Variety is king in Australian wine

Australia is a diverse country whose various wine regions and wine styles quite literally offer something for every palate, price range and occasion. Shiraz is what a lot of people think of first, and with good reason — they make a wide array of lovely ones in diverse styles. However, that’s the tip of the iceberg in Australia. Whether it’s white wine or red wine, hot or cool climate, made in gentle or bold and brawny styles, Australia has something to offer. There is also quite a bit of value to be had on our shelves coming from the shores of Australia. Here’s a look at three wildly divergent wines, each delicious in its own right, representing its region and variety well, and all reasonably priced.

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Brokenwood 2013 Hunter Valley Semillon – This winery has been around for more than 40 years, and they have been featuring Semillon in their portfolio for more than 30 of those years. The fruit for this wine was picked by hand, and is entirely Semillon. Fermentation and aging was handled entirely in stainless steel. This wine has a suggested retail price of $20. Honeydew melon and Granny Smith apple aromas are prominent on the nose. Lemon zest, bits of nectarine and white pepper are all prominent on the palate, along with hints of grapefruit. The finish is crisp, clean and refreshing with continued citrus notes and a gentle hint of brioche. This wine works well as an aperitif or paired with a lighter foods. Semillon in this style is eminently age-worthy — don’t hesitate to lay this one down for a decade or more and watch its fascinating evolution.

Innocent Bystander 2012 Pinot Noir – Winemaker Phil Sexton has been producing wine in the Yarra Valley since the late 1990s. The area, and the fruit it produced, inspired and continue to inform the Innocent Bystander line. The fruit was picked by hand and destemmed. It’s entirely Pinot Noir. Fermentation took place with native yeasts; 60 percent was aged in stainless steel, the balance in oak. This wine was bottled unfiltered. It has a suggested retail price of $20. Ripe strawberry and mushroom aromas light up the gorgeous nose of this Pinot Noir. The palate here is studded with red fruit, tinged with bits of black fruit as well. Cherry is the dominant characteristic and it’s joined by hints of cinnamon. Sour cherry, rhubarb, earthy chicory and black pepper fill out the gentle finish. This is a pretty good example of Pinot Noir that tenderly envelops your senses and keeps you coming back for sip after sip. At less than $20, if you shop around, it’s a terrific Pinot for the price.

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Imprimata 2012 McLaren Vale Grenache – The relatively new producer has been making wine in McLaren Vale, where owner Ben Hammerschlag started looked for the optimal property in 2006. This offering is 100 percent Grenache. Fermentation took place in stainless steel tanks, and barrel aging followed over a period of 5 months in 2 to 3-year-old barrels. This wine has a suggested retail price of $25. Raspberry, red plum and a subtle hint of charcoal are all part of the super-engaging nose of this Grenache. Purple and red fruit flavors fill the palate; all manner of berry and plum flavors are on display here. Savory herb, black pepper and hints of stewed red fruits emerge on the finish, which has terrific length. This wine has power, grace and the ability to pair up with an incredibly wide array of foods.

Certainly, we should all keep drinking Australian Shiraz; they do a bang-up job with it. However, if the only thing from Australia you’re drinking is Shiraz you’re missing most of the picture. There’s a whole world of wine out there to enjoy. Think of the trio above as a mini introduction into some of the other wines and styles that Australia offers to the wine lovers of the world. Don’t stop here — keep tasting and drinking your way through the deliciousness. Find a grape you love and explore it from a variety of Australian regions, or find a region and explore various wines from there. In either case you’ll learn a lot and have a tasty time.

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Vino Dei Fratelli offers a broad array of tasty Italian values

Lately, I’ve tasted quite a bit of Italian wine. The wines I’ve tasted recently represent a real cross section of what’s available from Italy — they’re all over the spectrum in terms of price points, grapes used and style. And at the end of the day that’s really a microcosm of what Italy produces, which is great variety. The Vino Dei Fratelli line features wines made all over Italy, and made by several families that vary by area. Basically each family specializes in making wines from varietals that are indigenous to their area. By sourcing from a host of family producers throughout Italy, Fratelli is able to offer genuine regional wines at reasonable price-points under one umbrella. Here’s a look at a handful of their newest releases that I feel represent very good values.

Vino Dei Fratelli 2011 Pinot Grigio – All of the fruit for this wine came from the Veneto region, and is 100 percent Pinot Grigio. Fermentation took place over a period of 20 days in stainless steel tanks. About 1,500 cases were produced and the suggested retail price is $12.99. Apple and yellow melon aromas are present on the nose of this Pinot Grigio. The palate shows off a continued parade of fruit characteristics with Yellow Delicious apple and bits of mango making their presence known. Lemon and tangerine zest, white pepper and a touch of Granny Smith apple are all in play on the crispy finish. This refreshing wine shows off fine varietal character for its price category. I found that this particular Pinot Grigio was at its best ice cold. It’s tasty all by itself but steps up when paired with light foods.

Vino Dei Fratelli 2011 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – The fruit for this wine came entirely from the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOCG region. It’s a 100 percent varietal wine. After harvesting and manual selection, the choice grapes were de-stemmed. Fermentation took place in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. Three months of bottle aging followed prior to release. About 1,500 cases of this wine were imported, and it has a suggested retail price of $11.99. Dark violet aromas lead the nose here along with interlaced red and black raspberry fruit characteristics. Sweet, fresh, black fig leads the juicy palate along with hints of blackberry and pepper spice. Montmorency cherry and dried date notes show up on the finish, along hints of rhubarb. This Montepulciano craves food and will work well with casual foods such as charcuterie, wings, simple pastas and the like.

Vino Dei Fratelli 2011 Primitivo – All of the fruit for this wine was sourced in the Southern Italian region of Puglia. It’s composed entirely of Primitivo which is a close relative to Zinfandel. Fermentation in a temperature-controlled environment took place over 15 days. Malolactic fermentation followed by aging in stainless steel tanks. About 1,500 cases of this wine were imported and it has a suggested retail price of $14.99. Fresh raspberry and blackberry aromas leap from the nose of this Primitivo. The charming palate of this wine is laced with continued blackberry, not to mention blueberry as well as red and black plum. Bits of earth and sweet chocolate emerge on the finish of this fruity, juicy and simply pleasing wine. Medium tannins and solid acid provide nice structure. This Primitivo is just a touch rustic in nature, which adds to its charm. It’ll work well with ribs, burgers, pulled pork or just about anything you pull off your grill or out of your smoker.

Vino Dei Fratelli 2011 Chianti – This 100 percent Sangiovese wine was produced from entirely Tuscan fruit. Temperature-controlled fermentation took place over 12 days, and aging in stainless steel occurred over 8 months. About 6,000 cases of this wine were made and it has a suggested retail price of $14.99. Leather, violets and tobacco aromas are all in evidence on the nose of this 2011 Chianti. Cherry flavors continue on the palate where they dominate things and are supported by underlying bits of dried wild strawberry. Pomegranate and a hint of dried red apple emerge on the finish, along with a tiny bit of black pepper. Firm acidy and medium tannins are present. This is a classic red sauce wine. Pair it with anything covered in a good Marinara or Bolognese, including a slice of Pizza on a Tuesday night, for a delightful match.

Italy as much (if not more) than any other country is food-obsessed. Part of that is a glass of wine with their meals. These four examples from Vino Dei Fratelli remind me of precisely the kinds of wine that Italians are drinking on a daily basis. These are well made, local offerings, aimed at youthful consumption. They’re also attractively priced for regular drinking. Look for these on the shelf at your local wine shop and take them home so that you can drink just the way regular Italians do every day.

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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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