9 Jan 2017
by Fredric Koeppel
So, here it is, My Readers, the annual “50 Great Wines” roster, presently for the past year, that is, 2016. Not the “Greatest” of all wines or the “Best” of all wines, but a selection of 50 products that struck me as embodying everything we want in a wine: freshness, balance, appeal; depth, personality and character; an adherence to the nature of the grapes and, where possible, the virtues of the vineyard and climate. These are wines that leave aside the ego of the winemaker and producer for an expression of — not to sound too idealistic — an ideal of what a wine should be. I won’t belabor the process by which I arrived at this list of 50 wines, except to say that every wine I rated “Exceptional” during 2016 is automatically included. Did I leave out wines that I truly admired? Indeed, I did, because this list focuses on wines that I truly loved. Enjoy!
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2013, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Production was 806 cases. Exceptional. About $32.
The Somm Journal came for a visit: this is in their December issue.
Fred Swan describes not only the history but also the current releases, 2014 Chardonnay, 2014 Riesling, 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2009 Cook’s Flat. Take a look!
Fred Swan attended the Spring Mountain District tasting in San Francisco recently: an excerpt from his coverage is below.
Spring Mountain Wines You Need to Try
Spring Mountain wines come in all shapes and sizes. The Spring Mountain District AVA, located just west of downtown St. Helena comes with a variety of facings and altitudes. There is a variety of attitudes too; some wineries go for bold and ripe, others lean and bright.
On November 17, the Spring Mountain District held an appellation-wide trade and media tasting in San Francisco and I tasted most every wine in the room. Here are my thoughts and top picks from that event. Walk-around tastings aren’t ideal for scoring wines, but I’d rate all of the wines mentioned below at 91 points or higher.
Smith-Madrone Winery is a true pioneer of Spring Mountain wines and is still going strong. The 2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling Spring Mountain District is a fresh, dry, medium-bodied wine with alive with lemon-lime and under-ripe apricot. The 2009 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Cook’s Flat Spring Mountain District is a powerhouse of black currant and chocolate which drinks very well now but will age for 15+ years.
We’re off to a great beginning for the 2017 vintage with over 10 inches of rain in October. How’s that again??? We’re farmers first, so yes, every new vintage starts at the end of the last vintage and the 2016 vintage ended for us in late September – just the third vintage in our history when we haven’t harvested a single grape in October. The cover crop is green, fast growing and happy. And we are just as happy with the 2016 vintage. We had a lovely warm summer with no heat spikes, followed by an unusually cool harvest which allowed us to choose the exact day we wanted to harvest. The fruit was so beautiful, it seemed as though we should have been part of a Chamber of Commerce photo shoot. More importantly, the grapes had excellent flavors with great acidity. While not definitive, tastes of the young wine are very promising and may signal a great vintage.
We are pleased to offer you our first release of our 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon as well as our other limited production 100% Spring Mountain wines in time for the holidays.
2013 Cabernet Sauvignon: The Cabernet combines Cabernet Sauvignon (82%), Cabernet Franc (12%) and Merlot (6%) and spent 20 months in both new French oak and one-year-old French oak. It has a medium dark red color, with complex and layered aromas of cassis, black cherry, pomegranate; it is an arresting mélange of blue/black and red fruits. We think you can taste the mountain here, in the long silky tannins and profusion of forest floor notes as well as an array of spices and herbs. The wine is firm, integrated and again, it has that complex, layered flavor on the palate. The wine is just as good, if not better, the next day. $50 bottle
2014 Riesling: A nose of honeysuckle, orange blossom, crisp citrus fruits and minerality is followed by touches of white peach and pear. The wine is very dry, smooth, elegant with a bright acidity and a silky mouthfeel. The aftertaste lingers on the palate with a refreshing zing of crisp citrus fruits. This wine is made from grapes grown on our steep mountain slopes, honoring the international tradition of Riesling which thrives on hillsides. Our Rieslings are wines that match well with just about any foods or style, be it fresh or salt water fish, poultry and the white meats, or Asian or Indian cuisine, and of course it is exquisite by itself. $30 bottle
2014 Chardonnay: Refined and delicious, this wine offers aromas of apples, pear and almonds, hinting at the bâtonnage and barrel fermentation the wine underwent during aging. This is a big, toasty Chardonnay with a creamy middle, with hints of macadamia and pine nuts. It’s surprisingly lively and has a very long finish with layers of complexity and elegance. One great feedback we’ve heard over the years is that red wine lovers love our Chardonnays. $32 bottle
2009 Cook’s Flat Reserve: Our rather immodest goal is to produce the best wine in the world. We first started out wanting to make the best wine from the Spring Mountain District, but then thought that goal was too confined so we decided for the best from the Napa Valley, but yet again we realized that goal still seemed too confined, so our stated goal is to be the best in the world. Now, admittedly that’s a lofty goal; after all, Ch. Lafite Rothschild has a seven hundred plus year head start on us – but you have to start somewhere and why not at the top? Admittedly, we define what’s best, but then we taste a lot and trust our palate. When we first bottled the 2009 Cook’s Flat Reserve we thought it was spectacular.
