Try this Wine: 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling

IMG_0022

Note: This is the inaugural edition of Try this Wine, a series we hope to make regular on the website. You can’t know more than you taste, and knowledge is what builds a palate, so exploration is key to developing an appreciation for wine. Each edition will spotlight a wine that we believe has, whether we happen to like it or not, a compelling reason or two for people to try. Some of the wines will be harder to find and/or more expensive than others, but the one theme that will be constant is our belief that the wines we feature will improve your appreciation for wine. At the bottom of each Try this Wine post, you’ll find a list of places to purchase the wine.

Most wine drinkers aren’t going to like the Smith-Madrone riesling because they don’t like riesling, or so they think. “It’s too sweet” is the variety’s reputation, and the industry hasn’t done much to help itself in this regard. People see the grape and think ‘sweet’ and there’s nothing, except the occasional demi-sec or sec label (which doesn’t mean anything to most people anyways) to clue them in to the reality. Smith-Madrone’s 2015 riesling carries 0.68% residual sugar, which is for all intents and purposes a dry wine. But you wouldn’t know it from the label.

The other thing you wouldn’t know from the label, unless you knew the winery’s reputation already, is how good it is. The rieslings with the most widespread and greatest reputations aren’t grown in the United States, but I’d put money on a few domestics to place well in a Judgment of Paris styled event in Alsace or Wachau. Good Vitis hosted a blind tasting of thirty-two American rieslings with a couple of esteemed wine professionals about a year ago. All of us were more impressed than we expected with the overall quality, and super impressed with a handful of them, including Smith-Madrone. Stu Smith, a General Partner and winemaker at Smith-Madrone, dropped in and tasted with us, nervously hoping his wine would show well. It did.

There are a couple of things that combine to make riesling a special grape like no other. The versatility of the grape is, I would argue, without peers. It can be grown in so many different soils and climates, it’s remarkable. It also picks up terrior as well as any grape, and better than most. Multiply its ability to grow in so many different places by its ability to represent each unique location and you end up with a massive range of differences. With its racy acid, focus and complexity, riesling is also an incredibly versatile and nimble partner of food. On top of that, it ages gracefully and for decades (when grown and made to do so). In the collateral sent with the Smith-Madrone sample, Stu writes that “we think this will have a lifespan of 20-30 years” and there’s no doubt that he is right. The best-made riesling in Germany and Austria is known to gain complexity over decades and decades. Stu’s been making riesling long enough to know, when he says his will go twenty to thirty years, that it will do so while improving.

When you have a really good riesling, it’s impossible to objectively say there is better wine in the world. The kicker is, the best riesling is outrageously cheap by the standard of any other variety that can come close to riesling’s quality. You have to search far and wide to find a riesling that will cost you, off the shelf, over $100, or even $50. For a third of that ($32), you can get the 2015 Smith-Madrone, and it just might be the best $32 white wine you’ll find, and a wine that’s far better than many other varieties costing significantly more.

ValleyView

Some of Smith-Madrone’s vineyards. Picture credit: Pull That Cork.

They ferment it in stainless, and keep it there through clarification, aging and filtration. It’s 100% riesling that is kept from going through malolactic fermentation and gets no lees stirring. This is all to say, it’s really well-grown estate riesling from a really great mountain site that showcases terrior and talent. Stu boasts of “a proud history with this varietal, from our very first vintage. That 1977 vintage won the Riesling Competition of the 1979 Wine Olympics, a tasting organized in Paris by the food and wine guide Gault & Millau.” Bring on The Germans and Austrians.

Tasting note: What a wonderful nose with elevated florals, dried apricot, tangerine, wet stones, chalk, margarita salt and white peach. Medium in weight, the acid is racy with a lush texture. The ripe flavors hit on tangerine, yellow peach, lime, rhubarb and tobiko. The finish goes for ages. Another brilliant vintage of this stuff, the 2015 should have an excellent fifteen to twenty year lifespan, at least. 92 points, value A.

Where to Buy

The 2015 is still finding its way to shelves around the country. Smith-Madrone sells a lot of direct-to-consumer, and you can purchase this wine from them now. As this vintage gets distributed (there is often a lag time between winery release and completion of the distribution process), it should be available around the country in discerning wine stores. Right now, wine-searcher.com is listing only one store:

Truly Fine Wine, 4060 Morena Blvd., Ste K, San Diego, CA 92117. Phone: (858) 270-9463.

Direct from the producer: Smith-Madrone, 4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA 94574. Phone: 707.963.2283. (You can also call them to inquire about where you might find it locally).

You can find other locations for other vintages here.

2017’s Most Memorable Wines

IMG_1447

Last December (okay, January 4th, 2017), I did a post on The Best Reds, Whites and Values of 2016 that I came across in my wine escapades that year. It was an enjoyable post to write because it let me indulge in some great nostalgia, and I was excited to do it again for this year. This post was just as rewarding to write, and as the title implies, I’m taking a slightly different approach. What follows are the dozen most memorable wines I tasted this year.

The two questions I used to guide the formation of this list were (1) what are the wines from 2017 that I stand the best chance of remembering until I go senile, and (2) what wines from 2017 will guide my 2018 purchasing? Only after assembling the list did I look at the metadata contained within, and there are some surprises. First, a rose made the list. While I enjoy rose, I drank much less of it in 2017 than I did in previous years. This wasn’t for any conscious reason; it just played out that way. Second, in Good Vitis Land, it was the year of the white wine. Half of the list, and the largest component of it, are whites. Third, it’s a geographically diverse list: five U.S. states and six countries. And forth, unusual varietals came in at the #4 and #1 spots: mtsvane and Pedro Ximenez that was made into a white wine. What a cool 2017.

Without further ado, here are my twelve most memorable wines from the past twelve months.

IMG_1419

#12: 2016 Ehlers Rose. I reviewed this wine back in July when I profiled the winery and winemaker and couldn’t stop raving about it. The wine itself is terrific, but it will always stand out in my mind for the vibrancy and beauty of its color. My God, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never fixated on the appearance of a wine before, so this one is special. I visited the winery earlier in this month and the rose was sold out. I was told I wasn’t the only one who can’t even with the color.

Tasting note: July 9, 2017 – I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

#11: 2014 Block Wines Chenin Blanc Block V10 Rothrock Vineyard. I love chenin. It competes with chardonnay for my favorite white varietal, and usually whichever is in my glass and singing is the one I choose. I’ve written about Eric Morgat’s chenins from Savennieres in the Loire Valley in France as my favorite example of the varietal, and while I enjoyed several of them in 2017, this year’s gold standard belonged to the Block Wines project in Seattle, Washington. Owned and sold exclusively by the retailer Full Pull, it sources exceptional grapes from exceptional blocks in exceptional vineyards across the state and hands them over to Morgan Lee to convert into wine. Morgan is one of my favorite winemakers anywhere, and what he did with these grapes was pure magic.

Tasting note: Friday, June 23, 2017 – Magical stuff, and only improving with aging and aeration. The nose is blossoming with honeysuckle, sweet lemon curd, parsley, big marzipan and just a wiff of ginger powder. The palate is medium bodied with cutting acidity and a well-framed structure. The fruit is sweet and comes in the form of lemon, peach, apricot and yellow plum. There’s a good dose of vanilla bean, a big streak of slate and just a bit of creaminess and some nice sorbet-tartness on the finish. The most compelling American chenin blanc I’ve tasted, this has at least three years of upward development ahead of it. Wish I had more than the one remaining bottle in my cellar. 93 points.

IMG_1470

#10: 2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre. Unlike the #12 and #11 wines, this bottle is a well-known commodity. Among the most respected sites in Chablis, Montée de Tonnerre is often considered quality-wise on par with the Grand Cru sites despite its Premier Cru designation, while William Fèvre is widely respected as anything but a slouch producer. Despite the modest reception of the 2011 vintage in Chablis, this out-performed several other vintages of the same wine I’ve had previously. It was downright spectacular.

Tasting note: Friday, July 14, 2017 – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points.

IMG_1813

#9: Forge Cellars Les Allies Riesling. I visited Forge in September and couldn’t help but gush about what they’re doing. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle in every aspect, and for me that means several things: absolute physical beauty and salt-of-the-Earth people with a total commitment to the land and community. Forge makes a lineup of rieslings (and pinot noirs) that, from top to bottom, are among the very best being made in America and worth making the trek to experience first-hand (read the hyperlink above about the unique and amazing tasting experience every visitor receives at Forge). My favorite is the Les Allies.

