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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Geyser Peak Winery: Master of Many Styles


One of our favorite wineries in California is the Geyser Peak Winery in Sonoma Valley.  Geyser Peak is a long time resident of the Sonoma Valley, having been founded in Geyserville in 1880.  Geyser Peak has benefited in the past several years due to a strong winemaking team.  Australian Daryl Groom (famous for GROOM Shiraz out of Australia) joined the team in 1989.  In 1992, another Aussie came to Geyser Peak: Mick Schroeter, who had worked with Groom at Penfolds.  Mick won a number of awards at Geyser Peak, and the quality trend has continued for two decades under these two men plus assistant winemaker, Ondine Chattan.  Ondine is now the Director of Winemaking, after Mick very recently decided to make a move to Sonoma-Cutrer.  We had tried a few of Geyser Peak wines before visiting the winery for the first time, and when we went to Wine Country in the fall of 2005, we were sure to make a visit.  We were aware of the Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc at the time, but we weren’t as familiar with the red wines.  Geyser Peak has a tasting room on its main floor, and upstairs is a reserve tasting room which overlooks the barrel room.  During our first visit, we decided to go upstairs to the reserve tasting room and try the library wines, all of which were rich, full-bodied red wines.

We made our second visit to the winery back in April, and found that the main tasting room was relatively quiet, particularly given that it was late in the day on a Sunday.  Junior was our tasting associate and we started off with one of our favorites, their Sauvignon Blanc.  We like it even better than the Block Sauvignon Blanc, which is Geyser Peak’s reserve bottling.  We first experienced their Sauvignon Blanc many years ago at the Nantucket Wine Festival.  Daryl Groom was pouring wine at the event, and at the end of the last day of tasting, he gave us a bottle to try.  At that time, many California Sauvignon Blancs were too soft and overly grassy for our tastes.  Sauvignon Blanc is a grape that shows its best potential in a cool climate, and now it seems that more and more winemakers are selecting the cooler areas in which to grow Sauvignon Blanc.  Geyser Peak has always produced a crisp and acidic Sauvignon Blanc at an amazingly reasonable price.  We have been fans since that first taste.

We are club members at Geyser Peak and as is the case at many wineries, this allows a fair amount of flexibility in terms of tasting.  After the Sauvignon Blanc came a new release, a Pinot Grigio.  In the past we had been hesitant about Pinot Grigio from California or Italy.  While Sauvignon Blancs can be too green and grassy if not made properly, too many Pinot Grigios in the past displayed a complete lack of fruit and were very dry and astringent wines.  Happily this trend seems to be changing as many Pinot Grigios these days show a nice balance of fruit and dryness.  The Geyser Peak was not an exception.  The wine showed prominent lemon and citrus flavors, but shined with a bright acidity and eminent drinkability.  We were intrigued to learn that small amounts of not just Sauvignon Blanc, but also Gewurtztraminer and Viognier had been added, giving the wine additional complexity and a bit of spice.  This wine is also amazingly affordable at the same price point as the Sauvignon Blanc, and we hope that it begins to make its way into all your wine stores.

At the top of our red tasting was the Malbec, which is only available in the tasting room and to club members, the Reserve Alexandre Meritage, and the higher end Kuimelis Cabernet Sauvignon.  Generally the reserve reds can be very intense but the Kuimelis has that approachable softness as if a little Merlot had been added.  This fruit forward character is characteristic of Cabernet from the Alexander Valley of Sonoma. 

Geyser Peak has a strong offering of Block vineyard Cabernets such as Kuimelis and the Ascentia Cabernet which we wrote about previously.  However, we are always impressed when a winery gets a little inventive and tries new things, and Geyser Peak does that with its Petit Verdot and its Tannat.  Petit Verdot is a traditional Bordeaux varietal and is usually found in meritage blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Petit Verdot is valued for the deeper color and aroma and spice flavors that it contributes to the blend, with notes of violets, cedar and tobacco.  Tannat is a much rarer find.  It’s grown in both southwestern France and Uruguay and is know for intense tannins and more woody spices such as rosemary.  The warmer climate of California allows Tannat to ripen more fully than it does in France, with more fruit to balance out the sometimes rough tannins.  Both were tasting great at the winery, and we look forward to receiving more of these unusual wines in our quarterly shipments.

Unfortunately for us that day, Geyser Peak was out of some of the limited release offerings such as the Tawny Port.  However, we did sample two great dessert offerings:  the Late Harvest Riesling and the Sparkling Shiraz.  Usually when we mention dessert wines such as the Late Harvest Riesling, a common response from people is that they do not like sweet wines.  But these wines are not syrupy or grapey sweet, but a natural sweetness such honeyed apricots and nectarines with a pleasing mouthfeel.  For us, a nice dessert wine is a substitute for dessert itself, but they do pair well with almost any dessert, from a fresh fruit tart to chocolate.  The Sparkling Shiraz is something very new for Geyser Peak and we were excited to try it.   This is not a rose sparkler but more like sparkling red wine.  It’s actually a Shiraz that undergoes a secondary fermentation using methode champenoise, where sugar and yeast (the “liqueur de tirage”) are added to the wine prior to bottling.  The result is a deep red wine with nice small bubbles and lots of berry fruit flavors with a creamy nuttiness from the contact with the lees, or the yeast (22 months).   This was a very unique (and tasty) bottle of wine.  We wrapped up our very thorough tasting with Junior, bought a Pinot Grigio, Sparkling Shiraz, and Late Harvest Riesling and headed for dinner in Healdsburg.

As we have mentioned before, there is nothing better than good Mexican food and a margarita after a day of wine tasting.  After driving around Healdsburg square several times, we happened on just the spot: El Farolito.  Often times we have found that Mexican food can be “dumbed down” especially with regards to the heat.  On this occasion, that was not the case at all.  We had a flavorful fiery meal that was one to remember for our last night in wine country.

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