Frei Brothers Alexander Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Though located in the north of Sonoma County, the Alexander Valley is one of the warmest
of the Sonoma appellations, since the area is sheltered from cooling Pacific Ocean influence
by a chain of low hills. The classic Cabernet Sauvignon of Bordeaux is similarly sheltered
from Atlantic influence by low forested hills, but the similarity ends when you compare the
unreliable harvest-time weather of Bordeaux with the generally predictable conditions in
Sonoma. Unless the weather plays tricks, the broad alluvial plain of the Alexander area
provides an ideal forum for Cabernet to ripen to full phenolic complexity. In 2005 the
Sonoma vintage pushed into October unmolested. The resulting $24 Frei Brothers Cabernet
(with 3% Merlot) showcases the combined benefits of land, weather and grape without the
The wine is a deep ruby with violet edges. The nose brings no surprise, just satisfying cassis, blackberry jam, and sweet oak. Many of the grapes are fermented from uncrushed whole bunches and then handled rather gently to work around Cabernet's tendency to generate excess bitter tannins. The wine is aged an average of 14 months in a mix of French, European, and American barrels.
This Cabernet is decidedly dry, yet at 13.8% alcohol is not setting any heat records. It has good “berry-forward” acidity. The tannins have force but with burnished edges: a blunt object you expect to hear from down the road. The palate first experiences fruit: cassis, blackberry jam, strawberry, and concentrated black cherry. The ripe extraction is mouth-filling. The second wave is a combination of sweet oak, chocolate, vanilla and some tobacco. It is this element that shepherds in the lasting finish.
The tannins direct the show at the end; they come back as you knew they would, nicely drying and processing the chocolate and vanilla to give the sensation that you have just finished devouring a rather well made confection. While a lot of “chocolate” in red wine does little more than make you wish you had the real thing, this wine brings that essence of Venezuelan Criollo*. If there is science behind this level of flavor authenticity, it certainly devolves on the ability of the Alexander Valley Cabernet to ripen in an unrushed setting. In keeping with the concept of patience and leisure, this is the kind of wine you want to share with a good book and an expensive leather chair. One caveat—and this fits in with the concept of patience—I aerated this wine a solid three hours before I stuck my nose into it. Of course this wine will complement the usual protein foods, like steak, generally associated with Cabernet, but for my money, I want to enjoy it on its own.
*For those of you who just don't know, Venezuelan Criollo is the best chocolate in the world, in the same way that Cuban cigars are the finest, Italian San Marzano tomatoes the sweetest, and American girls the prettiest.
Cabernet Sauvignon—as a grape and as a wine—sets the standard, as long as winegrowers and winemakers don't get it all wrong.
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman