Frei Brothers offers solid Sonoma County drinking

Frei Brothers is a label that’s probably familiar to many wine consumers. Their offerings are produced in sizeable quantities and available all over the country in all sorts of retailers. It had been a while since I’d actually consumed any of their wines though, so I was happy to dive back in and see what they have going on. What I found are wines reflective of their Sonoma County origins, true to their varietal, widely available and well-priced. What’s not to like? Here’s a closer look at the trio I tasted.

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Frei Brothers Reserve 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($27)

This offering is 100 percent Pinot Noir and entirely Russian River Valley fruit. Fermentation took place in a temperature-controlled environment. Barrel aging was accomplished over nine months in a combination of new and used French and American oak. The black cherry hue of this Pinot Noir gives it a darker color than average. The aromas wafting from the nose are similarly dark and ever so slightly brooding. Black and red cherry flavors dominate the palate with bits of plum and strawberry interspersed as well. Cinnamon, bay leaf, mushroom and hints of cigar box are all part of the above-average finish. This is a solid choice for an everyday Pinot Noir. It’s got a little more heft than the average Pinot, but not so much to distract.

Frei Brothers Reserve 2013 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($20)

This wine is predominately Chardonnay (99 percent), with a touch of other mixed whites blended in (1 percent). All of the fruit came from the Russian River Valley. Fermentation occurred in a combination of barrel and stainless steel using wild yeasts. This textbook example of Russian River Valley Chardonnay shows off bits of toasted vanilla and white fruit aromas in a welcoming nose. The palate is stuffed with orchard fruits, baker’s spices and a lush mouthfeel that fills the mouth and coats the senses. Toasted hazelnut, crème fraiche and continued apple and pear flavors dominate the above-average finish. This is a solid example of Chardonnay for the money. It offers plenty of fruit and reasonable complexity.

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Frei Brothers Reserve 2012 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($27)

In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon (83 percent), some Merlot (13 percent) and Petite Sirah (4 percent) were blended in. All of the fruit was grown in Alexander Valley. After temperature-controlled fermentation it was aged in a combination of new and used French and American oak. Blackberry and earth aromas interspersed with bits of vanilla leap from the heady nose of this Cabernet Sauvignon. The palate is studded with juicy, dark fruit flavors such as black plum, raspberry and hints of smoke. Earth, black teas, pepper and continued dark fruit flavors are all in play on the finish which has terrific length. This Cabernet has soft tannins and good acid. It would be an excellent match for a burger or cheesesteak.

Store shelves are filled with a dizzying array of wines. That’s particularly true when you look at offerings that are widely available and made in fairly large quantities. We need something to help us distinguish one offering from another. In this case these wines set themselves apart because they do taste like their place of origin, Sonoma County and the grape they were each predominately produced from. All that, and they’re reasonably priced. Check them out!

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A delicious quartet from California’s Central Coast

California’s Central Coast is a large area that encompasses many distinct growing regions. Rob Murray Vineyards is located in Paso Robles and produces wine from both there and the Santa Barbara area. The winery’s proprietor owns and manages more than 1,000 acres of vineyard and produce wines under a handful of different names. I recently sat down and tasted side by side through a number of their current releases. Here are the four that really stood out to me.

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Force of Nature 2013 Chardonnay ($22.50)

All of the fruit for this wine (100 percent Chardonnay) came from a single vineyard in Santa Maria Valley. It was aged over 10 months in a combination of new French oak (20 percent), neutral oak (30 percent) and stainless steel (50 percent). Pear and lemon zest aromas inform the lovely nose of this Chardonnay. The palate is studded with white peach, Anjou pear and guava flavors. Limestone, pie crust, lemon curd and a bevy of spices all emerge on the lengthy finish, along with a touch of crème fraiche. Bottom line this is a juicy, Chardonnay loaded with appealing fruit flavors.

Force of Nature 2013 Zinfandel ($22.50)

This wine is made up entirely of Zinfandel from the Mossfire Ranch in Paso Robles, which is planted to the Rockpile Clone. It was aged over 12 months in a combination of new (20 percent) and third use (80 percent) French oak. Red raspberry and plum aromas lead the nose, along with a dollop of blueberry. The palate is stuffed with jam-laden fruits such as black raspberry and wild strawberry, along with black pepper and bits of cinnamon. Dark chocolate, blackberry and a tiny wisp of espresso are each in play on the long, somewhat lusty finish. If you think of Paso only for Zinfandels that are too big and high in alcohol, think again. This is a terrific example of a refined and proportionate Zinfandel.

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Tooth & Nail 2012 The Fiend ($26.99)

The fruit for this blend came from the Tolliver Ranch in Paso Robles. The Fiend combines Malbec (80 percent) with Syrah (20 percent). It was aged over 26 months in French oak; 30 percent of the barrels were new. Bits of sage and thyme join dark fruit aromas on the nose. The palate is stuffed with oodles of delicious and even-keeled dark fruit flavors such as plum and blueberry. Dark dusty chocolate, spices and chicory are all present on the above average finish. The tannins here are soft and lush lending to a velvety mouthfeel. This is a real subtle depth to the flavors and layers here that is worth mentioning, as it is a wine far from hitting you over the head like some of the Coast blends you’ll find on the shelf. The Fiend is a wine that can — and probably should — be savored in fine company with a lovely meal.

Tooth & Nail 2012 The Possessor ($26.99)

Cabernet Sauvignon (70 percent), Syrah (12 percent), Petite Sirah (10 percent) and Malbec (8 percent) were blended together. It was aged over 16 months in 30 percent new French oak. Kirsch liqueur aromas are prominent on the nose, along with wisps of bay leaf. The palate features plums galore and bits of spice that reverberate. Minerals, hints of smoked meat and plenty of sweet berry fruits mark the finish alongside a hint of black tea. The Possessor is an extremely tightknit and cohesive blend; none of the varietals jump out and steal the show. They work together to form a sum different than the parts.

Some wines from the Paso Robles region have a reputation for being big and over-extracted. That’s not at all the case here. All four wines are full of fruit and provide tons of dynamic flavors. Each one of them is also more than fairly priced for the quality in the bottle. The Chardonnay in particular is a real steal of a deal. It exhibits the sort of complexity and richness I expect from bottles priced closer to $40. And it demands mentioning, these wines are all interesting, which is something I want in my wines of course. Drink these up, they’re delicious!

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Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery: A Russian River Valley Classic

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery is a longtime Russian River Valley producer best known for their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Their portfolio contains numerous examples of each and they focus on single vineyard wines, as well as multi-vineyard cuvee-style offerings. Over the years I have found that they have maintained a consistent level of quality and a really appealing house style. Really, it’s not a style so much as a decision to let the grapes and specific vineyards speak instead of hiding their charms with overwrought intervention. I recently tasted through a handful of their 2012 vintage wines. This particular vintage is noteworthy at Gary Farrell for two reasons: it marks their 30th vintage as a producer, and is also the first vintage for winemaker Theresa Heredia who joined them in the spring of 2012.

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Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery 2012 Russian River Selection Chardonnay ($35)

Fruit from ten Russian River Valley vineyards was selected for this offering. After pressing and fermentation with wild yeast, it was aged more than seven months in French oak; 35 percent of the barrels were new. Exactly 6,902 cases of this release were produced. Meyer lemon, toasted hazelnut, and hints of linseed oil present on the welcoming nose of this Chardonnay. The palate is jam-packed with a solid core of orchard fruit flavors, along with bits of pineapple and a bevy of spice notes. Graphite, wet limestone and hints of burnt sugar join continuing echoes of apple and pear on the lengthy finish. This is textbook Russian River Valley Chardonnay. It has just enough oak influence to add some complexity, but not nearly the amount that would overburden it, or distract from all that gorgeous fruit. Serving this Chardonnay a few degrees warmer than the average white allows it to really shine, so resist the temptation to over chill it.

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery 2012 Westside Farms Chardonnay ($45)

This single vineyard effort was produced from fruit sourced exclusively at the namesake vineyard. After fermentation it was aged for eight months in entirely French oak; 40 percent of the barrels were new. About 580 cases were produced. Baker’s spices, toasted almond and yellow delicious apple aromas dominate the nose. The palate is full-flavored and even-keeled. It’s stuffed with spice, orchard fruits, bits of lemon curd and vanilla bean. The long finish is crisp and refreshing with continued fruit and spice. Firm, racy acid adds to the mouth-watering appeal. I paired it with lemon-thyme roasted chicken for a killer match.

