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Postmodern Winemaking

 

Mountain Magic: Extreme Terroir

December 2010
 
by Clark Smith
 
 
If anyone deserves the title of Terroir Extremist, surely it is Gideon Beinstock. After some 35 years of experience at the Sierra Foothills’ 2,500-case Renaissance Vineyards, one of California’s highest and most remote sites, he has now moved a mile down the road to a certified organic home vineyard that turns out one of California’s top Pinot Noirs in absurdly tiny quantities from an unlikely mountain glen. Ren¬aissance has been declared “California’s best-kept Cabernet secret” by the likes of wine critic Matt Kramer, and even petulant writer Alice Feiring reserves praise for his Clos Saron wines.

A conversation with Beinstock is a thing to be savored; you never know what he’ll say. It’s among my most cherished perversities to carry into our discussions any preconceptions I can afford to part with, for the sheer pleasure of watching him gnaw, chew and occasionally tear to bits my theoretical cornerstones with all the serious playfulness and benign ferocity of a new puppy.

    HIGHLIGHTS
     

     
  • High-altitude conditions promote high tannin and reductive strength that require special treatment.
     
  • Production of distinctive wines of place may impel winemaking choices in the opposite direction from standard commercial practice.
     
  • Low-sulfite winemaking is an emerging tool but not for the timid.
Though considered in the vanguard of the natural wine movement, I have never found him a fanatic of any stripe. Beinstock is instead a thoughtful and attentive explorer, never willing to knock anything before he tries it. His working method is refreshingly empirical. He is no slave to theory, but instead a constant student of the wine itself and what technique may bring benefit. This pragmatism may be the trait that unites postmodern winemakers.

He is equally gifted in the area of inventive articulation, dispensing fresh and tasty philosophical delicacies with dependable regularity. Increasingly, his method is simply to bide his time.

Sky pilot
Beinstock’s vision isn’t for everyone, nor are his challenges typical. Remote mountain winegrowing has unique aspects—some natural, some cultural. Thin air and fog-free conditions due to distance from maritime influence result in high incident light, which on well-exposed, thin, rocky, well-drained soils typical of altitude tend to encourage Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to produce massive quantities of remorselessly hard tannins. These impart so much anti-oxidative power that considerable reduction is present in youth.

Another consequence of the remote location is an absence of tourism. Combined, these factors impel production of unique, distinctive wines capable of gaining attention on the world stage rather than the softer, more approachable style typically found in tasting rooms along Gold Country’s Highway 49.

Kramer refers to such wines as possessing “somewhereness,” and this trait is amplified by the practices of natural winemaking. The energetic buzz in the finish that decomposed granite appears to impart is augmented by the organic practices employed at Renaissance and to an even greater extent at 800-case Clos Saron. The downside is that intense minerality imparts additional reductive strength, resulting in austere wines that require considerable cellaring. Beinstock’s low-sulfite regimen encourages flavor dimensions that depart still further from the mainstream.

“I’m growing towards encouraging distinctive ‘peculiarities,’ the opposite direction of clean, standard wines in which abnormality is equated with flaw,” he says. “Peynaud spoke of inhabitants of remote regions who became used to defects, which, with education, they would eliminate. Today, it’s more appropriate to encourage diversity.”

Beauty and the beast
In its first two decades, Renaissance was a bastion of conventional winemaking practices. German-trained winemaker Karl Werner applied the full range of post-war technology to these grapes. Werner produced stunning Rieslings to be sure, but he also made Cabernets with tannins so hard that few buyers appreciated them.

In Werner’s defense, when I attended a recent vertical tasting of 30 vintages back to the late ’70s, there was little to complain about in any of them: Even his earliest efforts had emerged with all the balance, complexity and grace one could wish. Nevertheless, I have seldom encountered a site that cried out for application of the postmodern view, and in 1999, Beinstock began experimenting with me to explore various techniques to tame the tannins.

