Fri 4 Jan 2008
Sometimes it feels as if I have been condemned to a Circle of Hell, a mild circle certainly, compared to the more ingenious and punitive arrangements further down, but still one in which I am enjoined eternally to taste millions of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay wines that all seem alike. The cabernets feature heaps of toasty new oak, super-ripe fruit, cushiony textures and alcohol levels of 14.5 to 15.2 percent; the chardonnays feature heaps of toasty new oak, super-ripe fruit, cushiony textures and alcohol levels of 14.5 to 15.2 percent. Such wines are professionally-made, well-intentioned and boring. Wait, this is no mythical Circle of Hell; this is my life!
Then there are the cabernets and chardonnays of Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery, perched atop Spring Mountain west of the town of St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Now when I say that Smith-Madrone makes wines that purists could love, I don’t mean snobs or elitists or geeks or nerds; by “purists” I mean consumers who favor wines that focus on fruit and structure, that allow us to taste and feel where the wine came from and where it’s going, what it’s make of and how it sustains itself. That is the kind of wine that Smith-Madrone makes.
The winery was founded by brothers Stuart and Charles Smith, who purchased 200 acres on Spring Mountain in 1971. The wines are made from the same vines planted 32 years ago, for the cabernet, and 34 years ago, for the chardonnay. The steep vineyards with their volcanic soil, lying at elevations from 1,600 to 1,800, are dry-farmed, that is, they are never irrigated, relying only on what rain falls according to nature.
I recently — I mean on Wednesday and Thursday — tried the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 and the Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2006, Spring Mountain District, both current releases. The winery also produces a well-regarded riesling, but the last vintage, the 2006, quickly sold out.
The Cabernet 2003 is a blend of 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot and 8 percent cabernet franc. This is a great, old-fashioned mountain-side cabernet, deep, rich and spicy, a construct of sinew and muscle and bone. Bright cassis and black cherry flavors are permeated by dusty, leathery tannins, briery, brambly elements and profound earthy and minerally qualities. The wine aged 22 months in American oak barrels, yet it didn’t come out of that process with any bitterness or austerity — American oak has to be used carefully — but absorbed that wood for a firm, supportive structure to which keen acid lends vibrancy. Despite its size and seriousness, however, the wine is a sensualist’s delight for its delicious black fruit (with a hint of cedar and wild berry), for its lacy etching of lavender and bittersweet chocolate, for its impeccable balance between elegance and power. You could drink a bottle tonight with a medium rare strip steak, hot and crusty from the grill, or let it age through 2013 to ’15. The alcohol level, by the way, is only 13.8 percent. Production was 2,302 cases. I rate the wine Excellent. The suggested price is $40.
The Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2006 is a model of purity and intensity. Though the wine was completely barrel-fermented and matured 11 months in French oak, the effect is so subtle that any wood influence is almost imperceptible; it’s more a matter of the oak serving as invisible framing for the wine instead of becoming a tangible or obtrusive factor, as is the case with so many Napa Valley chardonnays. The bouquet offers notes of pear, melon and pineapple with touches of grapefruit and peach, all of this packed with limestone and gunflint. There’s absolutely nothing tropical or dessert-like about this chardonnay; rather, it’s notably clean and fresh and resonant. As with the cabernet, you feel the structure, the muscles and bones of the wine, and yet, paradoxically, for all its substance, this chardonnay feels almost effortless in its crisp attack and moderately lush flowing through the mouth. The alcohol, a surprising 14.2 percent, is totally integrated. Production was 1,171 cases. Here’s another Excellent rating. Suggested price is about $28.