2013 Cabernet included in a look at Napa’s mountain vineyard-wineries

The July issue of The Wine Enthusiast looked at Napa Valley’s mountain wine growing regions.

The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon was reviewed:

93 points: From dry-farmed estate vines, this savory, classically styled red is dusty in cedar, dried herb and peppercorn, incredibly inviting and nuanced. It speaks quietly of the forest which surrounds its estate, a complex, balanced landscape of subtle, elegant flavor and intriguing length. Editors’ Choice.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Mastering Napa’s Mountain Appellations

Discover what links Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley’s highest mountains: Howell, Diamond, Spring, Mount Veeder and Atlas Peak.

BY VIRGINIE BOONE

Early in the history of the Napa Valley, before the absurdity of Prohibition, grape growers raised their sights. With many hailing from Europe, they understood how wine grapes love to dig deep into hillsides and mountains.

Those pioneers—Jacob Schram, the Beringers, Charles Lemme and the Christian Brothers—gave way by the 1950s to a new generation. Such innovators as the McCreas, Al and Boots Brounstein, Dr. Jan Krupp, Piero Antinori, the Smith brothers, Bob Travers, Sir Peter Newton and others believed there should be distinct appellations for five of the Napa Valley’s highest mountains: Howell, Diamond, Spring, Mount Veeder and Atlas Peak.

After decades—sometimes centuries—of toil, the Cabernets from these hard-to-work vineyards are now reaching their peak potential.

What links the Cabernet Sauvignons from these mountains are their intensity and structure. Mountain fruit is often compact and concentrated, its berries tiny from seasons of struggle and loaded with powerful tannins that take time to unravel. There’s also a distinct spectrum of earthiness in these wines, a product of their wilderness of forest and rock.

Mountain harvests tend to happen later, which allows winemakers to pick for flavor and at maturities that are ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. Here’s how these mountain appellations within the Napa Valley differ, and how they don’t.

Spring Mountain District

Hidden in plain sight above the town of St. Helena on the eastern side of the Mayacamas, the Spring Mountain District became an official appellation in 1993. The thick presence of forest and the springs throughout the mountain give the area its name and personality, a world away from the valley below.

The appellation lies mostly along the winding Spring Mountain Road, definitely off the beaten track. At its top, it connects with the border of Sonoma County, near the home of Pride Vineyards which straddles both Napa and Sonoma.

The region’s Cabernet Sauvignon roots run deep. It’s said that La Perla Vineyard was the first planted here, by Charles Lemme in 1874. The land has been continuously farmed, and even withstood Prohibition because it was hidden so far up in the woods. It’s now part of Spring Mountain Vineyard, and the original stone La Perla Winery still stands.

The Beringer brothers planted nearby in the 1880s. But phylloxera and Prohibition put a stop to Spring Mountain’s rise until the 1940s and ’50s, when the McCrea family founded Stony Hill Winery. They planted on steep hillside vineyards terraced between thickets of trees, a common theme.

Spanning 500 to 2,600 feet in elevation, the appellation is 5,000 acres. Less than 10 percent of that acreage is planted to grapevines; most is steep and forested. Sedimentary and volcanic loam soils are the norm, typified by high drainage and low fertility.

Newton, Cain, Keenan, Barnett, Smith-Madrone, Terra Valentine, Spring Mountain Vineyard and York Creek Cellars are among the longstanding adventurers here. Lokoya now bases itself here in a grand tasting estate that surrounds its Yverdon Vineyard at 2,100 feet above sea level.

“Complex and textural would be my summary,” says Newton Vineyards’ Rob Mann of the Cabernet here. “Spring Mountain has an incredibly diverse combination of soil types, aspect, slope, altitude, varietal mix, planting density and vine age. Within one vineyard, depending on the site, you may have four weeks difference in ripening from one plot to the next, planted to the same variety.”

West-facing slopes can be barren and dry, supporting low scrub and live oak, and winemakers must be careful not to let fruit cook in these areas. An adjacent east-facing slope 100 feet away can be cooler and more humid, supporting oak and redwood trees. Slopes are often too steep and cool to ripen red grape varieties.

