2013 Chardonnay one of Fred Koeppel’s Top 50 of 2016

9 Jan 2017

50 Great Wines of 2016

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.


WineForNormalPeople: Smith-Madrone makes outstanding wine


Our thanks to WineForNormalPeople for taking a look:

September 26, 2016

The Spring Mountain District in Napa and its Shining Star: Smith-Madrone

Smith-Madrone makes outstanding wine. Obviously I love it for the quality but I also love that it’s not what you’d expect from a Napa Valley wine. Then again, after saying this about more than a few wineries recently I think it’s time to start changing my ideas about “Napa” as a blob and instead think about where in Napa a wine is made before I form an idea about what it’s going to taste like (you’d think that after all that preaching to my kids about not judging a book by its cover, I’d learn! Nope.).

About Spring Mountain District

Some of the most distinctive and finest vineyards in Napa are in places that most tourists who visit the Valley never see. These gems are nestled in the tall mountains that flank the valley on its east and west sides. Wines of these vineyards often defy the ideas that many of us have about Napa, and that’s why they’re so exciting to visit and taste.

Probably my favorite of all the mountain American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) is the Spring Mountain District in the western Mayacamas Mountains. In the 8,600-acre area, less than an eighth of the land is planted. Small vineyards grow on steep parts of mountains and in high meadows. These plots are set far back from the wooded, windy road that joins Napa Valley in the east with Sonoma Valley in the west. Unless you look carefully among the dark, earthy smelling, slightly mystical forests (you could swear you see fairies and trolls in those old trees!) you would never know that some of the best vineyards in Napa are here.

Just to make things extra confusing, there is no Spring Mountain peak: It’s a name for the district because the undulating, high terrain happens to have a lot of springs and streams. That said, the vineyards here are uncontestably mountain: the AVA hits a steep ridgeline that reaches 2,600 feet in altitude and dips at 400 feet. Just west of the town of St. Helena in Napa, the vines bask in daytime heat and hoard acidity during  cold nights, giving them terrific balance and structure that (more commercial) Napa Valley floor wines often lack.

To do viticulture right here, you need passion, dedication, and to march to the beat of your own drum. The vineyards and wineries of Spring Mountain District are for true wine lovers and winemakers – the 30 or so properties are run mainly by families and couples, who work hard to farm vineyards that yield dark colored, tannic reds, with earthy and distinctive fruit notes and some flavorful, yet balanced whites.

About Smith-Madrone
There are bigger names on this mountain than Smith-Madrone, but few are its equal. In 1970 Spring Mountain District pioneer Stuart Smith tromped around on a mountain in the District and after clearing the forest trees, including some beautiful Madrone trees (hence the name), Smith planted vineyards and opened the winery. His vineyards are on steep slopes between 1,200 and 1,900 feet, on well-drained, rocky, volcanic soils. Everything is dry-farmed – there’s no irrigation at Smith-Madrone so the vines dig deep to get water and nutrients. The grapes are small and flavor-packed as a result.

Stuart’s brother Charles Smith joined the winery in 1973 and today, the vineyard is 37 acres, mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon with Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Each grape variety is planted on land with a different sun exposure so the whites don’t get flabby and lose acidity in hotter sites, and the reds get ripe enough to make some seriously tasty wine. Stuart Smith is the viticulturist and enologist and Charles is the winemaker. They make about 4,000 cases of some of the most delicious wine in California.

I love them, but they may hate me…the story on vintage
So with this pedigree and with the review I’m about to give, I have to admit that I got off to a rocky start with Smith-Madrone. Because these wines really are small production and handcrafted, unlike other, larger wineries that issue that claim, and because the winemaking isn’t formulaic, some lots and some vintages won’t be as strong as others. It turned out, that for some reason, a few years ago I tasted a wine that was huge, oaky, and like a grocery store Chardonnay. I liked the Cabernet, but the Chardonnay was totally unpalatable to me because it was imbalanced (too oaky). I posted the review and upon reading it, Julie , the PR rep, called and asked if she could send another bottle because what I tasted sounded nothing like what she and others had experienced. Sure enough, the new sample was fantastic. An acidic, perfectly balanced Chardonnay with a judicious use of oak but nothing over the top or nasty. It was an excellent lesson for me in vintage variation and small lot wine, and gave me more respect for Smith-Madrone.

And another note…before I get to the reviews of the wines sent to me, I want to say another thing about Smith-Madrone: they are the best value for Cabernet in Napa. By a longshot. I would challenge you to find a Cabernet Sauvignon of the same caliber as the Smith-Madrone for $48 out of Napa. It isn’t possible. Most of this quality level are well over $60 per bottle. Get this stuff on your radar!