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Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery 2012 Russian River Selection Pinot Noir ($45)

The fruit for this wine came from nine distinct Russian River Valley Vineyards. Fermentation and aging tool place in French oak; 35 percent of the barrels utilized were new. They produced 9,206 cases of this offering. Wild strawberry and light bay leaf aromas are present on the appealing nose of this Pinot Noir. The palate is loaded with red fruits, savory spices and bits of mushroom. Continued fruit, bits of cocoa and a touch of cola are all present on the long finish. This is a fine example of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery 2012 Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir ($55)

All of the fruit for this single-vineyard offering came from the Hallberg Vineyard, which sits in the Green Valley section of Russian River. Fermentation took place in French oak; 40 percent of the barrels were new. Aging took place over 14 month. They produced 1,198 cases. Thyme, bay leaf, strawberry and bits of black cherry are present on the effusive nose of this Pinot Noir, along with wisps of plum pudding spice. Spice box, red and black fruits and bits of earth dominate the chewy palate. Cinnamon, minerals, black tea and pepper spice are all part of the long and deeply layered finish. The Hallberg Pinot was a revelation paired alongside cream of porcini soup.

No surprise here, but this is a lovely quartet of wines from Gary Farrell. The Russian River selections offer classic flavors and qualities that broadly represent the hallmarks of that area. The single-vineyard wines speak of those specific plots of land, as well as the conditions of the 2012 vintage. In short that’s what I’m looking for from those designations. Across the board these wines offer more than sufficient quality for the prices in question. Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery has been a go-to producer for tasty Russian River Valley Wines for 30 years; the 2012 vintage simply reinforces that.

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Australia and California meet with Jacob’s Creek new Two Lands line

Australia’s Jacob’s Creek has just launched a new line of wines that represents a collaboration with California winemaker Ehren Jordan. For 18 years, Ehren made the wines at Turley, and he has a Napa-based label (Failla) where he produces his own portfolio. He’s worked with numerous others over the years as well. The team at Jacob’s Creek, including chief winemaker Bernard Hickin, reached out and recruited Ehren to work with them on a range of wines made from Australian fruit but with a California sensibility. I recently sat down with both winemakers over lunch in New York City at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse to taste these new releases.

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All four wines below have a few things in common. The fruit for all of them came from vineyards in South Australia. Every one of them is a single varietal wine. They’re available widely throughout the United States, but exclusively here, not in the rest of the world. The alcohol content is moderate across the board at between 12.8 and 13.9 percent. Each of the wines has a suggested retail price of $14.

Jacob’s Creek Two Lands 2014 Pinot Grigio – The bold nose is laced with gooseberry and fleshy yellow melon aromas. Those characteristics continue through the palate and are joined by lemon curd and cardamom spice, as well as Anjou pear. The refreshing, crisp, fruity and lingering finish has a nice bit of richness with a touch of crème fraiche. This Pinot Grigio has terrific varietal typicity; more in fact than some well-known Italian examples that sell for almost twice as much. Jacob’s Creek Two Lands Pinot Grigio would be a great wine to hand guests as they enter your home. Nothing more inviting than a delicious glass of wine, but it will also pair well with lighter foods. Drink it in its slightly bold, fruity youth.

Jacob’s Creek Two Lands 2014 Chardonnay – Vanilla bean, toast and white peach aromas light up the generous nose of this Chardonnay. Loads of pear character dominates the palate, followed by lesser amounts of apple and a wisp of pineapple. The spicy and mineral-laden finish shows off white pepper, wet limestone and a bit of clove. This is a good example of Chardonnay that is dominated by loads of pure fruit flavor. It’s delicious all by itself and will work well with white meats or creamy chesses.

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Jacob’s Creek Two Lands 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon – The nose on this Cabernet is dense with lots of black fruit aromas. Plum and black raspberry are part of the mix, along with hints of toast. Black fruits, tinged by hints of red, fill the palate which is medium bodied, generous and smooth in nature with not a sharp edge to be found. Dusty cocoa and black pepper emerge on the finish, along with bits of sour black cherry. Velvety tannins and firm acid provide fine structure.