“The wines are rather intellectual and red-fruit based, with an alluring textural and savory structure, and can be incredibly complex,” Mann says.

In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux reds, the land is planted to such varieties as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sémillon, Petite Sirah and even traditional Port grapes like Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cao and Tinta Roriz.

Smith-Madrone’s Stu Smith and his brother, Charlie, settled on Spring Mountain in 1970, intrigued by mountain grapes. They were preceded by Stony Hill, which set up shop in 1943 off Highway 29. Around 1952, it added a commercial winery to the property, planting Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Sémillon, varieties the family still tends.

http://www.winemag.com/2017/05/30/mastering-napas-mountain-appellations/

Pioneers on the mountain

Sommelier Karl Kazaks profiled the winery in the July issue of Wine & Craft Beverage News:

http://wineandcraftbeveragenews.com/smith-madrone-pursues-pioneering-spring-mountain-style-into-fifth-decade/#more-1885

 

Smith-Madrone pursues pioneering spring mountain style into fifth decade

by Karl H. Kazaks

Spring Mountain District, an AVA on the northwest side of Napa Valley, is named after its natural springs.

One of those springs is located near the bottom of the parcel of land purchased by Charlie and Stuart Smith in 1971, where they established Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery.

“It began as a hobby and got completely out of control,” said Charlie. The brothers had discovered wine while in college at Berkeley in the 1960s and decided to make their own.

“For the first ten years, Stuart and I did all the work,” Charlie said. “We pounded the stakes in, we put up the wire, we did the whole nine yards. There is literally nothing in the vineyard that we do not have extensive personal experience with. One summer we spent picking up rocks. We were clearing a two-and-a-half-acre field. We’d rip it, pick up the rocks, cross-rip it, pick up rocks. That pretty much cured me of wanting to pick up rocks.”

The Smiths started planting vines in 1972 and made their first wine in 1977 — a Riesling.

In 1979, their Riesling was entered in a wine competition sponsored by the French restaurant guide Gault Millau. Matched against Rieslings from around the world, Smith-Madrone’s was selected as the Best Riesling. Second place was awarded to a wine made by Schloss Vollrads, a winery from Germany’s Rheingau region which has been making wine for 800 years.

“Back then, our Rieslings were sweeter,” Charlie said, with a residual sugar level of around 1.5 percent. Today Smith-Madrone’s Rieslings have a residual sugar level closer to 0.75 percent.

“Their Rieslings are well-balanced,” said Mike Chelini, the winemaker at Stony Hill, a winery lower down on Spring Mountain.

Like all of the wines made at Smith-Madrone, the Rieslings show an abundance of individuality while displaying a consistent house style of vintage-appropriate structure, never lacking the backbone to permit some length of aging.

A comparison of the 2013 and 2014 Rieslings shows how the wine differs across vintages. The 2013, which has a fragrant nose of tropical and stone fruit, also has a strong aspect of wet stone. The vintage is fatter than the 2014, which has keen acidity and a pleasant lime peel quality.

“The key thing with our Rieslings,” Charlie said, “is the pH is really low in the 3.0 – 3.15 range.”

Though Rieslings aren’t much associated with Napa Valley, in the early 1970s, Charlie said the variety “was common as dirt. It was one of the recommended varieties — Riesling and Chardonnay for whites, Cabernet and Zinfandel for reds.”

If you put Smith-Madrone’s Riesling in a lineup of Alsatian Rieslings, you’d be hard pressed to pick it out. Its alcohol percentage — between 12.5 percent and 13 percent — might be the biggest giveaway when compared to some grand cru Alsatian Riesling, which often come in between 13 percent and 14 percent.

At Smith-Madrone, which experiences cooler days and warmer nights than the valley floor, Riesling is planted on eastern slopes. Chardonnay is planted on northern slopes. Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot on southern and western slopes.

Some of the slopes are steep, up to a 34 percent grade. The soils are mostly red Aiken Stony Clay loam on top of the Franciscan Assemblage, found in California’s coastal ranges and consisting of a collection of various rock types.

