Monday, October 8, 2012

Smith-Madrone 2010 Riesling

My tasting notes on this wine, my favorite U.S. Riesling,  were buried in my winery review of Smith-Madrone Winery so I decided to retrieve them and expand upon them. I find most wine tasting notes to be rather dull and many to be uninformative. If you read different tasting notes on the same wine you will also notice that there is very little agreement among tasters. Usually only comments about the most outstanding elements of structure will be consistent among reviewers, even among famous critics. That is not a criticism. Wine tasting is subjective, and every palate is different. In an unusual display of enthusiasm, I wrote tasting notes for the 2010 Smith-Madrone Riesling. This is a great wine. I hope I did it some justice. In some ways it reminds me of my favorite author, Proust, in that it is subtle but also profound, with many layers of complexity that take time to appreciate. (And yes, I've read all of Proust.) This wine also continues to haunt my memory the way Proust's madeleines haunted his.

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 French and German ones. Over the years, I have found only a few really good American made Rieslings, with most of the drier 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 tart on the palate or austere on the finish, as some Alsatian Rieslings can be. The vines are on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, near St. Helena, and are 38 years old. Only 450 cases were produced.

Riesling wines 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 mere hint 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, crisp 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 and dry, 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 café 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 while drinking this wine. The Smith-Madrone Riesling is ideally paired with a kiss or perhaps with the memory of a madeleine.

Smith-Madrone Vineyards visit may be viewed here: Smith-Madrone
Our second visit may be viewed here: Revisit


  1. Well done, TJ. You've definitely put this Riesling on my radar--now, to find it...

    1. Smith-Madrone makes a great Cabernet Sauvignon, too. It is a real mountain cab, masculine and complex, totally unlike Valley cabs. If you drink it young, pair it with food. Their Chard is also very nice. Smith-Madrone is one of Napa Valley's rare authentic wineries that marches to its own drummer and is one of our all out favorite wineries anywhere.


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