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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Esporão wines show that Portugal offers a lot more than Port

When Portugal comes to mind most of us think of dessert wines, Port specifically. This is quite natural as Ports of all styles are the bread and butter of the Portuguese wine industry. However, as wine lovers are starting to learn, there are lots of terrific table wines coming from Portugal as well. There are white wines, some of them quite well known, but what impresses me are the reds, most often produced as blends. In many cases the grapes are indigenous to Portugal and while some of them are planted in other regions, many are not. Portugal has been very good about holding on to and promoting their local grapes, the ones that really flourish there. That lends itself to a unique drinking experience. You can taste things in Portuguese wines that simply aren’t available elsewhere, which prosper in their microclimates. Here’s a look at two reds and a Rosé from two wineries that are both part of Esporão, a sustainable winery located in the Alentejo region of Portugal.

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First up is the Herdade do Esporão 2011 Defesa Rosé. This wine was produced from grapes sourced in the Alentejo region of Portugal. It blends together two varietals — Syrah and Aragonés– in equal parts. The fruit was destemmed and then crushed. Skin contact and maceration was minimal. Fermentation took place in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. Approximately 120,000 cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $14.99. A striking strawberry hue looks beautiful as you pour this into a glass. The nose of this Rosé brings to mind a bowl of fresh red fruits. Strawberry, cherry and subtle bits of raspberry are all present throughout the palate, along with a wisp of white pepper. Black cherry flavors emerge on the finish. This wine is crisp and remarkably refreshing. The alcohol here is nice and modest, making it easier to enjoy that second or third glass with a leisurely meal.

The Quinta Dos Murcas 2010 Assobio was produced using grapes sourced within the Douro appellation. This wine blends together Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca. The fruit was hand harvested and then underwent bunch selection as well as being destemmed. Fermentation took place in a temperature-controlled environment. Approximately 20 percent of the blended wine was aged in a combination of French and American oak for 6 months. Roughly 140,000 cases of this offering were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $12.99. Black plum and vanilla bean aromas emerge from the nose here. The palate is studded with dark, brooding fruits such as blueberry, black raspberry and continued plum. A treasure trove of spice characteristics are in evidence as well, adding depth and complexity. Sour black fruit flavors emerge on the finish which has nice length; they are joined by minerals and bits of espresso. This wine really shines if you decant it for an hour or so. Enjoy it with hard cheeses and roasted meats.

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Finally, we have the Quinta dos Murcas 2009 Reserva, which was produced from fruit sourced within the Douro. This offering blends together Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Miúda, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca and Sousão. After being hand-picked, sorted, destemmed and crushed, fermentation took place in temperature-controlled granite lagares. The wine was aged for 12 months in a combination of French and American oak. Just about 30,000 cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $39.99. Plum and red raspberry aromas emerge from the exceptional nose of this 2009 blend. Purple, black and red fruits are interspersed on a deeply layered palate that is both dense with flavor and diverse. There is a depth and elegance from the first sip through the last note that makes this wine a knockout. Minerals, earth, spices and bits of dusty chocolate emerge on the finish, which has excellent length. Everything you’d want in a red blend in this price point is present in droves: structure, acidity, balance, grace and length. It’s delicious now, particularly after a couple of hours in a decanter, but it will improve over the next 5 years and drink well for at least five after that. It’s certainly suitable for pouring on a holiday or special occasion.

These three wines from Portugal’s Esporão are well made, delicious and provide solid quality for the respective price points. And while these wines are diverse, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Portugal has to offer in table wines. It’s easy to see from tasting any of these that blending is a forte. The variety of indigenous grapes is huge and plays a starring role in shaping the myriad blends that are made. Portuguese wines are making inroads in the U.S. market. Look on your shelf for these and other exciting wines from the old-world country that is new for a lot of American wine drinkers, particularly when it comes to table wines.

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Vina Montes epitomizes Chilean quality

Viña Montes in Chile has been around for 25 years now. In that time, they’ve been a part of the Renaissance that has occurred in Chile, with quality and diversity rising dramatically year after year, and meeting with what was already a wine region that offered value. As with most Chilean brands, they offer a broad range of wines at numerous price points aimed at a varied consumer base with a multitude of needs. This vast range of wines is produced with a multitude of intents. All told, they make close to a million cases of wine, some in small lots and others in large quantities. Here’s a look at three current releases that are widely available across the country.

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First up is the Montes Alpha 2011 Chardonnay. The fruit for this offering was sourced in the Casablanca Valley. This Chardonnay is a 100 percent varietal wine. Aging took place over 12 months with 40 percent of the wine seeing time in French oak, the balance in stainless steel. This wine has a suggested retail price of $25. The Montes Alpha Tier of wines was on the forefront of Chile’s entry and innovation into to premium wine space. Pineapple aromas light up the nose of this Chardonnay, with pear and apple characteristics as the dominant fruits on the palate. Toward the back end, the apple quality picks up a bit of lovely green tartness. This is accompanied by baker’s spices, star anise and a gentle kiss of crème fraiche. Here’s an example of Chardonnay that is absolutely studded with lively fruit and true varietal character. The barrel treatment enhances those flavors, adds complexity and never detracts. This is an elegant Chardonnay for the money. I recommend serving a few degrees warmer than the typical white wine as it shows off more of its charms that way.

The Montes Alpha 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon was produced from fruit sourced in Colchagua Valley, one of Chile’s best Cab regions. This wine blends together Cabernet Sauvignon (90 percent) and Merlot (10 percent), one of its most natural partners. After fermentation this wine was aged in a combination of new and used French oak barrels over a period of 12 months. About 100,000 cases of this wine were bottled and it has a suggested retail price of $25. Plum and bramble aromas leap from the nose of this Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark fruits rule the day here and blackberry, black raspberry and more fill out the palate, while little wisps of red fruit do pop through every now and then, adding to the depth. Espresso and black pepper spice are both prominent on the finish, which has good length. Firm tannins and solid acidity lend to the overall well-proportioned nature and structure of this wine. For $25 or less this is very good value in Cabernet Sauvignon. Some lesser examples from other regions often sell for close to twice the price. Grab up a case of this wine and drink it over the next five years and enjoy its evolution.

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