What: California produces more than 1,000 chardonnays every year. Many of them are ordinary, and a few are outstanding. Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are the two most prolific grapes in California; together they account for a third of the state’s wine production.
There are wide varieties of styles as well. Depending on the occasion and the food pairing, I can make a good case for the austere chardonnay aged in stainless steel or the warm, buttery chardonnay that spends months in oak barrels.
There is a lot to like about chardonnay, and if you spend enough it’s easy to find outstanding examples. But what really excites me is finding a bright and vibrant chardonnay like this one from Geyser Peak at such a low price.
Chardonnay is easy to grow – nearly every California winery makes one – but to make great chardonnay requires some skill. Where the grapes grow also is important. Not every vineyard is suited to growing chardonnay vines.
Cool-climate vineyards produce the best-balanced chardonnay, allowing you to taste the various components instead of just a blast of alcohol.
Geyser Peak takes grapes from vineyards in many coastal-influenced areas to get a beautiful complexity. The cooler areas add melon, floral and crisp apple flavors while grapes from warmer regions yield softness as well as pear and cantaloupe flavors.
Several chardonnay clones are used, but the most prominent are the popular Dijon and Rued clones.
In the glass, the wine is a beautiful pale yellow with pleasant floral aromas mixed with pineapple and lemon. Each sip brings another layer of ripe, juicy fruit flavors. The wine is perfectly balanced, with crisp acidity and a velvety mouthfeel. There is good depth to the wine, but it is still light and airy.
The winemaker blends several lots fermented separately, some in stainless steel and some in oak. This adds to the complexity of the wine, but the stainless steel lots keep it light and refreshing.
After many taste trials the final blend is selected and then aged sur lie in French oak. The wine is stirred monthly to add mouthfeel, texture and a nutty nuance. The wine also goes through malolactic fermentation to add to the creamy finish.
The final blend is 89.9 percent chardonnay, 9.3 percent viognier and 0.8 percent pinot grigio.
I have had several vintages of this wine, and they all have been good. There is some variation among vintages, but the winemaker clearly has a style in mind and tries to keep it consistent from year to year.
We had the 2012 vintage at the same time we drank the 2014, and it was still fresh and vibrant, with a little more depth. This is a white wine that will do well with a couple of years in the cellar.
Winery: Located in the heart of Sonoma County, Geyser Peak traces its history back to 1880 when it was founded by Augustus Quitzow, a pioneer in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. He chose a picturesque hillside spot overlooking Geyserville and the Russian River because it had a view of the famed Geysers Geothermal area. Visitors watching the steam billow from the geysers thought they had a “view of the clouds.”
After selling off its jug wine operation years ago, Geyser Peak has concentrated on using artisanal methods to make wines for everyday moments. They are known for fruit-forward, food-friendly wines.
The company has more than 100 acres of estate vineyards and access to several partner growers in Sonoma and Mendocino.
The new tasting room and visitor center is just outside downtown Healdsburg, on the way to both the Russian River and Dry Creek Valley appellations. It is open daily and offers a variety of tasting and food experiences.
Winemaker Ondine Chattan has been with the winery for 15 years, refining the distinctive style of the wines. She and her team produce a wide array of award-winning wines.
The winery has several price and quality levels starting with the California series that features sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The Appellation series features wines crafted from vineyards in the Russian River and Alexander Valley AVAs.
The Winery series lets the winemaker experiment with unique or lesser-known varietals. Available only at the winery, they include a sparkling rosé of pinot noir, a gewurztraminer, a petit verdot and some special cabernets. This series also includes the XYZin brand, allowing Chattan to work with zinfandel, which she says “inspires me like no other wine.” The Uncensored label also is in this group.
The Reserve series features cabs and cab blends using the best grapes from the best vineyards, fermented in small lots.
The winery is committed to sustainability. They use wine bottles that include recycled glass, turn stems and seeds into compost, and redistribute waste water. They are recognized for sustainable farming and fish friendly farming practices.
Goes With: We had this wine with a simple yet luxurious meal of king crab legs. We splurged and bought a box of these monster crab legs over the holidays, but when we started eating them I realized the legs weren’t as expensive as I had thought.
Crab legs come already cooked, so all I had to do was warm them. I like to put them in boiling water to keep the moistness in the meat, so I had to use a giant pot I usually use on the outdoor burner.
I threw about five legs into the pot and figured that would feed three of us. We barely finished one leg apiece and had plenty left over for crab meat cocktails the next two days. And the meat was delicious, especially dipped in warm butter and sprinkled with lemon juice. We added small salads and felt stuffed when we finished.
The Geyser Peak chardonnay tasted like it was made for crab meat. The crisp acidity made a nice balance to the butter-infused crab. A big, buttery chardonnay would not be nearly as good a choice. And as the layers of flavor unfolded in the wine, each sip made the crab taste a little different.
This would be a pleasant wine to sip on its own. I think it is even better with food. You could pair it with roast chicken, most crab and shrimp dishes and chicken with a creamy sauce.
Wine tasting: 5-8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, Wine World, 133 Georgia Ave., North Augusta; three whites, three reds and cheeses; $5; (803) 279-9522
Wine tasting: 5-7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, Kroger, 435 Lewiston Road, Grovetown; new wines presented weekly; free; (706) 619-3420
Wine and beer tasting: 5-7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, 5-7 p.m. Saturday, Jan.21, Vineyard Wine Market, 4414 Evans to Locks Road, Evans; (706) 922-9463
Wine tasting: 5-8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, Whole Foods, 2907 Washington Road.; five wines with snacks; $5; (762) 333-0260
Craft beer tasting and art auction: 7-11 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, Snelling Center, 3165 Washington Road, next to Edgar’s Grille, with food by Helms College culinary students; $75; (706) 840-7441