Tasting note: September 18, 2017 – Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day. 93 points.

IMG_1155

#8: 2010 Baer Winery Arctos. I put this wine up against several legendary vintages from the legendary Bordeaux producer Las Cases in a post that asked, “Does Bordeaux Deserve Its Reputation?” More specifically, I asked “are six of the best vintages of the last fifty years of a storied chateau some consider worthy of first growth status really so good that it’s worth $150 per bottle at release and then two-plus decades in my cellar?” In order to answer this question, I picked Baer’s 2010 Arctos as a baseline wine. To be clear, I pitted a seven-year old blend from Washington State that retails for $43 against wines that are now only available at auctions for many multiples of that price point. My answer, which I’m pretty sure upset a few people, was “no.” I’m a Bordeaux skeptic, but more than that, I’m a Baer lover.

Tasting note: Thursday, April 20, 2017 – Bountiful nose of juicy red, black and blue berries, very sweet tobacco, thyme and black pepper. The palate coats the mouth with lush, polished and sweet tannins. It’s fully integrated and gorgeous. Sweet raspberries, cherries and blackberries swirl around with undercurrents of tobacco, graphite, cassis, nutmeg, cocoa, black currant, and rhubarb. Absolutely fantastic and pleasurable profile, it’s in exactly the right place. 94 points.

img_6834

#7: 2014 Covenant Israel Syrah. It’s a long story of how I came to know Jeff Morgan, the brains and brawn behind Covenant, a endeavor producing wine in California and Israel that has, as its genesis, the goal of making the best kosher wine in the world. I interviewed Jeff and told the fascinating story here. The Israel Syrah is a great example of how good Israeli wine and kosher wine can be, and a damn enjoyable bottle that will improve with more time.

Tasting note: Saturday, February 4, 2017 – This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points.

IMG_1616

#6: 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge. Of course there’s a Cameron in this list. Cameron was my 2016 revelation and I spent a lot of time this year tracking down as much of it as I could find. It was a decent haul, but now I just have to be incredibly patient. The 2016 experience showed me that the older a bottle of Cameron pinot is, the better it is. In 2017 I had the 2005, 2010 and 2011 vintages of Abbey Ridge and the theme continued. This 2005 was AMAZING.

Tasting note: Saturday, July 1, 2017 – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points.

IMG_1503

#5: 2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique. Of course there are two Camerons on this list. Nuff’ said.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points.

IMG_7582

#4: 2015 Togo Mtsvane. This is a challenging wine to write about for several reasons, beginning with the unusualness of it and ending with the situation in which it was consumed, for good and bad reasons. The good reasons are written about in detail in what is probably my favorite post from 2017. I’ll summarize this wine, and the country where it is made, this way: you’ve never had anything like it, you have to go to the Republic of Georgia to try it, and you’re making a mistake if you don’t.

Tasting note: May, 2017 – Gia’s 2015 Mtsvane was picked at 25.8 brix and finished at 14.8% ABV, which it wells extremely well. The word “mtsvane” means green (the color), and this particular source vine was found in a family plot that Gia is slowly bringing back. It is thin skinned and very difficult to grow because of its fragility in the region’s rainy climate. Nevertheless, the aromatics were gorgeous with mint, dulce de leche, sweet lemon and light tobacco. The palate was equally appealing and satisfying as it offered honeysuckle, apricot, ginger, vanilla, green apple and a big hit of mint.  Multiple bottles consumed over a long and drunken evening with the winemaker, his family and my friends. Unscored, but otherworldly.

IMG_2013

#3: 1998 Pian Delle Vigne (Antinori) Brunello di Montalcino. Aged Brunello, need I say more? The 1998 was considered a good but not great vintage when it was released, but I think people have realized over the following 19 years that it’s gone through a particularly impressive evolutionary arc. This wine certainly proves that. Well-aged Brunello has some wonderfully unique qualities, and again, this wine certainly proves that. Basically, this wine proves that all the good things about Brunello can be true in one bottle.

Tasting note: Saturday, October 28, 2017 – This is remarkably good. The nose is pure heaven, and very fragrant. Super sweet cherries, strawberries, Açaí, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried tarragon, a bit of sea mist and a small finish of olive juice. The palate is fully integrated: extremely fine grained and polished tannins have faded into the background while the acid is mellow but zips. The Alcohol is seamless. It’s the full, professional package. What a gorgeous mouthfeel. Flavors pop with cherries, strawberries, tobacco, thick dusty cocoa, Herbs de Provence, bright orange rind and a wiff of smoke at the end. This has a few more years of good drinking, but why wait? 95 points.

9OfcNd3JQCC+BDb0IH612g

#2: 2012 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve. Stu Smith and his family are some of my favorite people in the wine industry, and among the most generous I’ve met. He’s also one of the best winemakers in a state known for attracting many of the best winemakers in the world. Cooks’ Flat is his reserve wine, which he makes during good vintages. It retails for $225. Given the region, that’s a steal for a wine of this quality and, in one of many manifestations, evidence of his generosity. I’m not a lover of most California wine, and I don’t get the California Cult Cab thing with its focus on fruit and tannin. Stu could care less whether his wines were considered “cult,” but it certainly tops the list of cabernets from the Sunshine State that I’ve had. The fact that any California cab made my most memorable wine list is personally surprising, but that it landed at #2? It’s just that good.

Tasting note: December 7, 2017 – This seems to me to be what Napa cab should be all about. It hits the palate with a velvety lushness, and is followed by waves of red, blue and black fruit that polish a core of dark minerals and Earth that broadens the mid palate and adds depth to the wine. The acid is towards the higher end of the Napa range, adding juiciness to the fruit and levity to the body. Unlike many California cabs, the tannins are well-kept and aren’t allowed to dry the palate and prematurely kill the finish. This is elegant and refined wine. Given the price of reserve wines from Napa, the Cook’s Flat is a downright steel. 95 points.

IMG_0096

#1: 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ. A small amount of the small production En Numeros wine makes its way to a retailer near me in Virginia. The importer, a friend of Silvia Puig, the winemaker, pours the wines himself one afternoon a year and I look forward to the email announcing it. This is the first vintage of this white wine, which is made out of the Pedro Ximenez grape that is usually made into Port, and the first of its style I’ve ever had. The tasting note below is the first time I drank it. I revisited it in November and it had changed fairly dramatically. Some of the lushness was gone, and the acid was more pronounced. To be honest, it was a bit more complex the second time around. That said, it’s the first bottle that will leave the lasting impression, and so I’m using that note. It’s one of those wines that is “unique” in the sense of the word: one of a kind.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points.

And there we have it: the dozen most memorable wines of 2017. I already have some great stuff t’d up for 2018, and I hope the year will bring adventure and surprise. Wishing everyone a great end to 2017 from Good Vitis! Thanks for the readership.

Forge Cellars and the Terroir of the Finger Lakes

ForgeBuilding

The Winery (picture credit: forgecellars.com)

Forge Cellars doesn’t have a sign on the road indicating where visitors should turn. It doesn’t have a sign at or on the winery. You’re supposed to just find it. And you’re supposed to be happy to have found it. And then after you’re there you’re supposed to be thankful for finding it. Well, we found it. We enjoyed it. And we’re thankful we did.

We were told that the majority of negative feedback they receive at Forge is about their the lack of signage. They’re not hard to find, it’s stupid. And the absence of location pointers helps keep unseasoned and uninformed tourists (read: annoying and disrespectful porch pounders (no offense)) from stumbling onto the incredibly cool facility and turning the place into a tourist trap and bachelorette destination, and ruining it for the rest of us. So, thankfully, no signs.

The first thing you notice when you arrive at Forge is the view:

IMG_1822

And then you’re likely to walk to the front of the building, noticing this:

IMG_1813

Turning, then, to see this:

IMG_1815

The tasting table

Then Rick Rainey greets you. No pretense, no bullshit, just a huge commitment to finding the best vineyard sites, working with his partner Louis Barroul of Cheateau de Saint Cosme to make stellar riesling and pinot noir, intelligently designing and building a winery, giving back and adding substance to the region, and treating his guests to very fun tastings. Tastings require a reservation, and Rick does them very purposefully: everyone sits at the same table with each other, and the group has one conversation. This includes any media types, even the big ones, industry people, winemakers – everyone. They taste with the rest of us. It’s a tasting for wine people, and Rick makes no distinctions after that.

