Confession time. I have never really liked Riesling. This might very well be a cardinal sin to Riesling disciples out there. So what if this noble grape has long been the favorite among sommeliers, chefs and wine professionals? So what if it’s a versatile food-friendly wine that pairs especially well with spicy Asian cuisine that I dearly love? So what if its high acidity makes it exceptionally age-worthy?
I’ll tell you what. I’m a skeptic at heart and all of the rah-rah surrounding Riesling hasn’t wooed me. Why? I prefer bone dry wines. I pooh-pooh Riesling because of its typically higher residual sugar content. Even the drier Rieslings don’t wow me.
Let me introduce you to Smith-Madrone, a winery located in the spring Mountain District which is on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains that separate Napa Valley from Sonoma Valley. Andrew Doolan, a sommelier in Rhode Island, recently sent me a bottle of the 2014 Riesling. I know Andrew from the Vivino wine app community and he’s probably read a few of my Riesling rants. His glowing review of the Smith-Madrone Riesling piqued my interest. He encouraged me to give it a swirl. But before I did, I did my due diligence and researched the backstory of this wine which, by the way, has gotten high ratings and favorable reviews across the board.
The story begins with brothers Stuart and Charles Smith (not the Charles Smith of Kung Fu Girl Riesling fame) who own and operate Smith-Madrone winery. Stuart, while pursuing his master’s degree in viticulture at UC Davis, purchased land at the highest point of Spring Mountain in 1971. His hopes to plant a vineyard were boosted when he discovered that the land actually supported a vineyard back in the 1880’s.
Charles joined Stuart in 1973, a rugged man and outdoor enthusiast like his brother. So began the journey of Smith-Madrone vineyards, the name Madrone being a tribute to the predominant tree on the property. The Madrone is an evergreen with reddish-brown branches and trunk. The tree bears lily-of-the-valley-like flower clusters in springtime and orange-red berries in autumn.
The vineyards are situated at elevations between 1,300 and 2,000 feet, on steep slopes up to a 34% grade. Along these precipitous inclines, specific grape varieties with differing exposures have been planted. Chardonnay is planted on cooler north facing slopes, Cabernet Sauvignon on flatter southwestern patches, and Riesling on eastern exposure slopes. The vineyards are dry-farmed meaning no irrigation or watering takes place. By relying solely on Mother Nature’s contribution in the form of rainfall, vines produce smaller berries with higher juice to skin ratio that results in a more intensely flavored grape. Grapes will hit natural maturity at a lower sugar level than if irrigation took place.
BAM! This must be one reason I love Smith-Madrone Riesling. Concentrated juice and low residual sugar!
The vineyard soils are mainly deep-red Aiken Stoney Clay loam, volcanic-based, well-drained and deep for mountain soils. The soils are quite rocky allowing for vine roots to grow extremely deep, a boon for grapevines which inherently thrive better in challenging conditions. This combination of soil, elevation, sun exposure and the Smith brothers’ dry-farming approach is, in my estimation, a magic formula for producing stellar Riesling.
The Smith brothers’ philosophy in growing grapes is gutsy and admirable. Because they are in a semi-arid climate which in recent years has suffered drought, they honor water as a precious commodity and practice restraint in water consumption. They believe grapevines are intuitive and will adapt to their natural environment without too much human intervention. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. German winemakers have flown out to interview them, hoping to glean techniques to improve their own Riesling vineyards.
Now armed with some fascinating facts and a healthy respect for Stuart and Charles, I uncorked the bottle of Smith-Madone 2014 Riesling, my hopes elevated, only a smidge of my Riesling rebel skepticism present.
From the first sniff and sip, I was left nearly speechless. One word burst forth: KALEIDOSCOPE! In my mind’s eye, I saw multiple points of lights in dazzling array, reflecting in sparkling symmetry. Layer upon layer of myriad shapes and colors coalesced in prism perfection, evolving in an ever changing, ever enchanting montage.
This Riesling is just that. From its lush bouquet of honeysuckle, lemon, orange blossom, stone fruit, pear, mint and a hint of petrol to its layered palate of apricot, peach and lychee (stone fruit trifecta!) and grapefruit, tangerine & lime (citrus trifecta!), there is no end to the vibrant scents & flavors of this immensely complex wine! There is just the faintest whisper of sweetness, barely discernible, thank the heavens above! The strong backbone of minerality is laced with pleasing salinity. Crisp & defined like the jagged points of a kaleidoscope pattern, each sip shaves the palate clean. Yet juxtaposed on that trademark acidity is a lingering silky finish that made me slap my hand on the counter & sigh.
This is a phenomenal Riesling for Riesling haters!
This is a phenomenal Riesling for Riesling lovers!
I have reformed. No longer a Riesling rebel but now a Riesling raver, I hope you take my rah-rah review seriously. And not with a grain of salt, please, but rather a tiny bit of residual sugar on top. Trust me, an encounter with this wine will color your world in brilliant kaleidoscope patterns.
A few more specs on this special wine:
• The 2014 vintage of Smith-Madrone Riesling is 100% pure, unadulterated Riesling from 42-year-old grapevines
• 12.8% alcohol
• 0.76% residual sugar (just the smidge I prefer. The 2012 vintage was a mere 0.45 RS!)
• pH of 3.05
• Only 1551 cases produced
• $30 for 750 ml bottle. JUST THIRTY DOLLAH! Fabulous price point for a quality wine!
• You might see kaleidoscope patterns upon first sip!