Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Smith-Madrone Vineyards

Smith-Madrone Vineyards makes the finest American made Riesling that I’ve ever tasted, one of the finest Cabs and a great Chardonnay.  The winery is a wonderful, down to earth place to visit, with a gorgeous view, and an authentic atmosphere reminiscent of Napa Valley in the 1970s.

Smith-Madrone Vineyards Revisited (with photos) may be viewed here.  Revisited
After having several more bottles of the Riesling described below, I posted a revised review here: Riesling
Note that there is an addendum to the review of the Smith-Madrone 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon at the end of this post.

The Smith-Madrone 2010 Riesling sells for only $27 and compares to the best Alsatian and German Rieslings being made today. Arguably, the Riesling varietal is one of the four greatest or most noble grapes in the world, along with the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.  In the 1970s, I went through a Riesling phase back when wines from famous wineries around the world were still affordable, even great German ones.  Over the years, I have found only a few decent American made Rieslings, with most of the dryer ones lacking complexity and minerality and the sweeter and late harvest ones usually being too simple and sweet without the interesting layers that can be found in high-end late harvest German and Austrian Rieslings.  The Smith Madrone Riesling is a drier style Riesling, drier than most German Kabinetts, more along the lines of an Alsatian Riesling, but without being overly crisp on the palate or rather austere on the finish, as some Alsatian Rieslings can be.

Rieslings are among the most visually beautiful wines in the world with their deep gold to green-gold colors.  This one leans toward light straw. Hold the glass up to the sunlight before you drink it or you will miss part of the pleasure of a Riesling. The nose tends more toward a tart apple aroma like a Granny Smith rather than a sweet apple like a Fuji or Gala.  Rieslings make one of the most nakedly honest wines in the world, with no malolactic conversion, oaking or winemaker skills or tricks to compensate.  (Some are late harvest with botrytis, but that is really nature’s doing.)  The varietal characteristics always come through strongly as well as any minerality and regional characteristics or terroir. This Riesling gives me Cox’s Orange Pippin apple on the palate (I grow one, so can be specific.), with a touch of sweetness (0.65%), balanced acidity, and great minerality.  It is a respectable 12.9% alcohol, making it all the more interesting and substantial compared to some of those of those low alcohol. (7.5 to 10%) German Rieslings.  This Riesling tells me that it does not come from the Rheingau, Mosel or Alsace.  It has a unique Riesling personality from its own vineyard.

If I may be pseudo-poetic for a moment, the Smith-Madrone Riesling seems to reveal the subtle minerals that the vines slowly extracted and dissolved from the rocky soil of Spring Mountain, yielding something like a primal connection to the earth and nature, with perhaps subtle hints of heaven.  This is an interesting, complex and layered wine to slowly savor.  Roll it around in your mouth.  Notice how it is different on the various areas of the tongue.  Let it warm a bit in your mouth to see how it changes character.  This is a wine that invites investigation beyond its lovely color, tart apple taste and long finish.  Like a beautiful painting, the more you spend time with it, the more you will appreciate it.  A quick glance or a cursory viewing will not allow you to understand or appreciate its beauty.  You will miss so much if you do not take time and savor the experience.

On a less poetic level, this is a crisp, but not bone dry, very well balanced wine that should go well with seafood.  Others might suggest Thai or Vietnamese food, but I confess to liking this sort of wine either alone, with a little cheese or with sushi or sashimi.  If you understand the difference between grocery store sushi and sushi from a great Japanese sushi bar then you will understand the differences between various Rieslings.  Or perhaps, if sushi is not your thing, you would prefer to think of the difference between French food at an informal sidewalk cafĂ© compared to a great French meal from a master chef.  It has that extra magic, that interesting complexity that eases you into the experience.  Time seems to slow down when you are drinking this wine.  The Smith-Madrone Riesling is ideally pared with a kiss!

Smith-Madrone also makes a very nice Smith-Madrone 2008 Chardonnay ($30) that is not overly oaked or too buttery from excessive malolactic conversion.  And their Smith-Madrone 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) is very good as well.  I would love to try their Reserve Cab when it comes out. Smith Madrone makes three wines from three of the four greatest varietals and they do a great job on all three.  They use to make a Pinot Noir, but you would have to break into the winery with scuba gear to find a bottle of it in the underwater cellar.

If you visit Smith-Madrone, and you really should if you love wine and “Authentic Wineries,” then you will have the pleasure of meeting Charlie and Stu.  Charlie will conduct the tour and chat with you about wine while Stu works hard in the back.  It is not the easiest winery to get to, although directions are pretty straightforward and four wheel drive or mules are not necessary.  Once you do arrive, you will meet the friendly winery dog who will gladly show you where the entrance to the building is after he finishes peeing on one of the empty barrels. Upon entering, you will encounter what is referred to by some as an “Authentic Winery” with a “tasting room” that is as colorful as the two owners are.  But before you get to the “wine bar” be sure to look at the chalkboard to the left with the wonderful quotation.  A great story goes with it, and more interesting stories are sure to follow. 

There is also no tasting fee (another sign of an “authentic winery”) but, as with all of the wineries located up on Spring Mountain, reservations are needed, although easily arranged.  Prices are very reasonable for the quality of the wine, with the Riesling being a downright steal at only $27. Smith-Madrone provides the sort of experience you might have found in Napa Valley back in the 1960s or early 1970s; there is really nothing quite like it.  If you don’t visit Smith-Madrone, you are missing a part of this history as well as Napa Valley today at its best. We strongly encourage you to visit Smith-Madrone Vineyards while there is still the opportunity to experience a winery that was and continues to be the real thing.

Addendum 4/24/2012:  Here is a post I put on the Smith-Madrone Facebook site: 
"Wanted you to know that we had your 2005 Cab for dinner with high quality rib eye steak. Even before the meal, my wife commented on how good the wine was, and she generally likes whites. Yeah, it was very good, indeed. Not at all the Parker type with over ripe fruit. Much drier, with good tannins and structure. But when the wine aired a bit, and especially when we paired it with steak, it really came into its own. This is a great Cab. Exceptional in every way. I took notes but who cares about notes? This is not a Cab everyone will love immediately unless it is given some air and, ideally, paired with some food. What this Cab has underneath the tannins is complexity. Unlike many bold Cabs, this one has layers of subtlety once the tannins are aired or paired.

Your Riesling hit me over the head at the winery and knocked me out after I tasted a bottle. Your Cab intrigued me at the winery, but a sample did not do it justice.. This is a phenomenal Cab. I can't wait to try your reserve and your 2007 when they are available, and I really need to taste more of your Chard. I still say your Riesling is the best American Riesling I've ever tasted and comparable to the best in the world. Now I have to say your Cab is among the best I've ever had. It improves with air, so will improve with time. But if you drink it now and pair it properly, it really comes into its own.

You make some great wines. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, these are wines to make your toes tingle. Thanks for all of your hard work and dedication to growing and producing great wines. It makes life more interesting.
Best wishes, TJ Jones

Smith-Madrone Vineyards
4022 Spring Mountain Rd
Saint Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-2283
Date of visit: 12/21/2011

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