I was first introduced to Forge by my friend Drew Baker of Old Westminster Winery in Maryland (another self-professed soil geek like Rick), who brought a bottle of Forge’s Classique riesling to a wine dinner. Later, on the strength of that bottle, when I collected bottles for the Good Vitis Grand America Riesling Tasting, I emailed Forge soliciting contributions. Rick ended up responding after the tasting, and apologized for not getting to the email sooner. When we sat down with him months later, he told me that he rarely bothers to send out samples, especially to people who haven’t already visited. “Get on a plane or in your car and come out here. You can’t adequately appreciate wine without meeting the people, experiencing the land and spending time in the winery.” I heard the message: you were never getting samples. “But now that we know each other, who knows, I might be open to it.” Again, the message: we’re cool now.

IMG_1819

Rick leading us down the rabbit hole of Finger Lakes riesling

Rick facilitated an amazing tasting with a group of 9 of us who didn’t know each other. Across the table were a couple from Connecticut. Next to them was a man, who had Finger Lakes orchards for decades but had recently converted them to wine grapes, and his wife. Wrapping around the far end was a group of three, and then my friend and I set next to Rick. We were there for three hours, and once we went through the line up Rick pushed the open bottles towards the center of the table and asked people to hang out and help finish them (it was 7pm on a Friday – get home time – so he had to have been having a good time). The conversation was high level, geeky, friendly and collegial, and lubricated by Forge’s wine and Rick’s entertaining stories and anecdotes.

Forge goes for about as simple a winemaking approach as they can, but they don’t advertise it, and they certainly don’t boast about it. They use seriously neutral oak (8-10 years old, usually), with many barrels coming in the 500 and 600 liter sizes. All the barrels are sourced from France by Barroul. Sulfur is quite minimal and other additives are eschewed. Rick is the vineyard guy. They’ve recently planted 8 new acres by the winery with a high density of around 2,100 vines per acre. They also source from 13 or 14 other spots near the winery. Residual sugar in the rieslings are kept low, usually no more than 2-3 grams per liter (though they taste bone dry), and the pinots are made largely from Pommard clones.

IMG_1820

A recent barrel shipment from Cosme

To Rick’s credit, he was right about his samples point: they’re doing something special at Forge and the experience of being there drives it home. Rick spoke several times about their commitment to the region, and within the region finding the best sites for the kind of wines they want to produce. But that’s typical winery speak. It was everything else that followed that made it clear how Forge is really about the region. He talked at length about the people of the Finger Lakes, its economic history and the role a revitalizing wine industry is playing in helping some of the poorest counties in New York State stay afloat while bringing smart people to the area who are dedicated to helping it succeed and expanding what it has to offer its residents and visitors. Our fellow taster who owned vineyards added his own thoughts on this, largely driving the argument that the wine industry was bringing jobs and smart people to the region, all for the better.

Forge wines don’t just represent what Rick does in the Vineyard and Barroul does in the winery, they also reflect the trials and tribulations of the region and its businesses, families and individuals who are its fabric. The Finger Lakes and Central New York, which has an important place in my heart from the time I spent there for graduate school, has a long history of tough times and tough people. These are estimably down-to-Earth types with an almost spiritual commitment to harmonizing with their land, an unforgiving land whose climate toughens the skin and head and rewards those who treat it with respect. As cheesy as it sounds, Forge’s wines have a little something extra, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that its terroir includes these more human elements.

The first wine that Rick poured was the 2015 Classique riesling, which is a blend of multiple vineyards meant to be their gateway bottle and the one distributed most widely. At $19, it is an exceptional riesling and a great entry to the Forge lineup, offering notes of apricot, nectarine, Spanish almond, parsley and lime zest. The body was polished and lush, but offered balanced acidity.

The 2015 Leidenfrost Vineyard Dry Riesling is a step up at $24. The mineral-driven palate boasts flavors that are wild when put together in a riesling, boasting orange zest, raspberry, saline and apricot, finishing with a kick of smoked white pepper.

Sniffed blind, I would’ve called the 2015 Lower Caywood Vineyard Dry Riesling a chenin blanc from Savennieres. The palate offered a big glycerin sensation (not unlike some Savennieres, either) with big stone fruits and deep, deep minerality driving serious depth.

Next was the 2015 Sawmill Creek Vineyard, which was very ripe and dense. Rick believes it’s the most ageworthy riesling in the program from the vintage, and was best able to handle the larger barrels. The nose is powerful, almost sweet, while the palate offers a big structure and a nice amount of red fruits, which is a wonderful discovery in this varietal. The Sawmill is a bit of a fist in a velvet glove kind of wine, and I really liked it.

The best riesling, however, was the 2014 Les Allies. Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day.

We then moved on to the 2016 rose of pinot noir, which was a minuscule production of 85 cases. The wine saw 16 hours of skin contact, so this is no small animal. The nose is big on crushed berries, and the palate has a real captivating presence and density. It’s a sizable rose, but not heavy. The texture and weight are the real selling points on this one, and I’m told it sells out very quickly.

The penultimate wine was the 2015 Classique pinot noir that, like the Classique riesling, is meant to be an entry pinot. It goes far beyond entry, with a brilliant, high toned classic pinot nose of red fruits and baking spices. On the palate it’s more savory, herbaceous and spicy with a small dose of baking spice on the back end. Burgundian in style, it delivers great finesse and bright acid. A very impressive pinot for the price.

We finished with the 2014 Les Allies pinot noir. My oh my. These vines are planted in shale. The nose is dirty and fungal, and the fruit is dark. The palate boasts big minerals and a nice dose of smoke. The fruit is dark here as well, and it’s just ever so slightly toasty. There’s a fungal streak, but overall this is a mineral-driven wine for those with patience. My closing note was “very good.”

The entire experience at Forge was impressive, from the views at the winery, to the winery itself, to the way the wines capture the region, to the people and, I think above all else, to the seamlessness with which the effort meshes with its home in the Finger Lakes. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle, capturing its toughness, its beauty and its tranquility. I went into the visit with nothing other than a taste of one of their wines a year or two ago and Rick’s lackluster email habits shaping my expectations, and came away with the notion that Forge is among the most exciting wineries I’ve come across in America, even though they purposefully remain hard to find and generally eschew the spotlight. I also came away with a case of their wine and a desire to visit again next year when I assuredly will need more.

A Study in Value: Argentina at $25 & Under

Grapes

Grapes of Bodega Santa Julia. Picture Credit: Bodega Santa Julia

America has pretty strong knee-jerk associations between countries and wines. New Zealand is sauvignon blanc. Australia is shiraz. German is riesling. And Argentina is malbec. The converse is sort of true as well, as people associate what the grape is supposed to taste like by where it’s from: sauvignon blanc is limey and tropical and lean, shiraz is big and fruity, riesling is sweet and malbec is dark and spicy. Sample a smattering of what’s available in a grocery store wine isle and these stereotypes hold pretty solidly. Pour a Safeway customer a Sancerre sauvignon blanc, Cote Rotie syrah, New York riesling or Cahors malbec and they’re likely to get lost based on their geographic associations with those grapes. It’s enough to drive a wine snob mad because terroir does matter, especially in the four examples I used above. Then add in price point associations and we’re now far off from what could be someone’s wine reality with a little adventure and knowledge.

I’ve fallen pray to some of these shortcut assumptions myself, and because I’ve never loved the standard NZ sauvignon blancs I haven’t looked into what the good ones might be, except for Greywacke’s Wild sauvignon blanc. I’ve spent a little more time on Australian shiraz and found gold with well-aged Kaesler and Kilikanoon. I still haven’t invested substantial time into German riesling, but certainly more than Argentinian wine which I don’t think I’d had for several years prior to the wines tasted for this article.

Maipu wineyards

Vineyards in Maipu. Picture Credit: Bodega Santa Julia

With this in mind, I tasted through ten different Argentinian wines sent as samples to Good Vitis. Two whites, eight reds, with suggested retail prices ranging from $10 to $25. The idea was to assess some of the wines available to the entry level wine shopper to see if there might be some diversity beyond the simple association people have of Argentina wine. I was hoping to find some variety.

