Mountain Wines from Napa and Sonoma
March 10, 2014 by Christopher Matthews
Bacchus amat colles — Bacchus loves the hills. This piece of wisdom comes from antiquity, when the ancient Greeks, then Romans, figured out that hillside vineyards, despite greater degrees of difficulty (challenging topography, labor intensity, erosion, etc.), often produce more compelling wines. Better sun exposures. Better drainage (both soil and air). More vine stress. Cooler nights. Lower yields. Higher quality fruit.
At the March 2014 Wine Media Guild (WMG) lunch, held recently at Felidia’s in Manhattan, members and guests were treated to some modern-day examples of this received wisdom, from the “mountain wineries” of (mostly) Napa Valley and Sonoma County….As one might surmise, most of the wines, both at the walk-around tasting preceding the lunch, and those offered at the table, were Cabernet Sauvignon or Cab-based blends.
Nevertheless, the standout wine for me at the tasting was a white: Smith-Madrone’s 2012 Riesling. Napa is not known for Riesling — the climate is generally considered too warm for the noble grape to shine — but Smith-Madrone obviously has the right (mountain) location, as well as the knack. With classic, tangy stone fruit notes on the nose and palate, this is a wine of energy and zest, finishing long and bone dry. It’s certainly one of California’s best, and world-class in its own right.
Beyond the Riesling diversion, however, the crux of the lunch was mountain Cabs. And like many of my fellow tasters, I had expected big wines with massive tannins, oak, fruit and alcohol. Some elements of this profile played out, with intensity of fruit being a unifying theme, but the tasting showed much more nuance, balance and stylistic differences among the wines than I had anticipated, making for a compelling tasting. Kudos to Julie Ann Kodmur for organizing the wines and the tasting, and WMG member Peter Hellman for sponsoring.
Between the walk-around tasting and the lunch (which included bottles of older vintages brought by WMG members), we had some 30 wines to taste, with price points ranging from around $30 to $200, with many over the $100 mark. Big price tags, big wines and, in these more difficult and fragile mountain vineyard environments, big production costs, too!
Some tasting highlights:
Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($45): A pretty briar fruit nose, vibrant structure and a fresh berry fruit palate, finishing clean and long. Elegant. Comparatively Old World.
Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($200): “We are trying to make the very best wine in the world” with the Cook’s Flat program, said co-owner Stu Smith (who attended and spoke at the lunch). While it’s still early days yet for the 2007 vintage, a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cab Franc, the aromatic nose is full of high-tone eucalyptus and menthol, and the layered fruit and earth on the palate should develop beautifully with some cellar time.
Circling back to Riesling, however, Stu also brought along a Smith-Madrone Riesling from 1996, which was served over lunch. Now a pale gold, it exhibited great development, with petrol and nutty, marzipan aromas, but remained bright and fresh on the palate, finishing whistle clean. It’s proof positive for the Smith-Madrone Riesling’s pedigree and age potential.
The overall key, according to Smith, is that the mountain fruit brings with it excellent acidity, without which “wines are boring and dull” and will never age well. Period.
No argument here, Stu.
News from London, a retailer is quoted:
“Referring to the famously restrained styles of the 1970s and 1980s, Andrew says there are “new old things” coming out of Napa, and cites the long-established Spring Mountain winemaker Stuart Smith of Smith-Madrone as an example of finesse and elegance.”
BACCHUS AMAT COLLES
Bacchus may indeed love the hills, but I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a champion of valley-floor fruit. Another freebie older wine courtesy of the owners of TWWIAGE – a 1985 Smith-Madrone, Cabernet Sauvignon – has me rethinking my position on hillside versus valley-floor, at least as to regards the ageability of wines made from hillside fruit. Dry farmed at an elevation between 1600′ – 1800′ up on Spring Mountain (by the Napa-pioneering Smith brothers), I think this bottle was a great example of a hillside wine.
The Smith-Madrone is not the oldest Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (CS) that I have enjoyed, that is a distinction reserved for a 1982 TWWIAGE. However, it had to be the most stunningly alive, wonderfully structured and still strikingly relevant Napa Valley CS that I have ever had the pleasure of drinking. Subtle echoes of black-fruitiness, wonderfully understated integration of oak, with firm, assertive tannins…blah, blah, blah…this wine had all the winning characteristics of a well made, aged and balanced CS from anywhere on the planet. To me it was very reminiscent of a Left Bank Bordeaux. Loved it. Vinomaker, on the other hand, was not nearly as enthused as I was about this wine; he thought it lacked fruit, I thought he was crazy.
Not everyone enjoys older wines. Some people, and Vinomaker is one of them, prefer more pronounced fruit characters in wine. I like fruity wines myself, but I also like the complexity of older wines. I drank a lot of older, French wines growing up, so I have a little bit of experience with how CS, for example, bottle ages – whereas the average Californian is used to drinking younger, fruit forward wines. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I am cleverer than the aforementioned Californian wine consumer, but it does mean I have had a slightly more expansive older-wine education than most. In the case of the Smith-Madrone, I was able to balance the loss of some of the bold-fruit note (a minimal loss, I might add), for the the complexity that the wine had attained through bottle-aging for 28 years. Curiously, Vinomaker finished this bottle of wine the next evening and loved it: for him the wine had opened up and was now displaying an acceptable level of fruitiness. In my estimation, this beautiful, middle-aged wine had many more years of age-worthiness ahead of it. And look at that price tag, I wish I could buy this wine at that price today.
94 points, Cellar Selection: Smith-Madrone tends to fly under the radar for Napa Valley Cabernet, but discerning palates understand its place in the pantheon. Vintages aren’t always kind to this mountain fruit, but in 2009, the conditions were just right to produce a wine of immaculate structure. It has firm tannins and brisk acidity, and the flavors are classic, suggesting blackberries and cassis. As delicious as it is now, this will have no problem aging 10-15 years.
The Wine Enthusiast, April 2014, by Steve Heimoff
There should be more interest from consumers for well-put-together Rieslings like this. It’s dryish, low in alcohol, acidic and minerally, with effusive citrus, peach, white-flower and honey flavors that require some thought to fully appreciate. With only 12.8% alcohol by volume, it has a complex delicacy.
The Wine Enthusiast, Steve Heimoff, April 2014
A video review by James Melendez: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQcAwVboHmY
Want to mix up your wine-drinking routine and discover some exciting new producers? The folks who taste wine for a living are a good source for advice: while they’re working on curating restaurant wine lists, sommeliers keep track of interesting new winemakers and cool experiments from folks who’ve been at it awhile. We asked 17 somms from around the country about the wineries they’re most excited about right now—wineries to watch and new bottles to seek out, both in the US and internationally. Here’s what they had to say.
“On the domestic front, Smith Madrone…. very high on my list right now…..”—Juliette Pope, Gramercy Tavern, New York City