There is a flat parcel, known as Cook’s Flat, named after the first person to plant grapes on this part of Spring Mountain. In the late 19th century, George Cook planted olive trees and grapevines.

The olive trees remain today at 130 to 135 years old but the vines he planted were dead by the early 20th century.

“We found old wooden grape stakes in what had become forest,” Charlie said.

Cook’s Flat is home to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

The vineyard is surrounded by a mixed forest of Douglas fir, redwoods and madrone — the tree with the peeling, reddish-orange bark. The forest provides dappled sunlight in the vineyard, which the Smiths like.

Cook’s Flat is also the name of Smith-Madrone’s reserve red, which the winery first introduced in 2007. The second release was the 2010 vintage and the third was the 2009 vintage. 2012 will be the fourth release of Cook’s Flat Reserve.

Much of the production of Cook’s Flat Reserve is sold from the winery, Charlie said. “We pour it for people who come and they like it and buy it. We think that’s nice. It makes us happy.”

The 2010 Cook’s Flat Reserve is a blend of 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Cabernet Franc. Its fruit profile is mainly dark fruit, including plum. The Cabernet Franc adds width to the center palate, a nice complement to the wine’s richness. The 2009 Cook’s Flat Reserve has a special snap and vibrancy and life, no less substantial but not quite as brooding as the 2010.

Smith-Madrone didn’t release any red wines in 2008. The smoke from fires that year particularly affected their high-altitude vineyard. They sold their production that year to a bulk buyer.

Another challenging vintage was 2011, which was wet. But thanks to its mountaintop location, the vineyards at Smith-Madrone dried out more quickly than did some valley floor vineyards.

“The hillsides are different from the valley floor,” Charlie said. “Not just a different microclimate, but a different climate.”

Chelini concurs. “It’s fairly cool on Spring Mountain, frankly,” he said.

Smith-Madrone’s 2011 cabernet sauvignon does have a bit of a pyrazine green pepper quality, but it also has good fruit flavors and good tannic presence, as well as the structure to allow it to mature for at least a couple of decades.

The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon has a riper, more accessible structure, very fruity and lively. Charlie calls it a “light heavyweight — not a real heavyweight but not a middleweight either. It makes me cheerful when I taste it.” The current release of the winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon is the 2013 vintage.

All of Smith-Madrone’s wines are made to mature in bottle. The sweet spot for Chardonnays, Charlie believes, is the six to eight-year window. A typical Cabernet will show its full potential in the 15-20-year range, with good vintages capable of lasting 50 years.

For example, Charlie has a strong affinity for Smith-Madrone’s 1979 Cabernet. “We knew that was a great wine from the very beginning. We just loved it from the start. Some wines, when you finish fermenting, you just go, ‘Wow, this is really good stuff.’”

Chelini finds Smith-Madrone’s Cabernets “very, very civilized, approachable even when young but capable of aging well too.”

One of the reasons Smith-Madrone is able to make wines of such distinct character and ageability is its sorting of grapes and wines into many different lots.

First, grapes from any one particular vineyard can be harvested in multiple passes. For example, the relatively compact five-and-a-half acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in Cook’s Flat is usually harvested in three stages.

To determine when to pick, the Smiths “take a close look at the grapevines. It’s very helpful to know your own vineyard. What we do is custom picking at its most picayune.”

In the winery, different fermentation techniques are used. Some of the reds are fermented in tanks, others in small open containers.

“We keep very close track of what comes out of the vineyard and how it fermented,” Charlie said. “We have a lot of different barrels — some are new, some a year old — and put portions of everything into those barrels. We have a lot of different barrels.”

“When you make a blend, go through and grade the barrels, then put the best foot forward.” Cook’s Flat Reserve is a blend of the best barrels from the vintages in which the Smith’s choose to make a version of that wine.

For weed control, the Smiths cultivate every other row to keep some amount of ground cover at all time. With the exception of new vines, all the vineyards are dry farmed.

In the winery’s early years, the Smith even propagated their own vines in a mini-nursery. Today, they buy vines from a commercial nursery.

