All eyes have been on J Vineyards’ head winemaker Nicole Hitchcock last week when she was crowned Winemaker of the Year by influential magazine Wine Enthusiast. J Vineyards is one of the top wine estates in California’s Sonoma County, renowned for making top sparkling wines. Here we sample some of Hitchcock’s wines, what their USPs are and how they fit into the UK on-trade, plus wines from Louis M Martini and Frei Brothers, which also show the versatility of Sonoma as America’s viticultural cornucopia.
“This top-notch Zinfandel comes entirely from vines that were planted there in 1893,” writes McCubbin.
This week’s news that Nicole Hitchcock has been made Winemaker of the Year, at Wine Enthusiast’s 2022 Wine Star Awards, comes as no surprise to anyone who knows her work as head winemaker of J Vineyards and Winery. Since taking over the reins in 2015, Hitchcock has been steadily increasing the quality of the wines here, using a mix of traditional and modern techniques.
“It’s all about finding a balance of the inherent beauty and complexity of wine with the artistry and skill you can bring to enhance it,” she says.
On accepting the award she credited her employer’s long-standing championing of diversity and inclusion in the wine industry, a philosophy that has helped many winemakers like Hitchcock get the positions they deserve.
The wine estates of J Vineyard and Winery, Louis M Martini and Frei Brothers have one thing in common and that’s they all make wines in Sonoma County – a wine region that is twice the size of headline-hogging Napa.
Winemaking has been a key part of the landscape in Sonoma since 1812 when the first vines were planted and there are now 190 wineries working with 32 different grape varieties across over 60,000 acres of vines. It is the unique mix of cool Pacific coast and river valleys that makes Sonoma one of the best places on earth to grow grapes. There are 18 appellations in all, with three of the most revered being Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley and Russian River Valley.
It is from Sonoma that the following selection comes from – J Vineyards and Louis M Martini producing wines that work best with the on-trade and specialist retailers, while Frei Brothers has wines that work well with national retailers and specialists.
J Cuvée 20 Brut
Founded in 1986, J Vineyards and Winery quickly established itself as producers of quality sparkling and still wine in the Russian River Valley area within Sonoma County. This is a cool climate region, and the wines have trademark acidity and bright fruit. J Cuvée 20 Brut is an impressive sparkling wine made from the classic Champagne grapes – 51% Chardonnay, 41% Pinot Noir and 8% Pinot Meunier.
To look at the wine is light platinum with a fine bead; it has an attractive nose of ripe orchard fruit, toasty nuts, gingerbread and cream soda; the palate has real finesse, a crisp attack with lemon meringue pie, raspberry, wild strawberry and a mineral, salty edge to the long finish. If Champagne is the benchmark for classy sparkling wine then this is in that league. On-trade. RRP £29.99
Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2019, Frei Brothers
The Swiss national Andrew Frei planted vineyards in Sonoma County in 1890 when he first arrived in California. His two sons Walter and Louis took over the winery and named it Frei Brothers until they retired in the late 1970s, selling to E&J Gallo, which had been sourcing fruit ever since the repeal of Prohibition. Current winemaker Scott Johnsen works with a collection of growers across the region with relationships that go back 70 years and more.
The Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay is a wine that punches well above its weight – securing 89 points from Wine Spectator and winning gold in the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition. To look at the wine is medium gold; there are attractive aromas of ripe orchard fruit – apples, pears and a hint of tropical fruit; in the mouth the wine is warm, rounded and welcoming, with sweet vanilla notes, ripe orchard fruit, citrus with a hint of cream. There’s a nice balance to the wine. Majestic. RRP £18.99
Russian River Valley Chardonnay, 2020, J Vineyards
Gastronomically versatile, this premium Chardonnay displays great balance thanks to the bright acidity you get from Sonoma County. To look at the wine is medium gold; on the nose you find lots of complexity with fresh orchard fruit (golden delicious, Pear William), yellow peach, nutshell, coconut and hints of tropical fruit (papaya). In the mouth the wine is nicely balanced with a rounded, warm caress and a firm structure underneath with hazelnuts, coconut, butter and hints of sultana and ginger. The wine has been aged for nine months in French oak which is evident a little both in the aromas, colour, and texture on the long finish. This is a classic Californian Chardonnay in the modern sense. On-trade. RRP £29.99
Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, 2019, J Vineyards
Meticulous winemaking behind this approachable and elegant Pinot Noir with each plot and clone vinified separately before blending. To look at the wine is light ruby, almost see-through; you find pretty, intense aromas of ripe red cherries, pomegranate and red liquorice candy; the mouthfeel is warm and silky-smooth, a nice balance between ripe, red fruit flavours and hints of anise and cola blend with suggestions of toast and barbeque smoke.