Gideon Beinstock Clos Saron
 
Gideon Beinstock (pictured with his wife, Saron) grows Heart of Stone Syrah at 2,300 feet in the rocky soils of California's Sierra Foothills.
 
In search of the miraculous
“Once you taste the soil in a wine, you know that’s not something that happens by accident,” Beinstock says. “You have to choose your dream very carefully. But then you need to comply with the terroir, not the reverse. In the long term, you sort out empirically the best way of working. The original plantings of Cabernet and Riesling didn’t take the soil and topography into account, and we’ve pulled 80% of it out—picking the spots that were working, and paring our production down to the best wines.

“Working with oxygenation really taught me a lot. Oxygen is certainly the key to constraining and integrating tannin, and our wines have an unbelievable appetite for it when they are young. Newly made Cabernet is very dynamic and can go from aldehydic to being full of sulfides in a day. The ability to measure the exact oxygenation level and observe wine response taught me a great deal about what to expect from different strategies and timing, much of it quite counterintuitive. It was also valuable to acquire a language for tannins and to understand t heir progression.

“I discovered that the downside of MOx (micro-oxygenation) is an amplification of the middle palate, and I’ve moved away from the technique, because for our wines, it creates a certain layer of fat that blocks rather than fills the wine’s central expression. It does some good things, like adding richness and acting as a tool to balance reductive aspects. But gradually I have moved away from it, even if that decision presents challenges,” he says.

“In many circumstances it is still the right tool. For Renaissance wines, a light touch can perhaps retain the essence of place without trade-off. A lot depends on whom you are targeting in the market. Our wines can be very challenging to the novice consumer, and MOx can be a potent means to address that problem. It’s a power tool, and you have to use it with great care and with specific goals in mind,” according to Beinstock.

The ‘M’ word
In previous columns I have written much about minerality, by which I mean a lively tingle in the finish often confused with acidity, but further back in the mouth. It is sometimes described as resembling an electric current running through the throat, and it’s possible that’s exactly what it is.

As I wrote in last month’s column, minerality may be a flow of electrons released from various elements of the periodic table as they move to higher valences, such as Fe2+ --> Fe3+ + e- . This oxidative discharge may occur very slowly in the bottle, opposing oxidation and conferring the added longevity we observe in such wines.

If so, we would predict a decrease in the characteristic during aging. Since his wines are so pronounced in this character, I ask Beinstock whether the hypothesis has merit.

“Over time, the wines certainly become flatter and less vibrant,” Beinstock offers. “Minerality probably does diminish with age, but it can take a very long time. The type of soil seems paramount. I see big differences here from block to block. Organic practices, sun exposure and ripeness are also related.”

An independent phenomenon to which the term “minerality” is sometimes attached is the aroma of wet stone, a term for which I prefer the term “petrichor,” the smell of new rain as it liberates natural oils from rock in the desert. “For me, there’s a whole vocabulary of soil aromatics,” Beinstock says. “Sometimes it’s like chewing on dust, even in a white wine—not tactilely but aromatically. Other times it’s more like wild mushrooms or wetted hot stone.”

The yeast among us
“We stopped inoculating (except for stuck fermentations) in the early ’90s and have become more and more convinced of its benefits,” Beinstock says. “There are drawbacks, too: less purity, but more complexity, which combined with organic farming becomes more and more a signature of the place, and gives you increasing consistency of expression.

“Grapes are the carriers of terroir, but they aren’t the whole message,” he contends. “This is an extremely subjective area. A yeast definitely contributes its own distinct mouthfeel and aromatic profile. To select for strains that will produce a healthy fermentation is the main reason to use SO2 at the crusher.”

My consulting experience confirms this. Natural winemakers all want to eliminate the practices of adding sulfites at the crusher, inoculated yeasts and sterile filtration, but in reality you will rarely find a practitioner willing to eschew all three.

