Wine of the week winner: Smith-Madrone, 2016 Estate Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley riesling
The recent lightning storm, igniting wildfires amid the pandemic, has made this year’s harvest an obstacle course.
Vintners like Stuart Smith of St. Helena’s Smith-Madrone Vineyards now have to dodge both the virus and the wildfires.
“During the (recent) lightning storm, I went to the winery at 4:45 a.m., just to check on it,” Smith said. “As I drove to the vineyard, there was a Cal Fire and a PG&E truck working to put out a small grass fire on a neighbor’s property that had been started by lightning striking a tree. From our overlook, we’ve been able to watch the smoke billowing up all along the eastern hills of the valley. It’s extremely unsettling to watch the spread of the fires knowing the damage being done.”
The vintner, determined to overcome the hurdles of harvest, is behind our wine of the week winner — the Smith-Madrone, 2016 Estate Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley riesling, 4.5 stars at $34. It’s a gorgeous riesling buoyed by great minerality. This riesling has high-toned stone fruit coupled with bright acid. It’s nimble — elegant as a ballet dancer — and finishes crisp. It’s impressive.
The runner-up is Ram’s Gate, 2019 Carneros Estate Vineyard Pinot Blanc, $38, which also snagged 4.5 stars. This supple pinot blanc is lush but still manages to have pitch-perfect balance. It has aromas and flavors of honeysuckle and stone fruit — nectarine and white peach — with a lingering finish. It’s well crafted.
Other tasty exotic whites include: Marimar Estate, 2018 Don Miguel Vineyard, Russian River Valley Albarino, $29; Eberle, 2019 Paso Robles Cotes-du-Robles Blanc, $26 and Chappellet, 2019 Napa Valley Chenin Blanc, $38.
As for the Smith-Madrone, Smith said there are three reasons the winery’s riesling excels.
“The first is that our grapes are mountain grown,” he said. “Two, we deeply care and love the varietal. Three, we have a responsibility to the varietal. By acknowledging riesling as one of the four most important varietals in the world, we accept the challenge, the responsibility, if you will, that we must make a great wine.”
Joe Nielsen, winemaker of Ram’s Gate, said he aims to capture the vintage with the best of the vineyards and varieties he works with.
“At our core we believe wine should be refreshing, compelling and the utmost companion with food,” he said. “Why? I think wines that have great structure and taste good today will continue to taste great for years to come. Acid in whites is important like tannin is to reds.”
Smith agreed whites can age as well as reds.
“Riesling loses the fresh fruit flavors and aromas and starts to take on the stronger flavors of dried fruit (and) a honey-like aroma and flavor intertwined with hints of fusel aromas. This interplay creates a wine of sublime beauty that can rival the best that red wines can offer.”
Smith, 72, is the general partner who oversees the vineyard, the financials and all sales. His 76-year old brother, Charlie Smith, is the winemaker, while his 33-year-old son, Sam Smith, handles the day-to-day winemaking.
“Until the fires are over, we won’t know the extent of both the physical damage and the smoke damage,” the vintner said. “In this world of chaos, keeping a positive attitude is without a doubt the biggest challenge.”
Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-5310.