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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.
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?