I’m going to go out on a limb here — not a huge limb, because it’s very near the end of the year — and state that this beautiful chardonnay from Smith-Madrone is by far my favorite of all the white wines I have tasted in 2014.
Frankly, I had grown a bit weary of California chardonnays — the big, oily, oaked versions that were powerhouses of flavor but proved difficult to pair with food, the excessively fruit-forward chardonnays with unpleasantly acidic finishes or, worst of all, the pale, insipid chardonnays that couldn’t figure out which side of the oak/fruit fence they wanted to land on and were simply anemic. And then I tasted this Smith-Madrone, and remembered why I had once loved chardonnays.
The 2012 has a gorgeous tropical fruit nose with detectable ripe pear, apple, and lemon, all replicated on the palate. There is a remarkable alchemy going on here, with sophisticated mineral notes and a hint of honeysuckle complementing the fruit, creating a wonderfully layered tasting experience. The balance and structure of this wine is near perfect, at no point in the tasting did the buttery elements overwhelm the fruit, nor did the long citrusy finish ever flirt with excessively acidic. The barely detectable oak (from eight months in new French oak barrels) served to enhance, not overwhelm, the other elements. It is one of the best-balanced wines of any varietal I have tasted this year.
And, mirabile dictu, this wine paired beautifully with food. I tasted it with assorted hors d’oeuvres, including ripe Roquefort and triple-crème cheeses, spicy poached shrimp, and a simple tarragon-vinegar dressed appetizer of lump crabmeat. It complemented them all.
Smith-Madrone states that its goal is to make artisanal wines that are distinctive, representative, and, above all, bring “pleasure to the senses.” They more than succeeded with this wine.
At a recent tasting, the Smith-Madrone 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon knocked every taster’s socks off — it is that exceptional. Like the Chardonnay reviewed above, it was my favorite wine in its category for the year. So, who are these people? And how do they consistently produce such stellar wines?
Brothers Stu and Charles Smith are the talent guiding the wines at Smith-Madrone, a small vineyard, perched above and overlooking the Napa Valley (The Madrone in the hyphenate refers to the adjacent forest.) Working together, the brothers began clearing the land and planting their terraced vines, enjoying early success with an internationally award-winning riesling in 1979. In 2000, after enduring a phylloxera plague that destroyed the original stock, the brothers gamely replanted. Although the experience of watching their vineyard die must have been personally devastating, the quality of the fruit from the new vines, enhanced by hard-won experience and advances in the way the vines are planted, has exceeded all expectations.
Their cabernet sauvignon is the finest expression of terroir I have tasted this year. The vintners credit the red “Aiken” soil, which is derived from weathered volcanic materials and sedimentary rock, and the steep, high-elevation slopes on which the vines are grown. But not only is this wine fully expressive of terroir, it is hands-down the best California cabernet I tasted in 2014: elegant, and beautifully structured, the wine is inky in the glass and with cedar and dark fruit in the nose. From the first sip, all senses are engaged; we all tasted dark red fruit, a bit of chocolate, a bit of dirt, minerals, light oak and we all just wanted to taste it again. And again.
Some of the wine’s layered complexity may be due to the blend (83-percent cabernet sauvignon, seven-percent merlot, and 10-percent cabernet franc), some to the dry-farming techniques used at the vineyard, some to that magnificent soil — but much of the success of this wine must be credited to the winemakers, who brought all the elements together. “Magnificent,” “sophisticated,” “elegant,” and “fabulous,” pepper the tasting notes of all assembled.
I served it with Julia Child’s rich and homey Boeuf Bourguignon with braised pearl onions and flash-sautéed mushrooms, but I cannot imagine any beef or game dish it would not enhance. It stunned with ripe cheeses.
The bad news? Just 13.5 acres of this vineyard are devoted to cabernet sauvignon, and just over 1,000 cases of this vintage were bottled. At a mere $48 a bottle, they will evaporate off the shelves, so hurry.