A Tasting with Andy Peay of Peay Vineyards

A Tasting with Andy Peay of Peay Vineyards

Friday 6th July 2018
by Julian Campbell

We’ve been championing the wines from the ultra-remote Peay vineyard for a few years now. Planted in 1998, the vineyard turns 20 this year and quality levels have never been higher. 

The lion’s share of production goes to Pinot Noir, followed by Chardonnay and Syrah (alongside minute quantities of other varieties that don’t make it across the pond). The vineyard is nestled amongst huge redwoods, 600 feet above sea level, four miles from the coast and within the inversion layer. Effectively within the fog line, this a truly cool Californian vineyard whose year round temperatures are moderated in a meaningful way by the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean. Contrary to being further in-land, out on the coast the higher you get the warmer it becomes. At 600 feet you hit something of a sweet spot, cool enough to moderate ripening but not so affected by fog as to be constantly battling mildew.  Being 600 feet lower than the lowest vineyards in the nearby Fort Ross and Seaview AVA, (home to the likes of Hirsch, Flowers and Martinelli) means that average yearly temperatures are 12-13 degrees lower at the Peay’s vineyard. That’s a meaningful drop. It is hardly surprising they were repeatedly told that ripening grapes would be a struggle out here and indeed today their tiny yields are testament to this perilous spot. Truly, this is winemaking on the edge.

The beauty for the drinker is that their wines betray this struggle and proudly wear their site on their sleeve – these are not jammy, candied Californian show offs,  but cool complex delicacies which taste as if they come from a remote forested ridge close to the sea. Fruit is layered and detailed, and as we witnessed, blows off to reveal wonderfully complex base notes with time in bottle. The tendency to drink Pinot and Chardonnay like this young is understandable, after all they are often delicious and approachable from the get go – but for those with just a little patience, real complexity and secondary nuance can be achieved in less time than is often the case in Burgundy.

Raised from an early age on just such European wines, the Peay Brothers specifically did not want big ripe fruit profiles in their wines. They wanted the backbones of acidity and structure to provide a framework for nuanced complex flavours to expand into.  Initially starting with carefully selected clonal program of just Pinot noir and Chardonnay the range now includes an excellent estate Pinot Noir,  three fascinating ‘Cru’ Pinot Noirs , each a stylistic blend built around different clones and blocks from their home vineyard, two Chardonnays, a brace of Syrah and one or two other varietal side projects.  All fruit is their own and worked on by their team of 8 full time workers, a seldom found level of care for both people and grapes.  Winemaking is carried out by Vanessa Wong, a woman with a prodigious CV after stints with Lafite, Jean Gros, Hirsch and latterly Peter Michael, whose wines these Peay bottlings could not reassemble less.  As Andy remarks, she would have been too expensive to hire, so it was fortuitous that she and Nick hit it off so well. They were married in 2001.

The entire Peay approach centres on transmitting the qualities of their extraordinary vineyard. As such, Vanessa’s winemaking is restrained, invisible even, employing minimal new oak usage and only occasional use of whole bunch fermentation. The largest percentage we’ve seen is 8% in Pommarium, never undertaken dogmatically only when it will serve to make a better wine. Chardonnays are picked with good acidity, full malo is carried out and again new oak is used judiciously. Battonage is done sparingly if they feel it will improve the wine's mouthfeel.

We spent two days with Andy Peay in London two weeks ago and it confirmed the fact that this is one of the most exciting current Californian projects going.  Andy explained in detail that the coolness of the site was exactly what they were looking for back in 1996, “places that grew moss and ferns seemed like good indicators of water and cool weather….it seemed like madness at first, and those first few years living out there were kind of crazy”. They dreamt of making elegant, balanced, site driven wines but they soon found out that meant a struggle to ripeness and ensuing tiny yields. It soon became clear this was the price to pay to make the wines they’d want to drink.  When they found the site in 1996 it was literally off the winemaking map, the most northern and most remote site in all of Sonoma.

We tasted a number of older bottles during the course of Andy’s visit that proved what an astute decision it was to plant this land two decades ago. Of particular note were an ’04 Estate Chardonnay, an ’02 Pinot Noir and an ’05 La Bruma Syrah. Each and every one was on song. The ’02 Pinot was both the most mature but also perhaps the most surprising of the lot. A wonderful perfume of fallen beech leaves, cep mushroom and sweet briary berries spoke of old world complexity and only got better with air in the glass. On the palate this could easily have been austere and tired yet it showed an internal sweetness that allayed any fears of drying out, finishing on sous bois notes and forest fruit. This very first bottling, kindly sent over from their miniscule library stocks, was originally sold only to family and friends. It was holding up incredibly well. The ’04 Chardonnay was a wonderful bottle of wine in anyone’s book. A resplendently mature nose conjured aromas of fine old white burgundy in pre-premox days, nutty, lightly honeyed, salty smoky flavours underpinned by a spine of fine acidity and tension. It was so articulate, and as a 14 year old wine from the vines that were just 5 years old it was absurdly good. Again, it held up brilliantly in the glass and was still going strong the next day – clearly no flash in the pan.  Finally, La Bruma 2005 provided proof that through careful vineyard management and the nerve to hold back from picking until November, even ripe Syrah was possible out there, with all of the aromatic diversity and cool spiced fragrance of a northern Rhone.  At 13 years old this was sophisticated and assured. The 2009 was similarly impressive, though clearly from a warmer year and likely to benefit from a few more years in bottle. A final 2011 Chardonnay was starting to show what happens to these wines with just a few years in bottle – ripe, broadening flavours blooming above, with the grip and steering of fabulous acidity below.

There’s so much to get excited with these Peay bottles. As they start to get opened more regularly with proper bottle age, we foresee their status rising exponentially. Sadly the quantities that make it over here of all of these wines, but in particular the Pinot Cuvees, Estate Chardonnay and La Bruma Syrah, are tiny. For now most are available but it may not stay like that for long…