This past weekend, my wife and I were staying in Atlantic City for an event and while looking through the regional attractions brochures at the hotel, discovered a brochure for New Jersey’s wine country and another specifically on the Renault Winery. A mere 8 miles from our hotel, in Egg Harbor City, we made the obvious choice to pay a visit to Renault. While I’d heard there were vineyards in just about every state, whether a recognized AVA or not (this one is part of south Jersey’s outer coastal plain AVA), I really was not expecting to find this little gem right off the beaten path of Atlantic City. Apparently, it is one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the country. According to the receptionist who offered us a full tour and tasting (we were in a pinch for time so did not do the tour) it is the oldest continuously running vineyard, and second oldest continuously running winery in the country. It is definitely the oldest in the state, and was started by Louis Nicholas Renault – an immigrant from France – in 1864. His father and grandfather were barrel-makers in Champagne.
As this is my first year as a true oenophile, I was thrilled as we were driving up to the winery to discover significant shoot and leaf growth on the roadside vineyard sites. When we spent our wedding anniversary in the North Fork of Long Island in March (that will be another entry), there was no budburst yet. This is also my first season of observing the vine and grape growth from beginning to end. Plus, it’s much more fun to experience this way than a chart in a book. For this reason we plan to visit more wineries in June and July, and I may have the opportunity to visit Bordeaux at harvest. I can’t think of a more special place to experience it.
The decor includes many frescoes, a vintage ‘glass museum’ and a room full of antique wine-making equipment spanning their entire 147 years. My favorite items were the masks worn by the rumeurs when riddling the sparkling wine. One is reminded that 6 atmospheres of pressure exist between that cork and the contents of the bottle. A cork set loose could cause significant harm to one’s face! It was fascinating seeing all of these relics compared to the stainless steel tanks and automated machinery of our day. The winery is also part of the ‘NJ Wine Country passport’ program. These are common programs among wineries, the ‘Bourbon trail’ in Kentucky, and even our national state parks. The fun is in visiting them all and getting a stamp just like you would on a real passport. The regional soil here in the eastern coastal plain is sand over loam, and the land here is surrounded on all sides by water. It is just 100 ft above sea level, and being this close to the sea of course moderates the climate making for ideal growing conditions.
But now lets get to the wines…
Although it was 10am, we had experienced the early morning tasting scenario before on our trip to the North Fork. This was mainly due to time restraints, which meant packing as many winery visits as possible into the time we had. We paid a scant $3 each to have a wonderful one-on-one tasting of 8 or 9 different wines. The woman doing the tasting really knew her stuff, and was friendly and generous. She walked us through each, telling us of their origins, and any relevant points of interest with much enthusiasm.
Many of their wines were made from local varieties such as ‘Noah” (white) and “Cayuga” (red) as well as some Vidal Blanc, which I’d only had in ice wine from Canada and Vermont (delicious, from East Shore Vineyards). The native varieties are all of the Phylloxera-resistant Labrusca (Native American) species. Vidal Blanc, while being a hybrid of the two and mostly of the Vinifera species, has enough Labrusca to also effectively resisit Phylloxera. We also sampled their barrel-aged Chardonnay which was nice but didn’t knock my socks off. I was particularly fond of the ‘Garden State Red’ – that I believe included Baco Noir (a Pinot Noir hybrid), and common Vinifera varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as a wine called “Burgundy” (you won’t find 100% Pinot Noir here) were all enjoyable as well. Of those I’d say the Cabernet Sauvignon was my favorite. I love real red Burgundy too much to love a faux Burgundy I guess. Overall, they make approximately 20 different wines with up to 12 different grapes, so we didn’t get to sample all of them. When looking over their site again I saw that most of their wines from the last three vintages have won medals at this year’s Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. Some of the other local varieties used in their wines are Cynthiana (also called Norton) and Fresello, which grow well in NJ and along the east coast states. The Noah was very interesting because the nose was like a bouquet of their local terroir – the soil and the smell of a grassy field, wild with flora. But then on the palate it was tart and semi-dry. A complete disconnect, but a learning experience for me that is all part of why I am here! The Fresello was light and sweet, and my wife loved that one.
We also sampled their unique and delicious “blueberry Champagne” and “American Port.” While only Champagne can be called by that name, they are hardly the only American winery to use the name – perhaps to make it clear to the less wine-savvy of what to expect. Sparkling wine, while the correct term, is less likely to excite, some would say. And most of the world’s other most famous sparkling wines also go by their now-famous names like Prosecco and Cava, for instance. This area of the country is known for growing great blueberries, so it makes for an even more unique terroir-centric wine. And while Port can only be made in Portugal, they are at least acknowledging this fact with their ‘American Port’. And it too, was very good.
They also offer wine education classes. There’s plenty of information on their website about the classes, and the inn, golf course, and hotel on the estate. Incidentally, they only sell their wines on site. So if you would like to try them, you will have to pay them a visit yourself! Nothing like an impromptu visit to a wonderful historic winery with unique wines well worth the visit.