Six vintages of Smith Madrone from Napa Valley

The set-up was perfect.

Six vintages of the same wine, made from grapes grown in the same vineyard by the same people, and a live wine conversation with the next generation winemaker from a historic Napa Valley family estate.

In this case, that winemaker was Sam Smith and the wine vertical was Spring Mountain’s Smith Madrone Riesling, vintages 2014 to 2019.

The set-up was perfect. But there was a but.

As I wrote in Part 1 of this article, I didn’t like what I had tasted of Smith Madrone Rieslings in the past. Their cabernet sauvignon and their chardonnay, yes. But their riesling? I just didn’t understand.

For me and for many American consumers, however, it’s time to rethink Riesling. Could we be persuaded? What were we going to learn? If we give Riesling – this Riesling in particular – a chance, will we win it?

It was a bit of a risky proposition, for Smith Madrone and myself as taster. Here’s how things went that day.

“Riesling is not for everyone.”

Even the winemaker admits it. “Riesling is a strange varietal in the United States, and not everyone is familiar with this varietal,” Smith said. “Our chances are probably better with Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. The ones that I can drink and have a conversation with at the same time, and not be focused on the wine. Personally, I can’t have a Riesling on my porch and not think about it while I’m drinking it. It’s mentally stimulating, whether it’s our Riesling or someone else’s. You can totally see it through.

Smith Madrone makes precisely a Riesling. They purposely don’t want to make something for everyone, or a Riesling wine that suits all palates. I respect that.

The wines that seduced us: 2014 and 2017

It was all about balance, in terms of the sheer taste experience of these two particular wines from 2014 and 2017. As Smith said, Smith Madrone’s “house style” tries to achieve a “lean wine” that has flesh and body to it while still being identifiable as a riesling.

Even with a four-year gap between the 2014 and 2017 vintages, there was a thread of acid / body balance connecting these two wines for me and our guests. If there was one thing in common, it was balance. Our tasting notes for the 2014, for example, were that our palates felt hints of acidity without being “sour”, and the wine was “round” without being soft. For the 2017, similarly, the finish was “luminous” without being unpleasant, while the roundness of the fruit and the texture could have reflected the first year of the vintage after three years of drought in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Three differentiators of Smith Madrone Riesling

  1. They expect their Rieslings to stay in the bottle for a few years before opening them. Suffice to say that tasting the “baby” vintage 2019 was like a foretaste or a foreshadowing of things to come.
  2. Smith Madrone is less affected by drought than other estates because they run their vineyards dry.
  3. The grapes are picked each year at a similar sugar level, usually a little earlier in order to capture the natural acidity of the wine.

If you like Smith Madrone Riesling, you might also like …

Riesling from the Clare Valley in Australia (which is also “skinny and mean” like Smith Madrone) and from Domaine Albert Boxler in Alsace in France.

Just for fun…

Check out Smith Madrone’s Instagram and you’ll see that they just had a new puppy whose weight they are measuring in cabernet sauvignon bottles.

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