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Tasting notes from California

© 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on California.


Ted My first appointment in Mendocino was at Frey Vineyards. Tucked away at the head of the Russian River, the winery is so remote that the Mendocino growers association sent a minder to meet me off the highway and lead me there in convoy. They needn't have worried - my GPS knew where Frey Vineyards is situated - more or less.

Frey is a pretty magical place. Sun dapples through towering oaks across the garden and picnic area in front of the old wooden winery (made from reclaimed timbers naturally). Matriarch of the family, 84-year-old Marguerite Frey, tends to the roses and shrubs. A rag-tag assortment of dogs, children and passing wildlife gives movement everywhere, and on my visit a whole class from a local school was there, learning the basics of vineyard management. I met up with Jonathan Frey, right, viticulturist and general manager, and one of Margueritte's 12 children - seven of whom work for the business, as do several of their spouses.

If this is the good life, then Jonathan personifies it. Relaxed, smiling and in no great hurry to talk up his wines, we settled down at one of the picnic tables under the shade of one of those oaks. Jonathan's brother Paul is winemaker, and between them they have a record to be proud of in terms of organic and environmental farming and winemaking: the first US winery to be certified organic, the first to be certified biodynamic and one of the first to make wines without added sulphites. "Mendocino has a strong Italian presence, and it was the Italians who planted the early vineyards," Jonathan tells me. "They planted Italian varieties, but mostly varieties that could withstand the spring frosts in this region like Carignan, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah."

Mendocino's growth was slow until Napa took off in the 60s. Jonathan's father Paul was living here at the time and was advised by pioneering winemaker John Parducci to plant Cabernet Sauvignon. But there was an ulterior motive: the government had just announced a new dam project that would have flooded the Frey land, so the canny pair decided the compensation would be much higher if there was a premium crop planted there. The dam never happened, but the vineyards survived with the family deciding to make an bottle their own wines in the 1980s.

bottles There are 20 acres planted around the home estate, but Frey also buys fruit from 20 growers. There are 7,000-foot mountains just near the winery, and Jonathan says his Chardonnay and Pinot vineyards in particular benefit from the afternoon cloud and cooler conditions they bring. Indeed, Jonathan says he has seen conditions get a lot cooler over the past 15 years: "I'm not sure if it's global warming, but the spring weather has changed and has got a lot colder and wetter."

Unlike so many estates where to farm organically or biodynamically seems to be partly a business-led decision, it is clear that the Freys live and breathe it. Even their $7.99 range made for the Wholefoods chain is organic, sulphite and additive free. Their little piece of heaven, where bobcats and mountain lions are just some of the regular visitors, is constantly being tweaked in aid of the cause. They grow legumes and grasses as cover crops and fertilisers, and are planting barley and wheat to feed back to their cattle as a forage crops.

The charm of the Frey Vineyards farm certainly worked its magic on me during my few hours there. And I have to say the value for money in their low-priced wines is exceptional. Maybe we too can share a little bit of the Frey Vineyards magic.

the wines

UK importer of Frey Vineyards is See world stockists on wine-searcher.

Frey Vineyards, Mendocino Chardonnay 2011, California
Whole cluster pressed and made with a bit of lees contact, this os made using certified organic yeast. Lovely ripe and clean apple fruit, a delicate background nuttiness, made in stainless steel with a little oak contact through staves and micro-oxygenation, this has a subtlety and a creaminess and a lovely fruit quality. A nicely balanced wine with lovely quality, not overdone with fine savoury flavours and good fruit too. 88-89/100. $14.95 locally

Frey Vineyards, Mendocino Pinot Noir 2012, California
Mostly from neighbouring Potter Valley, this has a lovely pale cherry colour, and a delicately spicy nose with touches of herbs and vegetation, and a delicate cherry fruit quality. The palate has delicious fruit and raciness, a really nice crispness to the acidity and raspberry and redcurrant fruit. Really nice wine, a touch of creamy oak quality just adding rounding depth to the finish. Delicious Pinot at around $18. 89-90/100.

Frey Vineyards, Redwood Valley Syrah 2012, California
More closed aromatically than the Pinot, with a solid earthy note as well as a taut, blue/black fruit quality coming through. The palate has a deliciously silky texture and a lovely flavour profile, a bit of chocolate and a deep blueberry and plum fruit. Fine tangy plum-skin rasp of tannin and acidity gives some bit in the very dry, savoury finish. Terrifically impressive again at $14.95. 89-90/100.

Frey Vineyards, Pacific Redwood Organic Red NV, California
Classified as a Red Table Wine. Typically Carignan and Zinfandel goes into this, their non-vintage blend and the cheapest wine in their portfolio selling locally for $7.99. Pleasantly creamy raspberry nose, a touch herbal, a nice cherry freshness. There is a bit of rustic grip, and certainly a less refined wine, but what good bangs per buck and not veering into jammyness or clumsiness. 85-86/100.

Frey Vineyards, Field Blend Mendocino Biodynamic 2011, California
Mostly Syrah, Zinfandel and Merlot this was originally made specifically for Wholefoods, but is now on general release. Earthy, sinewy, the leaner character on the nose with a lightly gamy edge to good red fruit. Lovely dry, nutty and nut husk character and fine fruit quality with delicious fruit character again, quite creamy and ripe, but fresh as a daisy. 88/100. $12.99

Frey Vineyards, Dessertage Mendocino Dessert Wine 2002, California
The wine is made from Zinfandel, with an organic Chenin Blanc-derived spirit. 19.8%. Gorgeous nose, the ripe, creamy red berry fruit is delicious, the spirit very discreet on the nose, a nicely earthy feel. Beautifully sweet on the palate, a delicious coffee and dark, nutty character, with delicious cherry ripeness, a hint of pomegranate or something sweeter and more floral, and a really lovely Port style. 91/100. 50cl $32.00

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