Bodegas Navarro Lopez is a Spanish treasure

There is so much great wine coming out of Spain, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Recently I tasted through a large swath of the portfolio from Bodegas Navarro Lopez, and boy, am I glad for that opportunity! They have a history that dates back to 1904 which makes them teenagers in terms of age of Spanish Wineries. There is a broad array of delicious wines on US shelves with their name on it, here are three in particular that are both luscious and also represent stunning values.

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The Bodegas Navarro Lopez 2011 Rojo Garnacha was produced from fruit sourced in the La Tierra de Castilla region of Spain. This offering is 100 percent Garnacha (Grenache). The vines sourced were more than 40 years old at the time of harvest. Temperature-controlled fermentation took place in stainless steel tanks. About 4,000 cases of this wine were imported to the United States, and it has a suggested retail price of $10.99. Red and purple violet aromas are underscored by bits of leather on the nose of this Garnacha. The palate is smooth and even-keeled with red and black fruit flavors in abundance. Blackberry and red raspberry are of note. Spices such as black pepper and a tiny hint of cocoa emerge on the finish, along with a touch of graphite. This is a remarkably appealing wine that begs you back to the glass for sip after sip. If you need a house red to keep on hand, this is safe bet. It’s scrumptious and has the kind of appeal that will satisfy a wide array of palates.

The Bodegas Navarro Lopez 2010 Old Vines Crianza was produced from fruit sourced in the Valdepenas (D.O.) region. This wine is composed entirely of Tempranillo. The vines were more than 30 years old at the time of harvest. Temperature-controlled fermentation took place over 10 days. Barrel aging followed over the next 6 months, in a combination of American (80 percent), French (15 percent) and Hungarian (5 percent) oak, and 18 months of bottle aging followed prior to release. About 20,000 cases were imported to the U.S. and it has a suggested retail price of $11.99. Wild strawberry and red Bing cherry aromas dominate the nose of this Crianza. The palate is fruity and fresh, bringing to mind a bowl of fresh berry fruits. Vanilla bean, white pepper and a hint of allspice are present as well. The finish has a wisp of cola and continued sweet red fruit flavors, as well as a hint of sweet cocoa. This is solid Crianza that is well priced for everyday drinking.

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Finally, we have the Bodegas Navarro Lopez Old Vines Gran Reserva. The fruit for this wine was from vines more than 30 years old. They sit over 700 meters above sea level in the Valdepenas (D.O.) region. Temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel took place over a week. Barrel aging followed over 24 months in American (80 percent), French (15 percent) and American (5 percent) oak. Three years of bottle aging followed prior to release. Red plum, violets and tobacco leaf aromas lead the big, boisterous nose of this Gran Reserva. The palate is intense and loaded with dry red and black fruit flavors. Strawberry, raspberry and cherry are but a few. Rhubarb flavors and an avalanche of spices lead the finish which is long, deep and persistent. This wine throws off wave after wave of incredible flavors, all with elegance and grace. Its depth, complexity and length belie the modest price point.

All three of these wines are well made and terrific values. However, the Rojo Garnacha is a total steal. This wine is loaded with oodles of varietal character and appealing flavors, and it’ll pair well with a wide range of foods. If you bring it to a party, make sure you bring at least two because the first bottle will be drained before you know it. The Old Vines offerings are also terrific values. Tempranillo-based wines from Spain have been providing drinking pleasure in the U.S. for many years. These two are essentially textbook examples of their designations. Gran Reserva wines, with the level of quality, length and depth of the Bodegas Navarro Lopez are usually priced closer to $35. This one is under $20 and perfectly suited for Sunday dinner or a special occasion. In any case, you can’t go wrong with this trio of wines. If I sound excited about these wines, it’s because I am — go buy them now, thank me when the bottles are empty! In addition to these wines, Bodegas Navarro Lopez offers a range of others at various price points. The quality of their portfolio is deep and well worth investigating outside of this trio as well.

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Da Luca Winery delivers Italian values under $15!

The word “value” is thrown around in wine circles constantly, but it can have different meanings. In some cases, people are referring to a category. For me, value is relative. A $100 wine could be a good value if it offers more complexity, depth or other qualities than similar wines in its price range. An $8 bottle could be a terrible value because it’s not a good wine and other examples outshine it. In this case, I’m talking about some Italian wines that are good values for the money and also fall into what is generally considered the value category. In this price range, I’m looking for wines that are good representatives of the grapes in question, providing sufficient varietal character. Often they are also wines that will have mass appeal. That is, you could bring them to a party and most people will be happy. The casual drinkers will find them easy-going, and the wine lovers will find enough interest in them to drink them up. Here are three examples, which for me fit all of those criteria. Three of Italy’s workhorse grapes are represented, the prices are right and the wines are tasty and food-friendly.

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The Da Luca 2012 IGT Delle Venezie Pinot Grigio was produced entirely from fruit sourced in the namesake region. This offering is 100 percent Pinot Grigio. It has typically modest alcohol of 12 percent and a suggested retail price of $13. A mélange of apple aromas lights up the nose of this Pinot Grigio, and hazelnut characteristics play a supporting role. The palate has Lychee fruit, apricot and apple flavors, as well as gentle bits of spice. Hints of honey and lemon ice emerge on the finish, which has sufficient length. This wine is refreshing, light and dry. It drinks nicely on its own but shines brightest when paired with foods such as salads, white meats and soft cheeses. There are way too many Pinot Grigio’s on the market that are — at best — innocuous. Many of them sell for more than this one. This offering from Da Luca is well priced and offers genuine Pinot Grigio character.

The Da Luca DOC Prosecco (NV) was produced from fruit sourced in the Treviso region of Italy. This offering is 100 percent Prosecco. It has a suggested retail price of $14. Lemon zest and crème fraiche aromas leap from the nose of this Prosecco. Take the first sip and hints of scone and stone fruits, such as nectarine, make their presence known. The finish is above average in length and shows off white pepper and biscuit characteristics. This is a dry sparkling wine which is light bodied with depth of flavor and a refreshing nature. It would be an excellent choice to pair with brunch foods.

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Finally, we have the Da Luca 2011 DOC Romagna 2011 Sangiovese Superiore. This wine was made from fruit sourced in the namesake region. It is composed entirely of Sangiovese and it has a suggested retail price of $13. Violet and cherry aromas waft gently from the nose of this Sangiovese, along with bits of cigar box. Strawberry and red cherry characteristics are prominent through the palate. They’re joined by earth and a copious amount of spice. Leather, warming red fruits and continued spice influences are in evidence on the finish. This wine has medium tannins which yield with some air and firm acidity. It will pair well with just about anything with red sauce on it, as well as rustic Italian foods in general. I drank it alongside a hearty lentil stew and it worked fabulously.

As I mentioned above, these wines offer good value. The Pinot Grigio in particular is a well-priced example of the grape that offers good character. If you’re looking for a house white to stock up on, a case of it would be a good choice. The Prosecco and Sangiovese are similar in that manner as well. The bottom line here is that these are wines, which are priced for everyday drinking, are also a couple of notches better and more distinguished in character and quality than many other offerings in a similar price range. Check them out, I believe you’ll agree!

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Freemark Abbey is a Standout Napa Valley Winery

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.

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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.

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Australia’s Hardys is Killing It at Every Price Point!

Hardys is one of the largest wine brands in the world. They’re so big, in fact, that each day more than two million glasses of Hardys wines are consumed worldwide. It’s no surprise, as they make a lot of wine from a variety of grapes in a broad array of styles, all sold at prices to accommodate just about any budget. I recently had the opportunity to taste a cross-section of their portfolio alongside their chief winemaker Paul Lapsley. He manages a team of 27 winemakers across their vast array of brands. Here’s a look at three of my favorite wines from the evening that, quite frankly, I think everyone should be drinking.