The layout of the winery was specifically made to be efficient.

“It’s not something you want to do day in and day out but in a pinch one guy can handle the operation,” Charlie said. In the “old days” he sometimes had to do just that, making the wine while Stuart was out selling and marketing it.

Today, the brothers have the help of Stuart’s son, Sam, who has worked at the winery for several years after some apprenticing elsewhere, including at Dr. Loosen winery in Germany.

For all of the wines, no bottling occurs until everyone agrees.

“We make a joint decision,” Charlie said. “Everybody’s got to be happy. We push and we push until everyone agrees.”

Chelini remembers first meeting the Smith brothers, when he took them a piece of equipment to borrow.

He’s impressed with what the Smiths have built over time, giving them the highest kind of praise for a Spring Mountain vintner.

“They’re mountain boys, no doubt about it.”

93 points, an exemplar of Spring Mountain District Cabernet

In the June 2017 issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Virginie Boone writes about Mastering Napa’s Mountains:

On p. 47 a bottle of 2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon nestles in the grass next to Spring Mountain Vineyard’s 2012 Elivette and Terra Valentine’s 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. This review runs on the facing page:

93 points, Editor’s Choice: From dry-farmed estate vines, this savory, classically styled red is dusty in cedar, dried herb and peppercorn, incredibly inviting and nuanced. It speaks quietly of the forest which surrounds its estate, a complex, balanced landscape of subtle, elegant flavor and intriguing length.

The article begins:

Early in the history of the Napa Valley, before the absurdity of Prohibition, grape growers raised their sights. With many hailing from Europe, they understood how wine grapes love to dig deep into hillsides and mountains.

Those pioneers…gave way by the 1950s to a new generation. Such innovators as …the Smith brothers…believed there should be distinct appellations for five of the Napa Valley’s highest mountains: Howell, Diamond, Spring, Mount Veeder and Atlas Peak.

What links the Cabernet Sauvignons from these mountains are their intensity and structure. Mountain fruit is often compact and concentrated, its berries tiny from seasons of struggle and loaded with powerful tannins that take time to unravel. There’s also a distinct spectrum of earthiness in these wines, a product of their wilderness of forest and rock.

…Here’s how these mountain appellations within the Napa Valley differ, and how they don’t…                                                    p. 36

The section on Spring Mountain District begins:

Hidden in plain sight above the town of St. Helena on the eastern side of the Mayacamas, the Spring Mountain District became an official appellation in 1993. The thick presence of forest and the springs throughout the mountain give the area its name and personality, a world away from the Valley below.

Spanning 500 to 2,600 feet in elevation, the appellation is 5,000 acres. Less than 10 per cent of that acreage is planted to grapevines; most is steep and forested. Sedimentary and volcanic loam soils are the norm, typified by high drainage and low fertility.

….Smith-Madrone…are among the longstanding adventurers here. …

Smith-Madrone’s Stu Smith and his brother, Charlie, settled on Spring Mountain in 1970, intrigued by mountain grapes…..     p. 46

http://www.winemag.com/2017/05/30/mastering-napas-mountain-appellations/

Food & Wine Magazine recommends that you stop by

Ray Isle in the May issue of Food & Wine Magazine recommends that you stop by:

Napa Valley Dream Trip Tips, May 2016, Food & Wine Magazine, p. 108, by Ray Isle

Being a wine writer is a little like being a doctor. People ask you for advice at parties. …I get asked, “I’m going to Napa Valley in a few months—what wineries do you think I should visit?” I’m not surprised by the question. There are more than 400 wineries in Napa Valley; figuring out which ones to visit is definitely tough.

Here are my suggestions for mapping out a winery itinerary:

Think small. Throw in a few smaller, family-owned operations….I’m a big fan of Smith-Madrone Vineyards in the Spring Mountain District, where the impressively bearded brothers Stuart and Charles Smith make terrific old-school Napa Cabernets….

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….

http://armchairsommelier.com/2016/02/15/napa-valley-spring-mountain-district-day-with-smith-madrone/

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.