Jacob’s Creek Two Lands 2013 Shiraz – Red and black raspberry, plum and Mexican vanilla bean fill the nose of this Shiraz. Dried blueberry is in heavy evidence on the palate, along with continued bits or raspberry. Sweet, dark chocolate and black pepper dot the lengthy finish. This wine has plenty of giving ripe fruit, but it’s quite proportionate. Sweet, medium tannins add to the excellent mouth-feel. If the only everyday-priced Shiraz you’ve had features some sort of critter on the packaging and tastes like grape juice, try this one out for size — it’ll help adjust your perception.

All four of these wines worked well with a variety of foods. The reds really stood out alongside richer foods such as steak, mac ‘n’ cheese and the like. The whites worked with the lighter dishes but excelled on their own too. With a retail price of $14 it’s likely these will sell for a few dollars less in most stores. For that price you’re getting good varietal character and wines that will appeal to a large group of people. If you’re looking for some wines to enjoy on an everyday basis that won’t break the bank, the Jacob’s Creek Two Lands offerings should be on your radar.

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Italy’s Alto Adige, The Home of Delicious Pinot Bianco

Pinot Bianco (or Pinot Blanc) is one of those grapes that falls through the cracks for the vast majority of wine lovers. That’s a real shame, because when it’s grown in a region favorable to its characteristics and treated well it can produce distinct, lovely wines that are a tremendous match for appropriate foods. One of the regions that can and does produce its fair share of excellent Pinot Bianco is Italy’s Alto Adige. This Northern Italian region has the climate and soils that allow this grape to prosper. I recently tasted through some current releases and found three that really spoke volumes to me. So put aside those bottles of Chardonnay (at least for a moment) and dig into an alternative white!

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Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro “Vial” I 2012 Pinot Bianco – This offering is 100 percent Pinot Bianco. The fruit was sourced from a vineyard that sits at the base of the Mendel Mountains. Fermentation took place over an extended period of time in a temperature-controlled environment. Five months of aging on the lees followed, prior to filtration and bottling. This wine has a suggested retail price of $13. Ebullient White flower aromas leap from the nose here; gentle wisps of linseed oil offer a lovely counterpoint. Anjou and Bartlett pear flavors fill the appealing palate, along with fleshy, yellow melon characteristics. A mélange of orange, tangerine, minerals, ruby grapefruit and toasted walnut round out the above-average finish, which is also crisp, refreshing and studded with racy acid.

Castel Sallegg “Prey” 2013 Pinot Bianco – The grapes for this wine were sourced at a site that sits 550 meters above sea level. It’s 100 percent Pinot Bianco and comprised of numerous clones. Fermentation occurred in a cool, temperature-controlled environment. It has a suggested retail price of $13. White peach aromas are followed by morsels of fresh flowers on the nose. A strong Granny Smith apple flavor runs through the core of this wine, joined by papaya along with white pepper. A hint of mesquite honey marks the solid finish. This wine would excel paired with roasted pork loin and a side of apple compote.

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Cantina Terlano 2011 “Vorberg” Riserva Pinot Bianco – The fruit for this wine was sourced from a vineyard sitting between 350 and 900 meters above sea level. 1993 was the first year this particular wine was produced. It has a suggested retail price of $23. Golden Delicious apple aromas practically explode from the nose of this Riserva. Ripe yellow melon, apple, pear, bits of tropical fruit and a dollop of spices are each part of a palate that is dense, layered and generous in its wide ranging flavors and overall depth. Crème Fraiche, wet limestone, and pepper spice are all part of the finish, which is memorably long, persistent and mineral driven. This wine can be enjoyed now but it will easily age well for the next decade. If you’re looking for proof that Pinot Bianco can produce knockout wines with longevity, here’s the only exhibit you’ll have to enter into evidence.

Winter is here and everyone is drinking lots of reds; I know I am too. But sometimes you need a break from those to enjoy something different, and these three Pinot Biancos provide just that. They’re delicious and pair well with a variety of lighter foods; serve them to your guests with an opening cheese course or a beet salad as a couple of options. Instead of sparkling wine with brunch, these wines would be fantastic alternatives — each one would absolutely kill with Eggs Florentine. If you haven’t had Pinot Bianco before, what are you waiting for? You can’t drink Chardonnay every day. If you’re already a fan, add these three to your to drink list. You certainly won’t be disappointed and you may find a new favorite to share with friends. And ultimately, isn’t that what it’s all about?

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