By the way, this year we conducted two separate blind tastings that featured fifteen 100 point wines including the 2009 Ch. Lafite Rothschild. We were pleased that the 2009 Cook’s Flat Reserve placed first in one of the tastings and the 2010 Cook’s Flat Reserve placed first in the other tasting. We characterize the Cook’s Flat Reserve as complex, layered, elegant, sophisticated, stylized, balanced and ageable. Admittedly, these words are difficult to define, yet, in toto, we believe they do define a style which has all the attributes of a great wine. $200 bottle
Here’s what Gabe Sasso of The Daily Meal wrote when he included the 2009 Cook’s Flat Reserve in his “One of the Ten Best Cabernets in America:”
No surprise, brothers Stu and Charlie Smith hit it out of the park, but that’s what they’ve been doing for over 40 years. While it’s labeled as a proprietary blend, it’s composed of 75 percent cabernet sauvignon and the rest is cabernet franc, so legally it’s a cabernet sauvignon. Bits of toast and dark fruit dot the expressive nose. Blackberry, cherry, and more fill the palate. The flavors here are layered and complex. Dark dusty cocoa, continued cherry, and a hint of espresso are all present on the finish. Cook’s Flat Reserve is going to age well for at least 20 years, but if you’re impatient, pair with a standing rib roast this Christmas for a glorious experience.
Sam, Stu & Charlie
Mark Gudgel visited: here are his thoughts:
Charles, Stu, and Sam Smith have one hell of a good thing going high up in the Spring Mountain District of California’s Napa Valley. Last month my friend Zach, who manages Corkscrew, and I had the opportunity to visit them at their winery, and we agreed that the experience set a new bar for future winery visits. Normally I take this short spot to recommend a wine, but after a visit to their winery, I’m recommending the entire Smith-Madrone portfolio. The Smiths (a Madrone is a tree) just don’t miss; their wines are some of the best I’ve had in recent memory, and if you haven’t already tried them, I strongly recommend that you seek them out.
Upon our arrival, Sam was outside cleaning up and Charles was inside putting pen to ledger. He stopped working when he saw us and immediately engaged us in conversation; he appeared as interested in us as we were in him, asking all sorts of questions about where we were from and what we did for a living. When Sam came inside, he, Charles, Zach and I each grabbed a glass of Chardonnay and struck out side-by-side to tour the 200-acre estate, 40 of which is planted. Sam expertly navigated the rough, dusty trails, occasionally shifting into four-wheel-drive, while Charles pointed out the different vineyards, changes to the soil composition, and recognizable landmarks on the Valley floor far below. We maneuvered under stands of what he referred to as “young” redwoods, some 150 years in age, until we found our way to the spring. Sam stopped to pick fresh bay leaves and we chewed them on the way back, our Chardonnay long since having been imbibed or spilled.
Upon our return, we tasted different vintages of their wines and chatted about life. Sam grabbed a thief and pulled a few tastes from a barrel that got us excited about the years to come. When the evening began to wind down, Charles checked the time. “No sense leaving now,” he informed us. “The highway will be backed up for miles.” We took the cue, and spent another hour out front in folding chairs, sharing stories. We discussed everything from the season finale of Game of Thrones, to killing rattlesnakes, to Sam’s post-LSAT decision to skip law school and join the family business. All the while, Charles made a strong case for Hamlet as the best of the Elizabethan revenge tragedies, and we laughed and told jokes for quite some time. A new friend of mine often says that the personality of a winemaker invariably comes through in their wines. I would suggest that this is likely what makes the wines of Smith-Madrone so wonderful.
The best place to look for Smith-Madrone wines in Omaha is The Winery, where fellow Smith-Madrone junkies are known to congregate. Below is a brief run-down of what’s currently available:
Riesling: Think Alsace. This is the kind of Riesling you can pair with steak, lay down to age for a few decades, or both. I’ve had dozens of Rieslings from California, and this one is the best I’ve tried, period.
Chardonnay: Far more reminiscent stylistically of Chablis than of the Napa Valley from whence it hails, this is what subtlety tastes like. Lovers of cougar juice need not inquire.
Cabernet Sauvignon: In a place where Cab of this caliber can easily cost over $100/bottle, this is a solid QPR. Thanks to the generosity of some wonderful people, I’ve tasted vintages dating as far back as 1995 and can attest that this Cab drinks very well now but is also extremely age-worthy.
Cook’s Flat Reserve: Charles probably put it best: “We make this wine because it makes us really happy.” It made me really happy, too. A blend of 64% Cab Sauv, 22% Cab Franc, and 14% Merlot, this wine gets the best of everything during the winemaking process, and you’re sure to love it the next time you’re splurging.
There were less than 25 wineries in the Napa Valley when the Smith brothers started theirs. There had not yet been a “Judgment of Paris” to put the valley on the wine world’s radar, and the area was still planted primarily to fruit and nut orchards when their vineyards went in. Today, the short drive up from the valley floor is barely enough time to forget that below, the glitz and glamour of the wine industry is in full bloom, but at the somehow timeless Smith-Madrone Winery, you can experience the Valley for what it once was, and what it still so clearly wants to be.
Stu typically comes to Omaha every spring for Vin Nebraska, but that’s half a year from now. Until then, picking up a stock of their wines at The Winery would be a terrific introduction to Smith-Madrone (you’ll have to race me to the rest of the ’13 Riesling), however don’t stop there. With flights in the $300 range right now, a visit to Spring Mountain would be the perfect fall getaway, and in case the Smith’s outstanding wine isn’t draw enough, they’re pretty damn charming people to boot.
Fred Tasker writes about how French Bordeaux sets the standard and how American winemakers interpret the blending rules. He reviewed the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon:
Highly Recommended: 2012 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Calif. (82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot, 8 percent cabernet franc): aromas of cedar and oak, flavors of black cherries and black coffee, full body, hearty, smooth finish..