How low can you go?
A fascinating artistic turn is Beinstock’s move away from sulfites. Following an initial add of 35-40 ppm at the crusher, nothing is added subsequently at any stage.

I hasten to point out that Beinstock has stacked the deck in his favor: These are not ordinary wines. Their intense minerality and highly reactive tannins impart tremendous anti-oxidative characteristics. The wine is literally its own preservative. Moreover, the wines’ huge structure may be relied upon to integrate microbial aromatics, which in another wine might express themselves unpleasantly. You might not want to try this at home.

“The phenolics, the minerality, the structural vigor we have permits us, even pushes us away from SO2,” Beinstock says. “Initially, SO2 purifies and creates more definition of flavors. But after some time, the unsulfited wine shows much more complexity, layering and interest. It just has more depth and life.

“SO2 removes the nuanced edges, which are replaced by clearly defined pure fruit—but you lose all those weird, distinctive, intriguing elements that make the wine worth making.

“The interaction of sulfur with phenols is a very complex effect. It tightens tannins and freezes their development and creates an artificial layer, which at first appears like structure, a kind of gloss. Our wines are plenty tight already, just as they are,” he says.

“Some elements of the retardation sulfited wines experience may be largely just temporary, but with our wines, it can take a very long time, sometimes decades to resolve.”

My own experiments with Renaissance Syrah fruit made completely sulfite-free showed the same phenomenon. In fact, after two years of side-by-side trials at WineSmith, we abandoned the sulfited control, which was simple, shallow and boring by comparison.

It’s always amazing to me how much sulfites repress the vineyard’s pure varietal flavors of place. As with a great unpasteurized cheese, the microbial action reveals wonderful depth. Though you might expect masking instead, the vineyard’s characteristic bright cherry fruit expression is somehow dramatically enhanced.

My notion is that, like the action of so many pharmaceuticals on the body, sulfites actually short-circuit the wine’s natural immune system.

Often these wines require the winemaker to have the patience, faith and stern constitution that parenting a prodigal teenager might demand. “Lactic acid bacteria will sometimes generate a mousy finish that you can dispel with a little SO2, but I’ve learned that it’s not a permanent damage,” Beinstock exp lains. “On the other hand, with sulfites, the retardation is just temporary, and it can return.”

Mr. Natural sings the blues
Retailers like Miami’s Chip Cassidy shy away from sulfite-free wines. “The bottle I’m tasting may be great, but there’s just too much bottle variation to recommend it to my customers,” Cassidy says.

Any wine salesman will testify that the same bottle poured in a series of different environments throughout the day will taste different in each. This adaptation to environment goes double for natural wines, which are extremely responsive to the context in which they are consumed.

Beinstock has learned the hard way that these wines don’t sit well alongside conventional wines. “At one comparative Pinot Noir tasting, my wine stuck out as edgy and unclean, with a touch of VA. The next day, by itself, the same wine was showing beautifully. It was a very disturbing experience, and showed me the power of context,” he says.

“The better distinctive wines do their proper job, the less well they fit into the standard commercial mold. Fortunately, consumers don’t race wines like horses, but rather consume them one at a time.”

The converse is also true. At a tasting of more than 200 wines in the late 1990s, the ’92 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel was generally acclaimed as wine of the evening, and Beinstock bought a case, only to be disappointed. “It was a great show wine, but it turned out it didn’t stand by itself very well.”

As British wine writer David Peppercorn observes, “Wine is about pleasure. If the wine gives pleasure, it isn’t flawed. Sometimes this means creating interest through discord.”

“If there’s a clear flaw, I will solve it by interventionalist means,” Beinstock admits. “You have to survive economically, and that means somebody has to buy the wine. I’m not St. Gideon of the Vine.”

Clark Smith is winemaker for WineSmith, founder of the wine technology firm Vinovation. He lectures widely on an ancient yet innovative view of American winemaking. To comment on this column, e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.

 
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