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Discovering Napa Valley's best pinot noirs
ONCE in a while - not often enough - one comes across a story in the world of wine which reminds one that the romance of wine still exists. You just have to search for it.
This is the story of Akiko and Ken Freeman who met in college, discovered they had a shared passion - wine and food - and went on to realise their dreams by founding their own winery, Freeman Winery in the Sebastopol area of the Russian River region of Sonoma in Napa Valley, California.
It was their Freeman Winery's 2013 Ryo-Fu Chardonnay that was served at the recent state dinner hosted by President Barack Obama to welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the United States. A Californian Chardonnay made by a Japanese lady wine maker served to the prime minister of Japan by the president of the United States of America. A romantic story indeed!
2013 Ryo-Fu Chardonnay, Freeman Vineyard & Winery
A glinting medium-dark golden colour, with a deep aroma of citrusy fruit and a tinge of oak. Medium-full bodied, full of very ripe rich citrus, with a modest amount of oakiness characteristic of Napa Chardonnay which was well counterbalanced by good freshness, good medium length finish leaving the palate refreshed. A very good Napa Chardonnay indeed.
2014 Yu-Ki Estate Pinot Noir, Freeman Vineyard & Winery
This 2014 pinot noir is their first ever pinot noir from the Yu-Ki Estate which Ken and Akiko bought in 2007 and planted with their favourite Dijon Pinot Noir clones.
A deep red colour, with hardly any trace of brown. Rich fresh aroma of perfectly ripe pinot noir, more intense than the aroma of the accompanying Burgundy Chambolle Musigny 1er cru Les Fuees 2005, J F Mugnier. Similarly, the palate of the Freeman is a more lush, very ripe fruit with good acidity and freshness. This is certainly one of the best Napa Valley Pinot Noirs I have tasted. I cannot recall ever tasting a Napa Pinot Noir which comes so close to its French cousin.
These two Freeman wines were a startling revelation. I was taken aback by the Chardonnay right from the first taste. Absent was the heavy oakiness which one had become accustomed to with Napa Valley Chardonnays. There was good ripeness of the Chardonnay, a light touch of oak and a good minerality and freshness on the finish. Refreshing.
The Freeman Vineyard Winery visit was the last of our Napa winery visits, arranged at the last minute per kindness of our Japanese friends from Tokyo, the previous Japanese ambassador to Singapore Takaaki-San, who urgently sent a text message to us on the first day of our Napa visit that we had to visit Freeman Winery. (The closest to these Freeman pinots I have encountered in the past have been those from William Selyem Winery, also in the Russian River Valley, which at the time (20 years ago) was Napa's benchmark pinot noir.
Freeman's production concentrates heavily on pinot noirs, a total of six different cuvees - Gloria Estate, Keefer Ranch, Russian River Valley, Akiko's Cuvee and finally, Yu-Ki Estate - but only one Chardonnay, Ryo-Fu. Their Gloria vineyard is the vineyard directly around the winery. Yu-Ki vineyard is near the Sonoma Coast, just five miles from the Pacific Ocean and at an elevation of 1,000 feet. Organic and biodynamic farming is used throughout both vineyards. The focus is centred on cool climate pinot noir and Chardonnay. Total production is small, and deliberately kept so, so as to be able to concentrate on quality as against quantity. Total production is kept below 5,000 cases. And there is no question that their philosophy has been eminently successful!
I intentionally confined my winery tour in Napa to a very small number of wineries this time, two per day and hence only five wineries over two-and-half days. This leisurely programme allowed for more time at each winery, thus reducing the wear and tear on nerves by not having to rush around. This leisurely pace also allowed for a better assimilation of what we saw, heard and tasted.
I was especially pleased with our visit to Freeman Winery because at long last I have found a Napa pinot noir which compares very well with its Burgundian counterpart. Its hotter climate parentage is clearly discernible and expected in its greater lushness and ripeness, but this is well balanced by good freshness and acidity. Given that Freeman has only been around 15 years, their wines display an outstanding quality, both white and red. The vines are still youngish. There is little doubt that we can expect greater things to come, given their philosophy, their infinitely careful choice of location of vineyards, planting regimes, vineyard management, wine-making, and provenance. And add to that, the Japanese ethos and attention to detail, plus their national pride. These are wines worthy enough to stand side by side with their Burgundian counterparts.
Indeed, the previous night I drank the 2014 Yu-Ki Pinot Noir side by side with one of my benchmark burgundies, 2005 J F Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny 1er cru les Fuees and the Yu-Ki stood up very well. Its hot climate origin was evident in its greater degree of ripeness, its greater density, lacking the transparency so characteristic of the best of red Burgundies. But then the Chambolle Musigny was not really a fair comparison. A better comparison would have been with a Morey St-Denis or a Vosne-Romanee.