I just spent ten days tasting wine in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Over that time I visited a ton of wineries and sampled countless wines. The types of visits, the styles of wine and everything else varied greatly. Some wineries had a few wines I liked; one or two had none at all. At precious few I enjoyed the vast majority of what they poured. One of the things that stood out convincingly at Freemark Abbey was the quality of the portfolio from top to bottom. The tasting I had was fairly exhaustive, including not only just about every current release but also reserve wines and a couple of older vintages. One of the older wines I tasted was a single vineyard Cabernet from 1981 (but a bit more on that later). Many of the wines they make are smaller production aimed at their wine club, tasting room and select higher end wine shops. However even the three wines which they make oodles of, and send out into the world at large, are each excellent examples of their varietals. Here’s a look at them.
The Freemark Abbey 2012 Chardonnay was produced using fruit sourced in four distinct sub-appellations within Napa Valley. This wine is 100 percent Chardonnay. Fermentation took place in stainless steel at a temperature controlled over a period of roughly 22 days. Barrel aging took place over 4 months in a combination of French (86 percent) and American (14 percent) oak; 15 percent of the barrels utilized were new. Thirteen thousand cases of this offering were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $30. Chardonnay happens to be a grape I’m a bit finicky about. When it’s well made in a style I enjoy, I can love it; however that isn’t the case often enough. Granny Smith apple aromas are present on the nose. Anjou pear, yellow delicious apple and a potpourri of spices mark the palate, which is deep, concentrated with flavor and even-keeled. A nucleus of minerals and a continuing core of spices are present on the finish, which has above-average length. The oak on this wine adds some complexity and character but never detracts from the brilliant fruit flavors. It has more in common stylistically with Chablis than the style of Chardonnay most think of as classic Napa.
The Freemark Abbey 2011 Merlot was produced from fruit in a number of Napa Valley sub-appellations. In addition to Merlot (82.3 percent), this wine also has some Cabernet Sauvignon (9.4 percent), Petit Verdot (7 percent), and Cabernet Franc (1.3 percent) blended in. Fermentation took place in temperature-controlled stainless steel over approximately 22 days; 14 months of barrel aging followed. The oak used was a combination of French and American barrels, of which 25 percent were new. They produced 12,000 cases of this vintage, and it has a suggested retail price of $34. Black cherry and violet aromas permeate the nose of this Merlot. Those cherry characteristics (both red and black) continue through the palate along with bits of leather, dark chocolate and a hint of cinnamon. The finish here is long and complex with all of that fruit being joined by wisps of earth and chicory. This is a textbook example of Merlot in the best sense of that term. It tastes like Merlot, which is no small feat; so many examples are, at best, anonymous. The Freemark Abbey Merlot is a fine one, with structure, varietal character and complexity to spare.
The Freemark Abbey 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon was produced from fruit sourced at a number of vineyards throughout Napa Valley. In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon (82.3 percent), Merlot (13 percent), Petit Verdot (3.4 percent), Malbec (1.1 percent) and Cabernet Franc (0.2 percent) were blended in. Fermentation took place in temperature-controlled stainless steel over roughly three weeks. Barrel aging took place over 22 months in 40 percent new French oak; the balance comes from various parts of the world. Just fewer than 35,000 cases of this Cabernet were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $44. This wine opens with a massive and boisterous nose loaded with blackberry and cherry aromas. Those characteristics carry through the palate joined by plum, black raspberry, clove and hints of vanilla bean. Earth and chocolate-covered cherries emerge on the finish, along with a bit of tobacco leaf and leather. This Cabernet has firm but yielding tannins and rock solid acidity. There is a depth and complexity here that isn’t often present in wines of this price range. If you like Cabernet that shows off the brilliance that Napa’s climate can provide, balanced by the intent in winemaking that harkens back to the old world, this is a Cabernet Sauvignon for you. The 1981 Cabernet I tasted was from was a single vineyard effort, and the current release I’m speaking of here is a Napa Valley cuvee. It’s interesting to note that the general intent of the Cabernet program at Freemark Abbey has remained consistent. Whether this 2010 will last 32 years is an open question, but it’ll definitely go 20.
What I love about all of these wines is quite similar. They’re all proportionate wines made in a style that allows the varietal in question to shine through brightly. Their Napa Valley provenance comes through quite obviously too. Each wine will complement appropriate food choices rather nicely. Every one of these wines is a good value in its own right when you take into account the bang for the buck you’re getting relative to other wines from Napa of similar quality. That said, the Cabernet Sauvignon sets itself apart. There’s tons of excellent Cabernet in Napa Valley – it’s not hard to find at all. However, there are very few Cabernets of this quality, and in this price range, which are ready to drink now but with the stuffing and potential to age well for a couple of decades (under proper storage conditions). The bottom line is that Napa Valley Cabernet of this quality often sells for much more. If you’re inclined to lay down a case of Napa Valley Cabernet for future enjoyment, there won’t be too many that represent this combination of value and quality.