Mountain Wines from Napa and Sonoma

By Christopher Matthews

Bacchus amat colles — Bacchus loves the hills.WMGlogo

This piece of wisdom comes from antiquity, when the ancient Greeks, then Romans, figured out that hillside vineyards, despite greater degrees of difficulty (challenging topography, labor intensity, erosion, etc.), often produce more compelling wines. Better sun exposures. Better drainage (both soil and air). More vine stress. Cooler nights. Lower yields. Higher quality fruit.

At the March 2014 Wine Media Guild (WMG) lunch, held recently at Felidia’s in Manhattan, members and guests were treated to some modern-day examples of this received wisdom, from the “mountain wineries” of (mostly) Napa Valley and Sonoma County, including: Jericho Canyon (Calistoga), Laurel Glen Vineyard (Sonoma Mountain), Smith-Madrone  and Philip Togni Vineyard (both Spring Mountain), Vinoce Vineyards and Mount Veeder Winery (Mount Veeder), Summit Lake Vineyards and Cimarossa (Howell Mountain) and Wise Acre Vineyard and Castello di Amorosa (Napa Valley Appellation).

Jericho Canyon (and Winery)

Jericho Canyon (and Winery)

As one might surmise, most of the wines, both at the walk-around tasting preceding the lunch, and those offered at the table, were Cabernet Sauvignon or Cab-based blends. Nevertheless, the standout wine for me at the tasting was a white: Smith-Madrone’s 2012 Riesling

Napa is not known for Riesling — the climate is generally considered too warm for the noble grape to shine — but Smith-Madrone obviously has the right (mountain) location, as well as the knack. With classic, tangy stone fruit notes on the nose and palate, this is a wine of energy and zest, finishing long and bone dry. It’s certainly one of California’s best, and world-class in its own right.

Smith-Madrone 2012 Riesling

Smith-Madrone 2012 Riesling

Beyond the Riesling diversion, however, the crux of the lunch was mountain Cabs. And like many of my fellow tasters, I had expected big wines with massive tannins, oak, fruit and alcohol. Some elements of this profile played out, with intensity of fruit being a unifying theme, but the tasting showed much more nuance, balance and stylistic differences among the wines than I had anticipated, making for a compelling tasting. Kudos to Julie Ann Kodmur for organizing the wines and the tasting, and WMG member Peter Hellman for sponsoring.

Between the walk-around tasting and the lunch (which included bottles of older vintages brought by WMG members), we had some 30 wines to taste, with price points ranging from around $30 to $200, with many over the $100 mark. Big price tags, big wines and, in these more difficult and fragile mountain vineyard environments, big production costs, too!

Some tasting highlights:

Jericho Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($100): Deep, dark ink, with layered black currant, briar fruit and licorice aromas; on the palate, heady black fruit and tasty, ripe tannins. Mouth-filling. Delicious.

Vinoce Vineyards Solar Hill Mount Veeder Caberent Sauvignon 2010 ($60): A classic Cab nose with herbal and earthy notes, followed by gorgeous, lush red berry fruit on the palate. Hedonistic.

Laurel Glen Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($60): Deep, opaque ruby, with a perfumy nose of berries and conifer. Great balance, with bright black currant fruit character.

Laurel Glen Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Laurel Glen Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($45): A pretty briar fruit nose, vibrant structure and a fresh berry fruit palate, finishing clean and long. Elegant. Comparatively Old World.

Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($200): “We are trying to make the very best wine in the world” with the Cook’s Flat program, said co-owner Stu Smith (who attended and spoke at the lunch). While it’s still early days yet for the 2007 vintage, a blend of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot and 12% Cab Franc, the aromatic nose is full of high-tone eucalyptus and menthol, and the layered fruit and earth on the palate should develop beautifully with some cellar time.

Circling back to Riesling, however, Stu also brought along a Smith-Madrone Riesling from 1996, which was served over lunch. Now a pale gold, it exhibited great development, with petrol and nutty, marzipan aromas, but remained bright and fresh on the palate, finishing whistle clean. It’s proof positive for the Smith-Madrone Riesling’s pedigree and age potential.

The overall key, according to Smith, is that the mountain fruit brings with it excellent acidity, without which “wines are boring and dull” and will never age well. Period.

No argument here, Stu.

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