October 18, 2012 Musings of a winemaker: A visit to Smith-Madrone
I had enough readers ask about my recent visit to Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery in the Napa Valley (and the engaging tour and tasting run by Charles F. Smith), that I thought I would include some of the notes I took from that very pleasant Saturday afternoon. If you’re interested in visiting, it’s always best to make a reservation via the website.
If you’re going there, the trip includes a 15-minute drive on a narrow, winding road up Spring Mountain. At the top, the views are terrific.
The first wine was Chardonnay. It’s worth noting that Smith uses little to no wine jargon in his chats and he made no attempt to tell us what tasting notes to watch for as we sipped. Here’s what Smith had to say as he led us out the door to look at the grapes growing closet to the building.
From so-so Pinot to very good Chardonnay:
I want to show you where the wine you’re tasting comes from. It comes from this block right here. This is Chardonnay that was planted by us as Pinot noir back in 1972. There wasn’t any good Pinot noir being made in the United States, and over the 10 years we made the stuff we didn’t do too much to change that. In other words, it was an experiment that didn’t turn out too well. We only made one good Pinot noir in about 10 years. So it ended up being grafted over to Chardonnay in the late ’80s.
Overgrown vineyards and over-sized olive trees:
There was vineyard here before the turn of the century. These are olive tress that were planted in the 1880s. As far as I know, olive trees just don’t get bigger than that – they’re enormous by olive tree standards. I don’t think they’ve actually grown much in the last 40 years. Although these were planted in the 1880s, the old place was abandoned around 1910. By the time we bought the property, they had been un-pruned for 60 years – and we certainly haven’t pruned them. The grapevines were gone and the forest had essentially reclaimed everything. We started clearing everything off and by the end of the summer of 1972, we had planted 20 acres around the winery.
Pricy French oak barrels are worth it:
With Chardonnay, we’re pretty much dedicated to French barrels. There are American barrels, Hungarian barrels, and you can get barrels from Pennsylvania, Missouri and so forth. Unfortunately, I think if you’re really dead serious about Chardonnay, you’ve just got to go with French. Occasionally here and there you’ll see people make Chardonnay in American oak. It turns out pretty well, but I think you’re losing a little bit. We would happily use American oak barrels if they produced wine that was as good because they are only $350 a piece and French barrels are about $1,000 each. The Napa Valley is about nothing if it’s not about quality, so we just have to spend the difference. It’s kind of hard to explain. The American barrel gives it a kind of punchy, racy, aggressive quality. French barrels are made in a different way. One of the things they do, after they cut the oak trees and split them along the grain, is to leave the raw material and they simply stack these in giant piles in huge drying yards where they sit out for three to four years. It’s expensive. It takes a long time. But the French believe this has a lot to do with why their wood is better. They do it the slow, old method and it’s expensive, but I think they’re worth it. Barrels are surprisingly difficult to make. Each one has its own fingerprint. It’s a serious skill to make a barrel and the French do beautiful work.”
Blending wines for the Cabernet Sauvignon:
The blend is 6 percent Cabernet Franc and 9 percent Merlot and the blend varies from year to year. The rest is sold as bulk wine. You may be surprised to know that there is an enormous market of wine that moves from winery to winery. There are people out there making a very handsome living connecting buyers and sellers. Our policy has been to not make Cabernet Franc and Merlot separately and bottling it, but we’re actually thinking about changing that.
Riesling and alcohol content:
After noting the wide range of high and low alcohol content in various Rieslings, Smith said, “These alcohol differences make an enormous difference in the way the wine presents itself to you. If you get too high, you get powerhouse stuff and if you get too low it gets softer. For us, we think 12.5 percent is just the ticket. All of these sugar levels, if they’re good quality grapes from a good producer, will age for very long periods of time – shockingly long periods of time. We opened up a 30-year-old German Riesling and it was spectacular. It’s very difficult to describe what happens to them – except something really interesting happens. They can be spectacularly tasty. No one, of course, keeps Riesling this long. Good quality Rieslings, when they’re young, are supposed to be tasty.”