So, to the wine…

Chardonnay, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, 2013
Pale with thick legs and butterscotch, oak, tropical fruit, lemon, and guava aromas. The fruit and oak (butterscotch) came through on the palate but not in an over-the-top way. With excellent acidity, this wine is a food wine – restrained, bright, medium-bodied and best with something creamy (fancy mac-n-cheese comes to mind).

Drink or sink? Drink. Fabulous and the way oak should be used with the Chardonnay grape.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, 2012 $48
(I’m doing catch-up on wine samples and sadly, the Cabernet is already sold out from the winery, so you’ll need to look at online retailers to buy this stuff if you’re in the States)
As is common for Spring Mountain Cab – the wine was super dark in color. The aromas are unending – blackberry, blackcurrant with dark flowers, a touch of mint, and savory, sautéed herbs. There’s a distinct mineral note – not soil, but more like natural SPRING water (maybe it’s the power of suggestion?). The wine tastes like black plum, dark raspberry, and strawberry with distinct minerality. The texture is velvety, medium-bodied, and measured — so well balanced! Unlike some Napa Cabs, especially from the mountains, this wine does not have a heavy, hard finish. The tannins are softer making this a Bordeaux-feeling wine with Napa Valley fruit, if that means anything to you!

Drink or sink? DRINK.  This is one of the best vintages I’ve tasted from Smith-Madrone. I loved it.

So there you have it! Are you a fan of Smith-Madrone? Have I convinced you to take a look at Napa mountain wines in a slightly different way?


A day on the mountain with PullThatCork

Nancy and Peter Brazil (PullThatCork) came to visit and shared their thoughts here: http://pullthatcork.com/2016/smith-madrone/

Highlights include talking about Smith-Madrone’s history, the uniqueness of mountain soils and growing grapes on the slopes of a mountain, the hows and whys of row orientation, trellising, dry-farming and the Smiths’ approach to winemaking, with notes on the 2013 and 2014 vintages of Chardonnay and Riesling, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2009 Cook’s Flat.

“….When you taste Smith-Madrone wines you are tasting the style of wines the Smith brothers like to drink themselves, according to Charles…Skill, more than luck, accounts for the fine quality of their wines. They pay attention to every detail, beginning in the vineyard. They eagerly await the opportunity to begin tasting each vintage as fermentation proceeds; making observations, taking notes, planning changes for the next vintage. And while there is a overall consistency of style in the Smith-Madrone wines we tasted, there is definitely vintage variation, which is exactly as the Smiths would have it….”

and: “…Wine tasting at the winery requires a reservation, but you will be rewarded for planning ahead. The drive up Spring Mountain takes you away from the crowds of Napa Valley, the air is fresh and the mountain vineyards are beautiful. Wine tastings take place in the barrel room where the aromas of wine production accompany your tasting. If you are lucky Curly the winery dog will be there.  Taste these beautiful wines for yourself, I’m certain you will not be disappointed….”



2013 Chardonnay is “gorgeous”

Cindy Rynning at Grape-Experiences recommends the 2013 Chardonnay:

From Smith-Madrone Winery in St. Helena is this gorgeous estate grown Chardonnay, the entirety of which was barrel fermented and aged in French oak for 8 months. Aromas of tangerine, pink grapefruit, lemon peel, and almonds were absolutely lovely. Bursting with just-right acidity, notes of butter, oak, and citrus led to a lip-smacking finish that lingered.



92 points & Editor’s Choice for the 2013 Chardonnay

A sneak peek into the May 2016 issue of The Wine Enthusiast:

2013 Chardonnay

92 points, Editor’s Choice

This wine hails from a dry-farmed estate vineyard planted with 40-plus-year-old vines. An iconic place owned by the Smith brothers, this adds to their well-earned fame and reputation for elegant, interesting wines with a sense of place. Lemon and lime provide crisp, clean freshness, buoyed by apple, almond and pear, a light acidity always nearby.

Precise wines with a keen integrity of place

On a snowy day in Virginia, The Armchair Sommelier reflects on the 2013 Chardonnay and 2012 Cabernet: please read the post for the detailed context she provides….


Her overall summary: “Smith-Madrone makes precise wines with a keen integrity of place.”

As far as the wines:

Smith-Madrone Napa Valley Chardonnay Spring Mountain District 2013  / 92
100% Chardonnay.  Fermented in new French oak for 9 months.  Pale lemon-green color with a just a hint of legs (note the 14.1% ABV).  The nose is wickedly clean — like a walk in the mountains after a rain. Medium body, with flavors of green apple, pear and melon.  An impressive finish, with vanilla and hazelnut notes as the finale.  Strong, yet graceful . . . think Olympic gymnast.  14.1% ABV.