There were three wineries represented among the ten wines: Santa Julia, Colomé and Amalaya. My favorites from the group included Santa Julia’s 2016 Organic Cabernet Sauvignon (90 points, Value: A), 2014 Valle Uca Cabernet Sauvignon (91 points, Value: B+), Colomé’s Torrontes (88 points, Value: A) and Malbec (91 points, Value: A) Estate bottles, and Amalaya’s 2016 Malbec (89 points, Value: A). Honorable mention goes to the 2016 Santa Julia Tintillo (88 points, Value: B+), a 50/50 blend of malbec and bonarda that would go well with red food (see pairing suggestions in the review below). These wines represent some decent variety, with some showing flavors beyond big, juicy fruit, and I would be happy to spend an evening with any of those mentioned in this paragraph. All were provided as trade samples and tasted sighted.

The largest contingent came from Bodega Santa Julia, a winery in Mendoza founded less than thirty years ago.

IMG_1465

2016 Santa Julia Tintillo Malbec-Bonarda (50/50 blend) – Whole cluster fermented and designed to be consumed chilled, it pours with some translucence. I couldn’t confirm with a website search but I imagine there’s some carbonic maceration involved in the process. The aromas hit on macerated strawberries and huckleberries with whiffs of tar, tobacco leaf and white pepper in the background. The body is round and polished with little tannin and medium acidity. The fruit is a general consensus red variety, though strawberries and huckleberries do peak through. It has a really pleasant pluminess to it, along with some lavender and rose. This is a lovely, easy-drinking wine probably best alone or with something like margarita pizza, a simple red pasta or simple grilled meats. I’ve seen this one at DC-area Whole Foods stores. 88 points. Value: B+

2016 Santa Julia Malbec – The nose is a bit reticent at the moment, but suggests development of strawberries, blackberries and tar with extended air exposure. The body is quite round with fine grained tannins. The acidity is spot-on, making this red or white meat-friendly. The fruit is generally red and black, although cherries and plums dominate. There’s a bit of pepper and nice little dose of minerality. Solid if unspectacular. 87 points. Value: B

2015 Santa Julia Valle de Uca Reserva Malbec – Sourced from vineyards ranging from 3,130 to 4,600 feet above sea level. A lot of fruit on the nose, almost macerated or crushed strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. Loam and graphite as well. The palate is medium in body and polished with moderate acid. The fruit is just a bit sweet, offering boysenberries, huckleberries, strawberries and cherries. There’s great minerality on this along with tar, tobacco and smoke. The profile is really nice but it lacks the concentration I’d expect on a reserve. 90 points. Value: C

2015 Santa Julia Cabernet Sauvignon – The nose is more Malbec than classic cabernet sauvignon: macerated red berries and plums, not much else. The body is medium in stature, with a light dusting of grainy tannin. There’s also some serious acid on the back end. The fruit is similar to the nose, with the additions of loam and pepper. 86 points. Value: C

2016 Santa Julia Organic Cabernet Sauvignon – Nice Earth on the nose: wonderful mushroom funk, loam and wet soil goes along nicely with dark cocoa powder, overripe strawberries and cherries. Full bodied with bright acidity, this is a pleasantly juicy and floral wine with strawberries, raspberries, rose and Spring flowers. There’s some Sweet Tart going on as well. Fun, funky stuff. 90 points. Value: A

2014 Santa Julia Valley Uca Cabernet Sauvignon – A complex and funky nose with dark cherries, pork fat, smoke, chalk and brambleberry. The palate is pleasingly tannic, it has real structure and presence delivered with quality acid. Cherry crushes over limestone with lavender and thyme. It’s smokey and delivers nice saline as well. 91 points. Value: B+

IMG_1464

Colomé and Amalaya are part of the Hess Family collection of wineries. Colomé is the result of a three year “quest to find the source of an exceptional Malbec that [Donald Hess] had at a dinner in a small bodega in Salta.” The winery was founded in 1831 and grows its grapes at elevations ranging from 6,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level using biodynamic practices. Some of the vines are 160 years old. Amalaya is an attempt to highlight the weather and soil conditions unique to the Northern Calchaqui Valley, which is part of the foothills of the Andes Mountain range. Make no mistake, though, elevation is still significant: it ranges from 5,250 to 5,580 feet above sea level. The vineyards are sustainably farmed as well.

2016 Colomé Torrontes Estate – Lovely nose of honeydew, lime zest, pear, dandelion and a lot of chalk. This full-bodied wine offers crisp acidity on an otherwise soft palate. The fruit – lime sorbet, Granny Smith apple and cantaloupe – is bright and sweet, though the wine is dry. There’s also just a bit of hay, limestone minerality and white pepper. The finish is just a bit hot but is otherwise a very pleasant wine offering a lot of refreshment. 88 points. Value: A

2016 Colomé Malbec Estate – A blend of four estate vineyards ranging from 3,740 to 5,940 feet above the sea. Pouring a beautiful deep crimson, it offers up a high octane nose with strawberries, cherries, plums, smoke, loam, mushroom funk and an amount of blood that would bring all the vampires to the yard. The structure is set by polished tannins with real grip and well-placed acidity. It achieves a juicy full body while serving up juicy strawberries, cherries, blackberries and blueberries, along with aggressive cracked pepper, saline, graphite and just a hint of iodine. I’m a fan. 91 points. Value: A

2016 Amalaya Torrontes-Riesling blend – sourced from vineyards at 5,900 feet above sea level. The nose is a bit reticent at first but with air offers up a pleasantly sweet profile filled out by pear, big honeysuckle, mandarin orange, papaya and hay. The body is svelte, integrating classy acidity driven by the riesling with a bit of lushness. The palate offers Key Lime, a bit of petrol, bitter greens, underride orange, vanilla and coriander. Finishing a bit zesty, this isn’t a porch pounder as much as it’s a wine that will benefit from a conscious food pairing. 86 points. Value: B

2016 Amalaya Malbec – sourced from vineyards at 5,900 feet above sea level. Includes 10% tannat and 5% petit verdot. After aggressive swirling to blow off some barnyard (Bret?), it opens up with dark cherries, Spring flowers, blood, orange zest and a fair amount of black pepper. The body is full with nicely structured grainy tannin and juicy acidity that gives the wine a substantive presence not always found at this price point. It offers a cornucopia of sweet fruit: cherries, strawberries and loads of plums. Hints of smoke, tar, and black pepper augment the appealing flavor profile. Nicely done. 89 points. Value: A

A GRAND American Riesling Tasting

IMG_1360

Just some of the bottles we sampled. No oranges were harmed in this tasting.

Major reasons for the miserable commercial demand for riesling in the United States include, but are not limited to, the following myths:

  1. Riesling is too sweet. Sorry, but this is just a lazy myth. Yes, many Rieslings, especially those under the $10 price point, are stupid sweet. However, most riesling isn’t too sweet; you just have to try more of it.
  2. Riesling is sweet: Also a big myth, though slightly less lazy. Yes, much of the riesling on America’s shelves are sweet, but not all. It’s not a lazy myth because the labeling on many rieslings doesn’t indicate the sweetness of the wine, which is an industry fault. Still, shop at a dedicated wine store and the staff will be able to guide you to your desired level of residual sugar. Also, think you don’t like sweet riesling? Try it with foods that are rich, savory and salty to experience the brilliance of a little residual sugar in your wine; there’s hardly a better food-wine pairing.
  3. Riesling only pairs with vegetables and white protein. Ha, don’t even. Riesling is the most versatile food pairing grape alive and goes well with other colors of protein. Don’t believe me? Well-aged dry riesling hits gets rich and intensely nutty, and is a great pairing with red meat. Further, unless you’re eating a naked steak, it’s the sauce on the meat that should be the target of the wine pairing, and there’s a riesling for any sauce likely to be poured over red meat.

If you believe one of these myths, it’s time to prove yourself wrong. Keep reading. If you love riesling, keep reading. If you love wine, yeah, keep reading.

“Epic” is an appropriate way to describe our grand American riesling tasting. It all started when my friend and Terroirist blogger Isaac Baker submitted over Twitter that Smith-Madrone Winery in California makes the best American riesling. It’s a legitimate candidate for the title. I’ve reviewed the wine (and the winery) myself and I couldn’t think of a better suggestion, which got us thinking: how well do we really know domestic riesling? The answer was something like ‘not well enough to make that judgment,’ so we decided to become better informed. What followed was a month-long effort to collect samples from around the country that netted thirty-four bottles from eighteen of the best riesling producers we knew. Last weekend, we tried them all.

Before I get to the wine and the tasting, let’s discuss the status of riesling in America for a moment. The major headline is that demand for riesling is weak. According to the 2017 State of the Wine Industry report from Silicon Valley Bank (an important annual industry study), “demand for premium wine has been healthy, especially for cabernet, red blends, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and pinot noir. Merlot, syrah, riesling and zinfandel haven’t seen the same degree of consumer demand, and the varietals have struggled.” A 2015 Nielson report showed that riesling was the only grape varietal with negative growth in the US market in terms of volume sold. Early this year, Wine Folly predicted that riesling “will tank,” arguing that while it “has had its chances [with] several waves of interest between 2011 – 2015 [and has] plateaued,” “you only get so many chances. It’s not you Riesling, it’s us.” I could list more statistics, but they all tell the same basic story: Americans don’t buy much riesling.

The ‘it’s not you, it’s us’ line sums up my diagnoses of America’s perception of riesling. Riesling is a wine geek’s wine. It’ reflects terroir like no other, and since it does well in many, many climates and is therefore grown all around the world, we can experience a lot of different terroir through the lens of one grape. Further, it ranges from bone dry to very sweet, which makes it even more diverse a grape to explore, especially with food (wine pairing: one of the most passionate interests of a wine geek). These factors combine to make riesling exponentially interesting to people who like to pay close attention to their wine, which makes riesling’s commercial struggles all the more frustrating because it puts an artificial ceiling the amount of production by providing a lot of financial disincentive for wineries to produce the grape, let alone put a lot of effort into it.

It is fitting that Smith-Madrone was the inspiration of the tasting as its owner and winemaker, Stu Smith, is an outspoken proponent of the grape who makes it despite the difficulty he has selling it because he believes so fundamentally in its importance and worth as a varietal that speaks to the very best of what wine can be. In addition to myself and Isaac, our tasting panel included other riesling lovers who we felt would understand why we were doing the tasting and enjoy the experience: Washington Post wine writer Dave McIntrye, wine consultant Alison Smith Marriot, and two serious oenophiles/drinking buddies of mine. And then we had a special guest…Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery!

IMG_1365

The man, the myth, the legend. Stu Smith.

Stu and his wife, Julie Ann, were in town for their daughter Charlotte’s high school graduation (congratulations Charlotte!) and were able to swing by about fifteen wines into the tasting, though Stu was able to catch up to the group by the end. It was a real pleasure to have Stu and Julie Ann join us in an effort to further appreciation of the grape Stu seems to feel the most passionate about. The wines were tasted blind in a randomized order and, knowing that his wine was the impetus for the tasting, the unveiling of his wine as a consensus top-3 pick came as what I would imagine was at least a little relief, though who were any of us, really, to pass judgment on the wine of a Napa icon? More than anything, I (and I imagine the rest of the group) am just thankful Stu continues to prioritize a high quality riesling given the lowly demand for it.

The thirty-four wineries represented were scattered across California, New York, Oregon and Washington State, America’s four largest wine producing states, and came from many of the most respected riesling producers in the country. The largest contingent came from New York, the region whose reputation is probably most dominated by riesling. Though Washington used be known as the riesling state and still produces more of the grape than New York, it’s far less a signature grape for Washington than it is for New York at this point. The New York passion for riesling is evident in the wine we sampled, and here I need to make a special shout out to Peter Vetsch of pop & pour wine blog and Dan Mitchell of Fox Run Vineyards for hooking us up with so many good Upstate wines.

The wines ranged from syrupy sweet to bone dry, and, despite the reputable producers on-hand, we were surprised to find no dud among the cohort (though each of the tasters found at least one wine they didn’t care for), which spoke to the effort the wineries put into the commercially struggling varietal. If you’re a riesling lover, and/or want to ensure America keeps making high quality riesling, and/or want to become a riesling lover, buy from those on the list below.

These wines form a great shopping list for another reason as well: a major takeaway from the tasting was that while the riesling market isn’t doing well in America, America’s rieslings are in very good shape quality-wise. We threw a few imported ringers into the blind tasting from highly respected German, Australian and French producers, and while they tended to show up among many of the tasters’ favorites, none stood out as clearly better than the American wines nor did any of them dominate the discussion of consensus favorites. This truly was a Tour de Force showing from the red, white and blue.

With so many wines to taste, I didn’t score them beyond rating each one on a 1 to 5 star (asterisk) scale. I’m including my tasting notes below, but want to call out seven wines that really captured my attention. Washington’s Rasa Vineyards gave me the only five-star wine of the evening with their 2013 The Composer. This gorgeous wine has enough bottle age on it to have developed some secondary notes, but it has the legs to develop tertiary ones as well. Their 2011 The Lyricist was also fantastic, receiving 4.5 stars (the equivalent of “****(*)” as you’ll find below). Close behind Rasa was Stu Smith’s 2014 Smith-Madrone, the inspiration for this event. Fellow Californian Chateau Montelena’s 2015 Potter Valley is a real achievement as well. Chehalem’s 2014 Corral Creek Vineyard offered the best schnoz of the lineup and some very diverse flavors, and was my favorite of the offerings from Oregon. Fox Run’s 2012 Lake Dana, with its perfect play between fruit, Earth and Spice, and Hermann J. Wiemer 2014’s HJW, with its awesome profile of spice, sweet fruit and bitter banana, demonstrated that New York is producing exceptional riesling.

IMG_1362

A major, major thanks to the wineries who supplied the samples, not only for making this event possible but for taking a risk by producing them in the first place. There isn’t a riesling in this lineup that I would discourage anyone from trying. We were quite lucky to have had this experience, and I hope it lights a fire under a few butts to dive deep into American riesling. For more coverage of the tasting, and likely some differing thoughts on the wines, head over to Terroirist and check out what Isaac Baker has to say.

2015 Penner-Ash Hyland Vineyard Old Vine (OR) – a little soapy and reticent on the nose, with grass and lime zest emerging. The body is lean with cutting acidity. Quitely limey with good minerality, it gets a little creamy with air and adds marzipan and dried fruit. ***

2015 Charles & Charles Den Hoed Vineyard (WA) – the nose is still a bit musty and tropical, quite pleasant. It offers a voluptuous structure with big lime, stone fruits, tropics and hay. ***

2015 Anthony Road Dry Riesling (NY) – class riesling nose with a leaner, crisp body that delivers peach, apricot, Meyer lemon, white pepper and parsnips with a mouth-drying acid streak. ****

2015 Sleight of Hand The Magician (WA) – rich, tropical nose with a very interesting palate offering savory saline, stone fruits, banana and a little effervescence. ***

2015 Chehalem Three Vineyard (OR) – very mild, young nose waiting to offer more with age. The palate is round and ripe with white pepper, lemon curd, petroleum, apricots and a lot of grass. This one offers real depth and a lot to consider. ****

2015 Red Newt Cellars Knoll (NY) – gorgeous nose dominated by grass cuttings and honeyed fruit. The palate is driven by big acid and is quite dry. The flavors are dominated by lemon pith, celery seed, cilantro, lemon and strong pepper. One of the more unusual profiles, it really spoke to me. ****

2013 Rasa The Composer (WA) – classic tennis ball canister gas on the nose with an amazing palate offering sweet fruit, almond paste, petrol, vanilla and honey. Tastes like a sunset. ******

2013 Red Newt Cellars Tango Oaks (NY) – a truly biting nose that tingles the nostrils with high toned citrus and pepper. The palate is lean and quite crisp, balanced by vegetal flavors. ***

2014 Chehelam Wind Ridge Block (OR) – clean nose with little to write home about, but the palate really delivers with parsley, lime, root vegetables and under ripe stone fruit. It’s a very strange profile that simply works. ****

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling (CA) – reticent nose but a compelling palate with streaky flint and slate, dandelion and orange zest held together by perfectly balanced acid and weight. It just needs more time in the cellar to bring that nose to bear and fully develop. ****(*)

2014 Lauren Ashton Riesling (WA) – the nose is dominated by peaches, but also offers marzipan and papaya and, if you close your eyes real tight, a little smoky. The palate is almost overwhelmed by guava and papaya, but thankfully has some white pepper kick and really nicely balanced acid. ****

2014 Fox Run/Anthony Road/Red Newt Tierce (NY) – the nose is all about fresh asphalt as the palate offers nice florals, bitter greens and under ripe stone fruit. The acid is nice but it seems just a little watery, which holds back the concentration. ***

2016 Trisaetum Wichmann Dundee semi-dry (OR) – very honeyed nose with stewed peaches and apricots, parsley, and vanilla bean custard building out the  palate. Very cool ****

2012 Fox Run Lake Dana (NY) – a lot of pine and baking spice on the nose, which made me suspect Washington. The body is full, ripe and delivers perfect acid. Flavors include sweet pineapple, mango and arugula. My favorite wine of the day from New York ****(*)

2014 Boundary Breaks Lot 239 (NY) – not a lot on the nose at the moment but time will rectify that. The palate has lime sorbet, green pepper, apricot and petrol. A solid ****.

2016 Trisaetum Wichmann Dundee Dry (OR) – young nose with a bit of lemon zest and pine, the palate is a little watery but has nice lime zest, red pepper flake spice and apricot. I think it needs some time. ***(*)

2015 Eroica (Chateau Ste. Michelle) (WA) – the nose has honeyed citrus fruit and Evergreen, while the body has a lot of pine, apricot nectar, quince and coriander. ****

2014 Hermann J. Wiemer Magdalena (NY) – this big nose is dominated by almods, while the palate delivers big quantities pineapple, banana and pine. The acid is on-point here, but I think this would benefit from a few more years of rest. ***(*)

2015 Anthony Road Semi Dry Riesling (NY) – not much on the nose, but the palate is round and lush with vanilla, banana cream pie and lemon-lime soda. ***

2011 Rasa The Lyracist (WA) – the nose offers quintessential NW pine, tennis ball canister gas and starfruit. The palate has no hard edges but maintains great acidity, and delivers honeyed starfruit, crystalized lime zest, slate and just a little bit of fat. ****(*)

2014 Red Newt Cellars The Big H (NY) – the nose is a little fungal, in a good way, musty and tropical. The palate offers lime, vanilla and under ripe peach. ***

2014 Hermann J. Wiemer HJW (NY) – the young nose is still reticent, while the palate delights with Asian 5 Spice, restrained stone fruits and banana leaves. The acid is in great balance and this clearly has a long and prosperous life ahead of itself. ****(*)

2014 Chehalem Corral Creek Vineyard (OR) – The nose is almost plummy, offering honeysuckle and a jasmine tea aroma. Might be my favorite nose of the lineup. The palate is also floral and honeyed, offering additional pepperiness and lychee. Really cool stuff. ****(*)

2014 Fox Run Vineyards Dry Riesling (NY) – a funky and engaging nose, the palate is all about lime sorbet but gets a little diversification with pepper. ***

2016 Trisaeutum Coast Range (OR) – a must nose with an earthy palate that is zesty and creamy. I love the complementary play between acid-driven zest and creaminess, as well as the real sense of place this one has. It’s not a typical riesling. ****

2016 Tirsaeutum Ribbon Ridge (OR) – the nose gave off what I can only describe as a fenugreek aroma, whle the palate was round and full with barely enough acid to keep it on keel. The dominate flavor was Sprite. **

2014 Boundary Breaks Lot 198 (NY) – Unfortunately not much to write home about with this one, the main element I wrote down here was “sweet.” *

2015 Chateau Montelena Potter Valley (CA) – the nose is still in hiding, but the palate is zesty, spicy and high toned with big limestone and even some mint. Very good. ****(*)

2015 Galerie Terracea Spring Mountain District (CA) – a honeyed and flora nose, quite pleasant, with a big but well integrated palate featuring banana cream and big zestiness. ***

2015 Penner-Ash Willamette Valley (OR) – a lot of sweet cream on the nose with Meyer lemon and Key lime. The palate offers lovely honeyed orange blossom, ginger, graham cracker and a lot of texture. Enjoyable but not particularly layered. ***(*)

2016 Long Shadows Nine Hats (WA) – not a lot on the nose yet (clearly young), but the palate had exceptional acidity with a little saline, sweet citrus, flowers and spice. If the nose is awoken, this will be lovely. ***

2015 Long Shadows Poet’s Leap (WA) – pine and lime on the nose, with big lime zest, orange, petrol and banana on the palate. ***

 

Good Vitis Unplugged: Stu Smith and the wines of Smith-Madrone

smith_madrone_sign

I know which way I’m going. Picture: Mumu Les Vignes

I already knew I liked Stu Smith when he told me he had worked for André Tchelistcheff when he was young. By that point in the night we had left the dinner crowd and found a nearby wine bar to talk one-on-one, and Stu had moved on to a glass of beer. I was still sipping wine, but had transitioned from Stu’s Smith-Madrone line up to a cabernet franc from Chinon, which frankly tasted more like an inexpensive, cloying California red blend than the funky fruit from the Old World I was seeking. When you can count Tschelistcheff as a former boss and mentor, you don’t have any legitimate excuses for making bad wine. Thankfully for Stu, he doesn’t need excuses because Smith-Madrone is for real. Stu and his avid followers don’t need me to tell them that, though.

André Tchelistcheff could be the subject of an entire book, let alone a blog post, but for now he’ll have to be simply a reference for this blog post. I know about him because of the crucial role he played in the early development of the wine industry in Washington State where I’m from and whose wines takes up half my cellar. He is one of the maybe three most important figures in the state’s wine history. Stu was lucky he didn’t mention the relationship until the end of the night, otherwise we wouldn’t have discussed anything else the entire night.

What we did discuss, though, was quite interesting and wide-ranging. Being just a few blocks from Congress we discussed politics, both in the context of general musings and those specific to the wine industry, meaning how local, state and federal decision-making affects the industry (not who is buying you-know-who’s used barrels which may or may not be tainted with brettanomyces (wink wink)). Stu is one of the more politically engaged winemakers I’ve met and when he decides he is willing to go on record about politics, I may have to start a Good Vitis podcast.

smithmad-hr17

Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

We also discussed a great deal of Stu’s thoughts about running a winery. For instance, he’s managed to avoid having to start a wine club, which for a winery that celebrated its 45th anniversary last year and makes around 4,000 cases a year is a remarkable feat. Wine clubs are the business model these days for small producers of coveted wine like Smith-Madrone because they bank on future sales to club members. And I say ‘managed to avoid’ because he’d rather not go that route. Why, goes his thinking, do that when you can sell the wine on its merits without having to resort to marketing gimmicks. Even still, he does care about continually expanding his market and building upon his already well-established reputation. That’s the answer, more or less, that I received to my question of why he needed to make the rounds in Washington, DC, let alone sell his wine in the area, given the long-standing high demand for his limited production. It’s an astute answer because it implicitly recognizes that no customer can be counted on for repeat purchases – even wine club members come and go.

Over dinner earlier in the night with a number of other Smith-Madrone admirers, Stu began his remarks by stating the belief that ‘you can only make the best wine from the best grapes, and you can only grow the best grapes in the mountains’ because ‘Bacchus loves the hills.’ Stu had the wherewithal in 1972 to plant the vineyards used to make Smith-Madrone’s wines, to this day, on the side of a mountain in the North Coast of Napa Valley, and he chose one with slopes as steep as 30 degrees. Situating each varietal within the vineyard where it was best situated (“eastern exposure for the Riesling, southern and western exposures across flat stretches for the cabernet sauvignon; the coolest north-facing slopes for the chardonnay” according to the website), Stu has moved to dry farming to ensure vine struggle sufficiently to produce smaller berries to achieve a higher, and more desirable, skin-to-pulp ratio (most of the flavors and nearly all of the structure of wine comes from the grapes’ skin). Stu defined his winemaking style as the antithesis to “OTT” (Over The Top).

smithmad-hr06

Smith Madrone’s hillside vines. Picture: Smithmadrone.com

These days, many American consumers like to buy a story, not just a product. Although Stu can deliver his compelling story with thoughtfulness and humor, by the time the competition for his attention bowed out, leaving just me, he was ready to talk about something other than wine. Because I was going to be writing an article about Smith-Madrone we tried to return the topic of conversation to winemaking on several occasions, but we didn’t stay on it for long before going off in the direction of the state of the Republican and Democratic parties, or the regulatory challenges wineries face (especially in land use), or whether winemakers were inclined towards one particular political persuasion, or the value of a good distributor (I can attest to this having heard more than a few horror stories), or if a Parker 89-point review is worse than no review at all (answer: it is), or any of the other dozen topics we discussed. By the end of the night I came to like Smith-Madrone’s story because I liked the man at the center of it. Stu is real people, and you get a deep sense of that in his wine. It’s honest wine for honest people, or at least that’s my slogan for it. I’m quite glad we didn’t dwell on winemaking any longer than we did.

Coming from one of the best areas in Napa for more classically-styled wine, Smith-Madrone’s offerings are fantastic. If you want reserved, classy wines with especially deep and complex layers, all at what amounts to a steal for the quality and pedigree, made by a real person genuinely more invested in the quality of his life’s work than the potential fame or fortune of it, then you need to look into Smith-Madrone. The reviews below are from bottle samples the winery sent me that were tasted sighted.

2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay – The nose dazzles with banana, oak, lemon-lime Sprite, and vanilla bean with nice streaks of flint and smoky white pepper. Super engaging profile. The palate is full with a glycerin sensation but avoids becoming cloying by offering a fine balance of bright acidity, slight grainy tannin and honeyed fruit. The flavors feature Meyer lemon, pineapple, tart Starfruit, nectarine, cider, saline, tarragon, slate and just a bit of chili flake kick. This is top shelf chardonnay at a fantastic value. 93 points. Value: A

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling – Bright nose of tennis ball, limey minerality, apricot, banana leaf and peach. The palate is medium bodied with a high viscosity and cutting acidity. Loads of lemon, lime and slate on the initial hit, followed by white pepper as it turns to key lime pie with whipped cream and a hint of nutmeg and gets lush. The acid carries through on the long finish. Expertly crafted riesling with a promising decade of evolution ahead. 91 points. Value: A

2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon: The nose is funky, dark and smoky. Hickory smoke, olive brine, dark cherries, blood, dusty cocoa and tangerine peel. With more air the raspberry pops. It’s medium bodied with mouth-coating dusty tannins. The palate is also quite savory and very refined. There are multiple layers to this that years in the cellar will expose. Right now it’s under ripe cherries, maraschino sauce, dark plums, loam, tarragon, black pepper, mocha, a bit of iodine, and saline. Quite dry at the moment with a quick finish, I do expect it to fill out a bit with age as the tannins smooth and release. If this happens, the score will improve. 92 points. Value: A-

Wine Adventure: 24 Wines from Ontario

IMG_7092

I grew up in Washington State, about 25 miles south of the US border with Canada. With our antenna, I lived through my formidable years on Canadian television. Though we admittedly watched little TV in my house growing up, the quirky (okay, cheesy) humor of the Red Green Show, brilliantly staged Just For Laughs’ gag segments and improv genius of Second City Television formed my sense of humor to a very large degree. When I was in high school and racing bicycles, I can’t tell you how many times we’d drive up to the Vancouver area for races. Vancouver, still my favorite city in North America and one I don’t get to visit nearly enough, is home to the best culinary scene I’ve experienced in any of my travels around the world, including my short stint living in Barcelona and my trip to Tokyo, two cities widely considered to be among the very best for food. And the people, so nice.

Red Green

Red Green and his nephew, Harold. Credit: tvtropes.org

I left the Pacific Northwest in 2005 and although I get back at least once a year I’ve still not made it to British Columbia’s wine country, which has an improving reputation. I’ve been trying to figure out how to experience some of their wines here in Washington, DC and have come up blank – BC wine industry folk, if you’re reading this, please help! However, I’ve also long been told that wine country in another province, Ontario, had something to say about making quality Canadian wine and I can say now, thankfully, that I’ve been able to experience some of what they produce.

It all started last November in the tasting room of Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, California. I was in the area for work but was able to visit ABC and Jaffurs, two of my California favorites. While at ABC I met a woman who worked for a winery in Ontario. We got to talking, I told her about Good Vitis, my interest in trying Canadian wine and the difficulty I’ve had finding it where I live. We stayed in contact and she offered to put together a selection of wines from across Ontario and ship them to me as samples to review for Good Vitis.

IMG_7081

The reds

And boy, did she deliver. About two months ago two cases showed up at my office spread across ten wineries. There was pinot noir, chardonnay, gamay, riesling, cabernet franc and red and white blends. As I looked through the treasures, I wondered how I was going to try all this wine. First world problems, I know. Eventually I was able to cobble together some friends from the wine industry here in DC, including a fellow blogger and the manager of a retail outlet for a well-respected East Coast importer, to share in the experience.

IMG_7096

I had also emailed my Internet friend Peter Vetch, a proud Calgarian and author of Pop & Pour wine blog (by the way, his posts on the Finger Lakes Region are a must-read for anyone considering or planning a trip there), to get some information about Ontario wine and show him the lineup. Ontario has three appellations: the Niagara Peninsula (with ten sub-appellations and two regional appellations), Lake Erie North Shore (one sub-appellation) and Prince Edward County (no sub-appellations). The history and terroir of the three appellations are pretty diverse. Peter confirmed that the wines were almost entirely from the Niagara Peninsula (three came from Prince Edward County) and were a decently representative sample of that appellation. While all three appellations lie in climates that are on the cooler end of the global wine growing spectrum, they experience differing amounts of warming, cooling, wind and rainfall, and have different soil types. That being said, my eight favorite wines in the lineup came from six different sub-appellations of the Niagara Peninsula, so I’m a bit confused, if I’m honest, about the impact these differences have on the final product. The answer may be clear to someone with more Ontario wine experience than myself, I don’t know. Terroir, also, can be changed dramatically in a winery and I imagine there was a fair amount of this factor in play.

IMG_7084

The whites

In the same vein, there was a massive range of quality in these wines. I rated wines as low as 75 points and as high as 92, and the distribution of scores is spread across that range. There were also significant stylistic differences among wines made from the same varietals. This could be accounted for by the fact that they were made by different winemakers, though the differences were so significant that even differences in sub-appellation and winery don’t seem sufficient explanations. The others at the tasting had similar reactions.

I have positive and negative things to say about the wines. Let me get the negatives out of the way. While all significant, they are also all relatively easily addressed by the winemakers and vineyard managers. Given that we had a number of high quality wines that we enjoyed, the location of the vines is clearly not the issue in wines that demonstrated problems. A number of wines showed very artificial flavors (one I described as smelling and tasting like Yoplait strawberry banana yogurt), which are the result of winemaking, not terroir. Many were overly acidic, meaning that the body, alcohol and flavors were so out of balance with the acid that the best explanation seemed to be freewheeling acidulation. Several wines seemed watery, which in a couple instances was unfortunate because the diluted flavors were dynamic and could have been wonderful under greater concentration. This can be addressed either in the vineyard or the winery, or both, depending on the source of the phenomenon. Some wines clearly demonstrated poor yeast strain selections, while a few had obvious quality control issues in the winery, likely poor cleaning practices of the facilities. Finally, a few were over oaked, at least for my palate, but also in a way that didn’t allow me to confirm what I thought could have been some really delicious flavors that could have merited higher scores.

On the positive side, several wines offered truly interesting and unusual flavor profiles that captivated our attention. Many offered great complexity in their flavor profiles, though even the best, unfortunately, didn’t offer the concentration or depth needed to elongate the experience and transform it into something magical. I was sent three gamays, two of which blew us away (and this was an audience well acquainted with great gamay). As a varietal cohort in the lineup it was the most impressive, and we all agreed were wines we’d buy ourselves. The fruit notes were generally appealing, though some showed unusual and appealing combinations. The very best combined bright, focused fruit in harmony with savory and Earthy flavors.

The eight wines that stood out for me included Bachelder’s 2013 Lowery Vineyards pinot noir and 2013 Wingfield Block Wismer Vineyard chardonnay, which demonstrated a deft winemaker’s hand capable of spotlighting the best their fruit had to offer. Cave Spring delivered the best pinor noir in the lineup. 13th Street Winery gave us two world class gamays that offered some awesome gaminess to go with its ripe fruit. Stratus delivered a very good cabernet franc that stylistically straddled the new and old worlds. Tawse supplied the best chardonnay, if not the best wine, of the lineup, and Charles Baker gave us an intriguing riesling. Flat Rock Cellars and Norman Hardie had some solid efforts as well, and it isn’t hard to imagine even better wines coming out of their wineries in the not-too-distant future.