Although the alcohol is 14.3% abv the balance is good, and the wine scores very high on ease of drinking. On-trade. RRP £32.99
Sonoma Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, 2018, Frei Brothers
Hot days and cool nights means that the Cabernet Sauvignon fruit used here ripens slowly which results in a rich, complex, classic Californian Cab. To look at the wine is deep ruby red; it has a rich, ripe nose of sweet blackberry confiture, cassis, plum with hints of tea leaf. In the mouth the wine is warm, smooth and structured with ripe, concentrated black fruit flavours (blackberry, blueberry, plum), soft fine-grained tannins and a dry, fine-grained texture on the long finish. 14.5% abv. Waitrose. RRP £18.99
Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, 2018, Louis M Martini
Another style of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon with more jammy notes. To look at the wine is deep ruby; you’ll find aromas of rich blackcurrant jelly, black plums, cedar and spice tin; in the mouth the wine is ripe, warm and smooth with bags of sweet, ripe black fruit balanced by a firm structure and an attractive sour, almost citrus note on the long, dry finish. 14% abv. On-trade & Majestic. RRP £19.99
Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, 2018, Louis M Martini
Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon can be distinguished from its richer Napa ‘cousins’ by the fine acidity and layers of spice and earth. The fruit for this assertive red comes from the West side of the valley, in Barrelli Creek Vineyard, which winemaker Michael Eddy describes as a hidden gem. Petite Sirah from the iconic Monte Russo Vineyard is also added in the blend to bring extra structure before the wine spends 17 months in French and American oak (29% new).
This is a big, rich, ripe and concentrated wine with aromas of blackberry, cassis, and hints of mocha. In the mouth the wine has a lot of power with powerful almost rustic tannins, bramble, plum and blackcurrant flavours held together by a big-boned structure with grippy tannins on an immensely long finish. 15% abv. On-trade & Vineyard Cellars. RRP £38.99
Monte Rosso Vineyard Gnarly Vine Zinfandel 2017, Louis M Martini
Monte Rosso is one of California’s Grand Cru vineyards, famed for its iron-rich, red volcanic soils, and this top-notch Zinfandel comes entirely from vines that were planted there in 1893. The wine is aged for 15 months in new French and American oak.
To look at the wine is deep cherry red, a lighter rim with some bricking; the glass reveals intense aromas of blackberry, blackcurrant, Sichuan pepper, cinnamon; in the mouth the wine is ripe, rounded, voluptuous with warm, silk tannins. Flavours include raspberry tart, with a not unattractive undercurrent of earth and noble wood. There’s a lot of structure here, a plush texture and fine thread of acidity which balances the wine well and lends the palate a freshness which is remarkable given this wine is almost 16% abv. Amazing to have this amount of elegance in a wine with such power. 15.9% abv. On-trade & Majestic. RRP £69.99.
Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Louis M Martini
Another blockbuster wine from this historic site. Deep blood red in appearance; on the nose the wine is clearly very fine Cabernet with enticing aromas of wild bramble fruit, mulberry, black cherry and dark chocolate; the mouthfeel is luxurious, ripe, with the power of the fruit making its presence felt; the tannins are ripe, integrated and silky but held aloft by a beautifully crafted structure and acidity that work so well in tandem. There’s a nice, long finish with a dry, finely meshed texture that encourages another sip. Very classy. 15.9% abv. On-trade & Vineyard Cellars & Pacific Wine. RRP £104.99.
For on-trade queries please contact Sarah Dixon, fine wine national account manager at E & J Gallo on email@example.com
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