Smith-Madrone Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District 2012  / 92
82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Franc.  Aged for 18 months in French oak barrels.  Ruby to brick color, with some lightening at the edges.  The nose is cranberry, currant and grandma’s cedar chest (which happens to be one of the best smells on the planet, btw).  There’s a black-fruit freshness up front, followed by flavors of mint, cigar, and pine. Great structure and balance (absolutely nothing pulling my focus). Balance can be a slightly esoteric concept in wine evaluation.  It’s one of those you-know-it-when-you-taste-it kind of things, and I’m tasting it.  A bit softer than the 2011, but this is exactly that uniqueness and diversity of vintage Stu was talking about.  14.2% ABV.





Vinography tastes the 2013 Chardonnay and 2012 Cabernet

Vinography takes a look:

The Smith-Madrone Chardonnay breaks the stereotypical mold, and offers juicy bright citrus fruit without overt oak.

2013 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay, Spring Mountain District, Napa, California
Pale, bright greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, and a hint of melted butter. In the mouth, lemon zest, lemon curd, and pink grapefruit flavors mix with a hint of cold cream and fennel. There’s a woody fennel seed note in the finish. Excellent acidity and length.

On the red end of the spectrum……….I enjoyed the leaner style of the Smith-Madrone Cabernet, whose more savory qualities make for a restrained and elegant mouthful.

2012 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, green herbs, and pipe tobacco. In the mouth, black cherry, crushed green herbs, black pepper, and carob flavors turn decidedly earthy as leathery tannins enclose the fruit. Very good acidity keeps the fruit lifted and juicy through the long, earthy finish.



“Peaceful easy feeling” and more

Michelle Williams at Rockinred tastes the 2013 Chardonnay and 2012 Cabernet:

Almost exactly a year ago today The Daily Meal awarded Smith-Madrone Winery as their first ever winery of the year. The competition was fierce. One Washington winery, three California wineries, one Virginia winery, three French wineries, one Portuguese winery and one Australian winery. According to The Daily Meal there are about 8,000 wineries in the US, 28,000 in France and over 900,000 in Italy! Furthermore, The Daily Meal was very clear in what they were looking for: “Our intent was to choose one property or enterprise, anywhere in the world, that has not only produced excellent wines consistently over a substantial period of time but has also served as an innovator and/or inspiration in the wine business, whether dynamically or simply by example.” Therefore, you can clearly see that being chosen as the 2014 Winery of the Year is quite an honor! It is an even further honor for me to once again share with you two of Smith-Madrone’s latest releases.

I first introduced you to Smith-Madrone wines in my article last January titled, “Taking It Easy with Smith-Madrone Wines.” I really enjoyed their wines last year; that seems to be a trend because I have enjoyed them once again this year. The brothers Smith produced their first vintage in 1977; ironically there is still a world of American wine consumers who have never heard of them or tried their wines. However, everyone that does try their wines love them. They have a stellar reputation in the wine community as hard working, innovators that consistently craft high quality wines at lower than average Napa Valley prices.

And more….http://rockinredblog.com/2016/02/03/smith-madrone-bottling-that-peaceful-easy-feeling/


2013 Chardonnay: a beauty & more

Fredric Koeppel reviews the 2013 Chardonnay:


How do the Smith brothers do it? Normally, I would find a chardonnay that was 100 percent barrel-fermented and aged in 100 percent new French oak barrels (for eight months) undrinkable because of the influence of wood, but Charles and Stuart Smith, who produce only limited bottlings of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and riesling, manage, once again, to deliver a chardonnay notable for its bright, clean brilliance; its chiseled restraint that still allows for the grape’s natural richness; its lithe, supple juiciness. Perhaps this result has to do with the age of the mountain-side vineyard, where the vines were 41 years old for this vintage, or with the fact that the vineyard is dry-farmed, seeing no irrigation during periods of little rain, so the roots have to struggle to find nutrients and moisture, a sort of vinous variation on the “no pain-no gain” principle. In any case, the Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2013, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley, is a beauty. The color is pale straw-gold with a faint green tinge; classic aromas of ripe pineapple and grapefruit carry a thread of mango and cloves, with high notes of jasmine, talc and limestone. The intimation of limestone, and its aide-de-camp, flint, in the nose expands righteously on the palate, and combined with chiming acidity produces a chardonnay of crystalline clarity that feels lit from within. Despite the oak regimen, any wood activity lies in subtly shaping and sculpting the wine, a significance as gentle but urgent as a xummer zephyr. Flavors are more stone-fruit — peach, yellow plum — than citrus, and all elements devolve to a long, limpid and luminous finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. An essential chardonnay, exquisite in its parts, elegant in balance, dynamic in total. Production was 806 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional.