What an awesomely relaxing event.
The new and improved Winter Wine Fest at Renault Winery Resort & Golf Course in Little Egg Harbor, NJ, was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the dead of January when most folks are suffering the post-holiday blues.
Ten wineries were featured at the event that spanned the ballroom and main hall of New Jersey's oldest winery. Sharrott Winery poured Crimignoles, Renault poured their white Fresello and Noah wines, and Plagido's poured their Dealer's Choice, Homestead and Empire dessert wines. (Of course, they poured more than that, but hey, I'm writing about my favorites here.)
Some of my new favorites include Bellview Winery's Homestead, a kitchen sink blend of vinifera and labrusca grapes that has the right combination of dry and sweet to make it a great table wine; Tomasello's Rainer Red based in Concord grapes dances sweet on the pallate; Cedarvale Winery's Cherry Table Wine is the sweetest, freshest and most natural cherry wine I've ever tasted; Renault's Fresello red makes a great chilled rose that lends a sparkle to your tongue.
Last year we were new to wine. We arrived late, were greeted with the crowd, and fought the massive audience to get a taste of whatever we could try. With a year of wine tasting under our belts, this year afforded us a completely different experience. We arrived early, aimed towards the grapes we like, and took time to soak it all in.
That included participating in a wine seminar with Dr. Gary Pavlis of Rutgers University. Focusing on terrior, Pavlis took us on a three-wine journey (Tomasello Shiraz 2009, Renault Baco Noir, and Renault Riesling -- one of my new personal favorites) through the Garden State, explaining that Jersey has such a similar climate to the Bordeaux region that our vinifera wines are closer in taste to those of Europe than the oft-praised California blends. There are 87 varieties of grapes and 62 wineries in New Jersey -- compared to only 7 in 1984. Comparatively speaking, Pavlis has tested this, wines produced in NJ rank higher in taste-tests than European wines in the same price range. Why? Because NJ puts everything into the $10-$25 wines. (So much for European wine snobbery.)
No visit to Renault is complete without a tour with Mark. Starting in the history room, you learn about founder Louis Nicolas Renault, who moved to Jersey in 1868 after phylloxera killed off the majority of European vines. Settling in New Jersey for the climate and soil, Renault imported his French winemaking skills establishing the first winery in New Jersey and the second oldest bonded winery in America. Thanks to Renault, the winery is one of the only ones outside the Champagne region in France that can legally call their own blend "champagne" instead of "sparkling wine". Hence the name has remained through a series of owners, including Prohibition mobster John D'Agostino (Renault's real-life connection to the characters of Boardwalk Empire).
View the museum of glassware and winemaking equipment, learn about riddling racks and how the folks at Renault still make their American Champagne the old fashioned way, and finish up in the pressing room for a quick lesson on whites, reds and blushes. Normally, the tour ends with a trip to the tasting room, something I'd highly recommend - whether you're into super-dry or pleasantly sweet, this historic NJ winery has something for your pallate.
Four-and-a-half hours of wine tasting makes a person hungry for a good meal. Fortunately, Renault is home to two gourmet restaurants, including Joseph's Restaurant where you can get a great rack of lamb, New York Strip Steak, and even Ahi Tuna. (They've got a wide variety of seafood and pasta dishes as well.) If you're ready to crash, book a room at the Tuscany House Hotel, a beautiful setting for over 100 weddings a year.