You have your Lone Rangers and you have your Rhone Rangers, and you probably have Heidelberg Tuns filled with preposterous puns, but as always, rising above them all in the rarefied atmosphere of Spring Mountain, you have Smith-Madrone.
Founded in 1971 by Stuart Smith, the dash in the winery’s name does not indicate a partner named Madrone; rather, the conspirators here are Stuart’s enological brohammer Charles F. Smith III and the frugally-named assistant winemaker Sam Smith. The Madrone in the moniker is a tall and stately species of evergreen tree that lords over the estate’s mountaintop terroir, symbolic of the swagger and the sizzle of its grape juice.
I first fell in love with Smith-Madrone’s Riesling a decade ago, because amid a (then) sea of Left Coast cold-varietal mediocrity, it was a crisp, clean and shimmering stand-alone. Stuart Pigott, the Raja of Riesling, once called the Smith Brothers ‘two of the unsung heroes of American Riesling’—although considering the number of arias I’ve sung about them, I must be perennially off-key.
The wine, then and now, is an example of how this German varietal performs do if the V-shaped river vineyards of the grapes native Germany are flipped over to make California mountainsides. The solar-panel slopes concentrate sunlight and drain water and nutrients, forcing vines to struggle against the natural shocks that grape flesh is heir to, and this creates smaller, richer fruit than valley vines yield, and—because cool air flows downward, night air creates drafts that protect against against diseases, molds and pests. The result, both in Rheingau and at Smith-Madrone, is a dynamic mélange of fat fruit flavors—mango, ripe pear and pineapple laced with lean acids and incisive minerality.
2015 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay, Spring Mountain, around $34
What’s sauce for the Gau is sauce for the gander, so it stands to reason that the high-elevation hoodoo that produces such righteous Riesling might have something to say about Chardonnay as well. In fact, the sample of Smith-Madrone’s 2015 bears it out. Grown at sun-washed, 1,800-foot elevations and on slopes up to 34% grade, the Smith brothers have been harvesting Chardonnay from their estate for 47 years, and call 2015 ‘the most unusual harvest they’ve ever seen.’
“To start with, there was no rain, and there have been enormous swings of temperature and of course, there have been fires. This was after a mild winter caused early bud break, followed by protracted bloom and cool weather in spring, which contributed to smaller grape clusters and variable crop size. We started harvesting the Chardonnay on August 27 and completed picking on September 16. Despite the challenges, the color, flavor profiles and chemistry continue to impress us all.”
#metoo. The wine offers beautiful tones of ripe citrus behind a crisp concentration of peach, candied lemon, and roasted cashew stone and excellent, resonating texture. Get it quick; only 512 cases made.
2014 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain, around $52
Says Charles F. Smith: “In spite of the drought and the Napa earthquake, the 2014 harvest produced an abundant crop and excellent expectations for the vintage. The 2013/2014 winter was one of the driest on record in California and rainfall totals on Spring Mountain were approximately half of normal. A long-term benefit of the drought is that berry sizes are typically smaller and have more concentrated flavors, which may explain the terrific quality of the 2014 harvest.”
Altitude plays a role in producing wines of potency and nuance, but without a proper foundation, it’s all for naught. The reddish Aiken soil that predominates throughout Smith-Madrone vineyards is derived from nearby Sonoma Volcanics, and tends to be gravelly, leading to even more radical drainage than elevation alone would account for. In the Spring Mountain AVA soil depths vary, but tend to be deeper than in nearby mountain terrains, and as a result, so do their red wines. Notable is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which is almost inky black in color (high elevation reds seem to tan in the direct UV rays like people) and has a bracing dose of acid that preserves the elusive quality of freshness in extraordinarily rich wines. The wine displays the pedigree of middle-aged vines; these are in their early forties. It’s juicy with dark, saturated berry flavors—fruit crushed for jam, but not yet stewed. It’s accented by coffee, spicy plum and crushed peppercorn and shows clarity and precision.
I always welcome an opportunity to circle back to see what the brothers-on-high are up to at Smith-Madrone. Smith is the most common name in the United States, so it’s gratifying to note that these two are making some of the most unusual wines.