All too often, Zinfandel is a highway to a quick, cheap buzz. It’s often confused with white zin, rarely celebrated by wine writers aside from patriotic holidays, and it’s almost never aged.
However, there’s Zin, and then there’s a wine like Ridge Geyserville.
I had a chance to visit the property and talk with the cellar masters this past spring. Although I also tasted some spectacular wines of Monte Bello, I was looking forward to the tasting of old zinfandels dating back to 1973, including multiple pairs of Geyserville and Lytton Springs–could a Zinfandel age gracefully, I wondered?
The lay of the land
Ridge Vineyards, started 50 years ago in the Santa Cruz Mountains, has made Zinfandel wines since the early days. Although their first zinfandels came from the Monte Bello vineyards in Santa Cruz, the first Ridge Geyserville wines date from 1966. Today, the locus of Ridge’s single vineyard zinfandel production is their Lytton Springs Winery, north of Healdsburg in Sonoma. Although Paul Draper still holds the title of winemaker for all of Ridge, Eric Baugher makes the wines at the Monte Bello winery as well as the Geyserville wine. (John Olney heads the winemaking at the Lytton Springs winery–about seven other wines that have good distribution and other small-scale projects for their tantalizing ATP club.)
I arrived at the Geyserville vineyard in the afternoon on a March day when it had been raining constantly. The famed gravelly soils of the large vineyard couldn’t keep up, but the blooming trees lining the access road brought color the vineyard. So did the verdant cover crop–David Gates, head of Vineyard Operations, explained that they seasonally cultivate nitrogen rich cover crops such as legumes and then disc them into the ground to provide an organic boost for the soil. The vines are an assortment of varieties, co-planted in the vineyard here and there, and include mostly zinfandel but also carignane, petite sirah, and matarao (mourvedre). They are old–some as much as 130 years old–and stoic-looking as they are “head-trained,” or growing individually and not tethered together by a trellis. Here are a few photos:
Eric Baugher, maker of Geyserville and Monte Bello
David Gates, head of Vineyard Operations
But back to the tasting table. The secret of Ridge Geyserville’s success may well be the vineyard, but it may also have to do with the blend, which usually is about three-quarters zinfandel, twenty percent carignane, adding acidity to the wine. (The balance of the blend consists of the aforementioned petite sirah and mataro, although they are not always in the final wine.) This stands in contras to the Ridge Lytton Springs, which tends to be darker and slightly more tannic and broad-shouldered thanks in part to about twenty percent petite sirah. Although the wines are always north of 14 percent alcohol, the wear it well, with balance and poise. The primary fermentation occurs with native yeasts. Typically, the wines are aged in about 20 percent new American oak barrels.
The 2008 Geyserville, translucent in the glass, exudes come-hither aromas of dark fruit, herbs, spice and cedar. Although it still as firm tannins on the finish, the complexity, intrigue and lively acidity were able to later convert Mrs. Vino, who usually runs the other way when zinfandel is mentioned. Although it can be consumed with pleasure during these winter months, there certainly are rewards for tucking it away and trying one of the other, more accessible Rdige zins, such as the new/old East Bench, in the interim.
The 2005 (“40th Anniversary”) is more accessible today and reveals the benefits of a few years aging as the tannins have softened, leaving behind a gorgeous, brambly zin with delicious aromatics of plum and spice. If you can still find this wine at retail, it is worth snapping up.
Turning to the older vintages, the 2001 and 1999 were still drinking very well, giving me cause for reconsidering the ageability of zin. But when we arrived at the 1988 Geyserville, zinfandel moved into a new category for me, not just a serious wine, but one built for the long haul. It’s a wine showing signs of maturity but very much alive, really delicious and exhibiting almost Rhone-like character. But the 1976 shattered any preconceptions that I had about the age-worthiness of a zinfandel-based wine. It was drinking supremely well; certainly the fruits of youth had fallen away but the acid and tannin carried it the distance. Moreover, all the parts in balance and I preferred it to the 1973 Lytton Springs, which I found a little too dominated tertiary aromas.
We concluded our tasting with the Geyserville Essence 2007, a late harvest zin, Ridge-style only available at the tasting room or mailing list. Paul Draper said “we harvested grapes, not raisins,” but they still came in loaded with sugars at 41 Brix. The slow fermentation stopped at 13.3% alcohol and they did not fortify the wine so that is where the alcohol remains. However, there is residual sugar, making it akin to a single-vineyard port but without the heat from the higher alcohol. A sweet and surprising way to finish the day of many revelations.