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The Hardys 2012 William Hardy Chardonnay was produced from fruit sourced in several different Australian regions; the bulk however comes from Padthaway (57.2 percent) and Riverland (30.1 percent). The fruit was picked at night under cooler conditions to help maximize freshness. Fermentation took place in oak, and the finished produce was aged in stainless steel with some additional oak treatment. This offering is 100 percent Chardonnay. This wine has a suggested retail price of $17. Aromas of pineapple fill the ebullient nose of this Chardonnay. Hints of crème fraiche appear on the palate where they balance juicy peach and orchard fruit flavors. Hints of citrus lead the lengthy finish, along with baker’s spice. This wine has a crisp, clean ending that begs you back to the glass for sip after sip. This is a Chardonnay that has a bit of appealing added oak complexity. However, those notes never overshadow the glorious fruit that shines through. This is a really delicious and appealing Chardonnay.

The Hardys 2012 Nottage Hill Pinot Noir was produced from fruit sourced in South Eastern Australia. The Nottage Hill wines have been part of the overall Hardys line since 1967. This is a wine that is widely available across the country and has a suggested retail price of $13; if you shop around you’re likely to find it for a couple of bucks less. The light red hue of this wine is exceptionally pretty in the glass. Red fruit aromas abound on the nose. Strawberry flavors dominate the palate and they’re underscored by bits of red cherry; a dollop of vanilla bean is present. Black tea, mushrooms and earth are all in abundance on the finish, which has above average length for the category. This wine will pair well will an extraordinarily wide array of foods. It’s hard to find good Pinot in this price range. This one is simply a knockout for the price.

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The Tintara McLaren Vale 2010 Shiraz was produced entirely from fruit sourced in the namesake region. Dating back to 1861, Tintara is one of Hardys’ oldest brands. The winery itself is located within McLaren Vale. This offering is 100 percent Shiraz. Different parcels of fruit were harvested, vinified and aged separately. Aging took place over 14 months in oak barriques. The separate lots were blended prior to bottling. This Shiraz, which is widely available, has a suggested retail price of $19; however it often sells for close to $15. Compote of dark fruit aromas fills the nose of this wine. Similar characteristics pick up on the palate where blackberry, raspberry and plum pudding spice rules the day. This is a hefty wine that is layered with layers of flavor. Coffee and chocolate characteristics lead the finish, which is long and lingering. This is a lovely example of Shiraz that is full bodied but not over the top. It’s a proportionate wine that works well on its own but excels when paired with substantial foods.

This group of wines from the overall Hardys umbrella shows off a wide swatch of what is possible in Australia. First, they are each proportionate, varietally correct offerings that will all pair nicely with appropriate food groupings. From a value standpoint they are each fairly priced and provide more than solid quality in their respective categories. The Pinot Noir however sets itself apart. More than being a good value, it’s an absolutely outstanding one. It’s quite simply one of the very best Pinot Noirs in the ever popular $10 to $15 price bracket. There are tons of Pinot selections in this category; nevertheless precious few of them can match the quality of the Hardys Nottage Hill Pinot Noir. If you’re looking to buy a case or two as a house wine to keep on hand for everyday drinking, this Pinot is an absolutely perfect choice. At $13 or less a bottle you’re practically stealing it. Hardys has a host of other wines besides this trio. They are proportionate wines that are true to their varietal. Don’t hesitate to buy anything with their name on it, for it’s a sign of quality and value.

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Superstar Leo Messi scores a couple of goals with excellent Malbec

Leo Messi is known the world over as a soccer star – one of the biggest, best and brightest in the world. Five years ago, he started the Leo Messi Foundation. This charitable group focuses its energies on helping at-risk children and adolescents. The latest venture to help raise money for the foundation is a partnership with one of Argentina’s most storied family wineries, Bodega Valentin Bianchi. Leo has helped them launch two wines, both Malbecs. In early 2014 these wines will be joined by a Torrontes, the benchmark white grape of Argentina. I recently tasted the Leo wines alongside a large swath of the Valentin Bianchi portfolio. Here’s a look at them, along with one of my other favorites from the evening.

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The Valentin Bianchi 2012 LEO Malbec was produced from fruit sourced in a vineyard that sits 750 meters above sea level in the San Rafael section of Mendoza. This offering is 100 percent Malbec. The fruit was hand harvested. Fermentation and maceration on the skins took place over a week in a temperature-controlled environment. Aging took place over a month with oak staves. About 35,000 six-bottle cases of this offering were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $16.99. Fresh blueberry aromas emerge from the nose of this Malbec along with a nice complement of vanilla bean. Blackberry and raspberry fruit flavor are abundant on the deep and proportionate palate which impresses with its depth and abundance of dark, brooding flavors. Plenty of spice emerges on the finish, led by the essence of gingerbread and including pepper. Medium tannins soften with air. This wine has nice structure and pairs well with an exceptionally wide array of foods. Although Malbec at this price level is often simplistic and one dimensional, this one is anything but — and handily provides lots of bang for the buck.

The Valentin Bianchi 2011 LEO Malbec Premium was produced using fruit sourced at the Doña Elsa estate in San Rafael. This wine is 100 percent Malbec. All of the grapes were manually harvested. Fermentation, which included manual pump-overs, took place over three weeks in a temperature-controlled environment. Aging took place over 12 months in a combination of new French (75 percent) and American (25 percent) oak. Another six months of bottle aging took place prior to release. About 10,000 six-bottle cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $29.99. The nose here is simply immense with an impressive array of dark, deep and rich aromas. Dark plum and blackberry are of note. The palate shows off black cherry, blackberry and a ton of spices such as clove, pepper and a gentle hint of cinnamon. The finish on LEO Premium is long, lusty and impressive with tons of super concentrated fruit flavors, black tea, espresso and a final wallop of chocolate-dipped-cherry flavors. This wine is riper, bigger and bolder than the other Malbec. It will pair well with full flavored foods, grilled meats and the like. Despite its relative heft this is still a proportionate wine.

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When Leo Messi decided to launch a wine to raise money, he of course partnered with a winery with a long and impressive history befitting his reputation. One of the many other wines they produce which I recently tasted is the Valentin Bianchi 2006 Particular Cabernet Sauvignon. The fruit for this wine came from the winery’s Asti Vineyards. In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon (85 percent), this wine also contains small amounts of Petit Verdot (8 percent) and Malbec (7 percent). Fruit was hand-picked and fermented in a temperature controlled environment. Barrel aging took place over 14 months on entirely new oak; 93 percent of the barrels were French and 7 percent American. Six months of bottle aging followed. About 400 cases of this Cabernet were released and it has a suggested retail price of $29.99. Red cherry aromas are in evidence on the nose of this Cabernet Sauvignon. The palate is loaded with a bevy of fruits and spices that all work together to form a harmonious core that is equal parts gentle and layered with tons of complexity. At 7 years old, some secondary characteristics are coming into play here, adding to the intricacy. The finish is gorgeous and persistent with black tea, chicory and a baker’s chocolate. This is an incredibly refined Cabernet for the money with impeccable structure and great body. This wine showcases the potential that Cabernet Sauvignon has in Argentina. If you love good Cabernet, this one is a steal in its price range.

This set of wines is quite delicious. Valentin Bianchi has been on my radar for quite a few years as an Argentine producer that over delivers at every price point in their portfolio. The partnership between them and Leo Messi makes perfect sense and strives to make a difference with infant health, education of kids and sports programs. So this is money which will improve quality of life for some young people, certainly a noble pursuit. As a consumer you can spend a reasonable amount of money on the LEO wines and know that you will have something delectable to drink and are also helping a worthwhile cause. Sounds like a double whammy of a win to me, or as they say, Goooooooooooaaaaaal!!!

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