honey, fresh fig, toasty and creamy flavours.

Renaissance Cabernets are very tannic - a deliberate choice of winemaker Gideon Beinstock, who likes his red wines tough. 1993 Madrona Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 6.90 Adnams) is made up of softer, less tannic batches rejected by Beinstock for his "Renaissance"-labelled wine. It is still fairly tannic but not so much as to obscure the silky-smooth blackcurrant fruit and minty complexity.

The "Madrona" brand (named after a red-barked Californian tree) belongs not to Renaissance but to British importers Haughton Agencies, partners of Adnams. They intend to use the tree label for California wines from other wineries in future. The only other Madrona wine so far is a ripely fruity but gently firm 1993 Madrona Zinfandel (pounds 7.20 Adnams) made for Haughton by Australian Mark Messenger from intensely flavoured old-vine Zinfandel grapes from California's Sonoma County. Adnams also sell the 1992 Renaissance Vineyards Riesling (pounds 7.20 Adnams), another bargain price for a lean, lemony, nearly-dry aromatic white with spicy complexity.

SPAIN is also a bargain area amongst new wines added to the Adnams list this year. Try the 1995 Tempranillo-Cabernet, Rama Corta (pounds 4.50), a savoury, fruity red made by American Ed Flaherty in La Mancha, the Spanish central plateau; and the 1994 Tempranillo Lar de Barros (pounds 4.80) from south-western Spain, packed with smoky, savoury and blackcurrant flavours. Excellent value amongst the whites are the 1995 Basa, Rueda Blanco (pounds 4.50), crisp, fruity and aromatic, and the greengagey, spicy 1995 Vina Godeval (pounds 7.70) from Valdeorras in the cool north-west, a deliciously soft, aromatic white with flavours of greengage, spice and butter.

Sparkling wines at pounds 3.99 would normally set you gasping for the orange juice to disguise their filthy flavour in a bucks fizz. Not so Majestic Wine Warehouses' new find, Miranda Louana Brut (pounds 3.99), a gentle, fruity Australian fizz.

The only cheap sparkler I've found to vie with Miranda Louana is Sainsbury's Cava Rosada (pounds 4.49). I'm not usually a cava fan - there's so often an unattractive earthiness in these Spanish fizzes. But this pink version is rather good, clean and crisp, with a hint of raspberry. You won't always get better quality than this by raising the price limit by pounds 2 or pounds 3. But there's a clear step up in pleasure to two excellent value South African fizzes: lean, fruity, yeasty 1993 Krone Borealis (pounds 6.99 Waitrose) and Madeba Brut (pounds 6.79 selected Sainsbury's), soft, malty and ripely fruity with surprising complexity for this price.

Adnams of Southwold, The Crown, High Street, Southwold, Suffolk IP18 6DP, mail order 01502 727222.

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