While ten wineries and two cases of wine is a pretty fantastic introduction, it is certainly not fully representative of a wine region as big as Ontario. Without trying a good deal more, and without speaking to a number of winemakers and vineyard managers, I wouldn’t want to pass any kind of declaratory judgment on Ontario wine other than to say this: there are clearly people in Ontario making good and interesting wine, and if more can sharpen their craft it’s a region that could well rise in status in the wine world.

A big thanks to all of the participating wineries and especially to Jennifer Hart of Flat Rock Cellars. All the wines were supplied as trade samples and tasted sighted. As many of these wines are not consistently distributed in the US, and because I could only find pricing in Canadian dollars for most of them, I’m going to avoid mis-valuing these wines by not assigning values to them as would normally be my standard procedure.

Wines

2015 13th Street Gamay Noir – Big cherry nose with beef smoked over hickory and some tangerine. It’s a little skunky, but not in a bad way. Funky and appealing aromas. The palate is slightly tannic and offers nice acidity in balance. Flavors offer ripe cherry, cranberry and quite a bit of raspberry to go with some game. Very interesting gamay offering flavors unusual in the varietal grown elsewhere. 89 points.

2014 13th Street Gamay Noir Reserve Sandstone – Wonderful nose of peppered salmon jerky, mushroom funk, cherries and black pepper. The palate offers fun flavors of acai, raspberry, blood orange, turkey jerky and iodine. Not a ton of depth but oh so enjoyable. Very intriguing terroir shows in this wine. 91 points.

2013 Bachelder Chardonnay Wingfield Block Wismer Vineyard – The nose is quite pretty with mango, pineapple and perfumed flowers. There’s also a bit of chalk. The palate is lush without being heavy, and the acid is well balanced with sweet starfruit, pineapple, lemon and peach. There’s a diversifying kick of white pepper. A solid, complete chardonnay. 90 points.

2013 Bachelder Pinot Noir Lowrey Vineyards – The nose offers macerated cherries, smoke, pepper, rose and dandelion. It offers a full, ripe and shiny mouth feel in a medium body that is nicely rounded with sweet cherries, black pepper and tangerine. There is also a bit of cocoa, pipe tobacco and tar. The flavor profile is a complex one, though it lacks significant depth. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive, classy effort. 90 points.

2015 Cave Spring Riesling Cave Spring Vineyard – The nose smells of tennis ball gas, straw, honey, pepper, guava and a lot of citrus zest. The palate is a tad bit effervescent and dry with nice limey acidity. There seems to be more flavor here that could be teased out with just a touch of residual sugar. 86 points.

2015 Cave Spring Pinot Noir – This offers a very pretty nose of dark cherries, plums, a variety of baking spices and some herbal qualities. The body is full with polished tannins. The flavors include chocolate covered cherries, celery, Herbs de Provence, black pepper, cinnamon and orange zest. It has the requisite depth and acidity to improve over the next few years if cellared properly. 91 points.

2013 Charles Baker Riesling Picone Vineyard – Big tennis ball gas on the nose, a little kerosene and a lot of chalk. The palate coats the mouth with seeming sweetness in what is a dry offering. There is honeyed kumquat, white pepper, slate and peach. The acid is kicking on the finish which dries the palate a bit too quickly. A good effort. 90 points.

2012 Flat Rock Cellars Chardonnay The Rusty Shed – A modest nose of citrus and mothballs. The palate is light, lush and a little soapy. There is a little sour citrus and green apples combined with sweet peach. Starfruit and white pepper round out the flavor profile. Lacks in weight – feels a bit watery – and complexity but is pleasant enough to sip. 87 points.

2014 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir Twenty Mile Bench – The nose offers macerated cherries, rhubarb and pickle juice. The palate is heavy and offers dark fruits. There are significant barrel notes of cocoa and hazelnut, although a bit of greenness, tar and smoke emerge. A bit too judicious use of oak on this as it seems to be beating down more interesting flavors lurking beneath it. 88 points.

2012 Flat Rock Cellars Pinot Noir Gravity – The nose is smoky, offering cherries, herbs and charred barrel notes. The palate is light but offers good density and robust grainy tannins. There is pickle juice, tart red fruits, smoke and tar. However, all of this is unfortunately beaten down by heavy toasted barrel notes. Less oak would have produced a more nuanced and complex wine. 88 points.

2016 Malivoire Pinot Noir Rosé Moira Vineyard – Smells and tastes like Yoplait strawberry banana yogurt, likely the result of an unplanned rose in which leftover juice was hit with a random yeast strain. 75 points.

2012 Malivoire Pinot Noir Mottiar – Smells of a natural gas leak, burnt rubber and raspberries. Tastes of ground cherry pits and gasoline. 75 points.

2015 Malivoire Gamay Small Lot Beamsville Bench VQA – Pretty red fruit on the nose along with black pepper and orange peel. The palate is medium bodied with noticeable tannic structure. The raspberries and huckleberries are quite juicy, which give way quickly to a watery sensation with watermelon and orange juice flavors that suggest high levels of lactic acid brought on by inoculation through a foreign yeast strain or two. Detrimentally over-engineered. 85 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Chardonnay Unfiltered – The nose is zesty and features straw and assorted roasted nuts. It’s lean bodied and offers exceptionally bright acid with textured lemon and lime zest. That the high level of acid is so out of proportion to the lean body suggests over acidulation. 86 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Chardonnay County – The nose is dominated by malolactic influences and is supported by nutty aromas while the palate is extremely zesty and bright with almond and peanut flavors. It strikes me as being overly acidulated as the acid is far out of balance with what is a very light body. 85 points.

2015 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir Unfiltered – Fantastic nose of pretty red fruits and flowers with just the right amount of tar and smoke. The palate is quite juicy offering raspberry, huckleberry and cherry to go with a little cocoa and parsley. An easy and pleasant drinker. 89 points.

2014 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir County – The nose wreaks of Brett and manure while the palate is filled with plastic flavors and bright fruit. It is quite watery and has a hint of effervescence. Neither undrinkable nor desirable. 80 points.

2013 Southbrook Winery Chardonnay Poetica – Unfortunately corked, not rated.

2015 Southbrook Winery Vidal Orange Wine – Nose: Brett band aid, Styrofoam and big apple cider vinegar. Not particularly pleasant. The palate is light, lean and musty. Sweet and sour flavors, very reminiscent of a light mead. There were some issues in the winemaking with this one, likely some quality control lapses. 79 points.

2013 Stratus White – The nose offers abundant peach and plastic with a slight whiff of parsley. The palate is lush and smooth, but the low acid turns it flabby in a hurry. It tastes of peach, white pepper, honey and marzipan. This is potentially showing its age and should be consumed sooner rather than later. 88 points.

2013 Stratus Cabernet Franc – The nose is meaty, savory and dark in its bramble berry, blood and smoke notes. The palate is medium bodied with tannins that release with air. It offers flavors of asparagus, beef jerky, oranges, strawberries and cherries and shows discernible but constructive charred oak influence. A nice twist on cabernet franc, I quite enjoyed this despite its slight watery sensation. 90 points.

2012 Stratus Red – A reserved nose of dark fruit and smoked salmon jerky. The palate seemed nondescript, but still enjoyable. Dark fruit was in abundance as was a sense of loam and dark Earth, but it is all overshadowed by too eager a use of oak. It offers a bit of vegetal flavors and finishes with a big pepper kick. 87 points.

2013 Tawse Chardonnay Quarry Road Vineyard – Nose: very zesty Meyer lemon and lime, stone fruit and a lot of slate and chalk. There is also some smoke, petrol and a little lees must. The palate is lush, creamy and dense with nicely balanced acidy that keeps the wine from becoming heavy or cloying. The oak treatment and fermentation adds nice weight and structure to the palate without bringing any of the annoying butter, toast or oily peanut tagalongs. There is lemon curd, peach, dried apricot, parsley, celery, grass, a hint of spearmint and some nice limestone. This is good stuff. 92 points.

2013 Tawse Pinot Noir Cherry Ave Vineyard – The nose offers mint and stewed dark berries and plums. The palate is quite tannic – give this a good decant or a few more years in the cellar – and full bodied. There is a little bit of kerosene kick, but it’s in good balance with ripe cherries, white pepper, bitter herbs, dandelion. Intriguing but not terribly complex. 88 points.