|Napa Valley from Smith-Madrone Vineyards on Spring Mountain|
They don't want to rip Napa publicly because that would insult the taste of many of their wealthiest customers. But I overhear all the time, "Napa Cabernets don't show any terroir."
Wine & Spirits magazine staged an interesting competition last month in San Francisco. The magazine asked five teams of sommeliers to investigate a type of wine in a region and then present 6 wines that would represent that region's terroir. In other words, the winners would find not just the best wines, but wines that said something about the place.
Here were the regions/wines:
Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
Finger Lakes Riesling
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Santa Barbara County Chardonnay
Washington Bordeaux blends
Looking at that list ahead of time, I expected Finger Lakes Riesling to win easily, Anderson Valley Pinot to do well, and Napa Valley Cab to get trash-talked by a room full of somms and like-minded writers.
Boy, was I wrong.
It didn't bode well for Napa that its sommelier team was New York-based and its head, Bar Boulud sommelier Michael Madrigale, is an official ambassador for the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB).
But Napa kicked ass, took no prisoners, and left even those of us in the room who know how good its wines can be astonished at how well they can show terroir.
Here are the 6 wines Madrigale and teammates chose:
Robert Sinskey "SLD Estate" Stags Leap District Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Robert Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Oakville Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Corison Kronos Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Mayacamas Vineyards Mt. Veeder Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Smith Madrone Spring Mountain District Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Diamond Mountain District Nap Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
The Smith Madrone was one of the most impressive wines of the day, with garrigue-like notes of the native California flora on the rugged forests on Spring Mountain. The 2011 vintage in Napa will never score well with Parker et al, but I believe great Napa wines from 2011 will be the best wines in those wineries' cellars two decades from now, and this is a terrific example.
What won the day for Napa, though, wasn't just that all six were excellent wines. It was their statement of terroir. They share a generosity of fruit you expect from Napa Valley, but they differed substantially based on where in Napa they came from. Sinskey SLD (my second favorite) has the gentle elegance of Stags Leap District. Mayacamas is taut and firm. Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill is dark, rich and lengthy. Corison is lively and juicy, and the Mondavi To Kalon has the characteristic Cabernet herb note that so many Napa producers are afraid of.
This wasn't the only revelation from the day, though.
Team Santa Barbara Chardonnay had the advantage of being based in San Francisco. They were led by Absinthe wine director Ian Becker, a fan of natural wines who said he expected to taste a lot of old-style overripe Chardonnay.
|Best of a strong group|
We expected the Finger Lakes Rieslings to do well, and they did. Washington Bordeaux blends was probably too broad a category to show in 6 wines, though there were some nice ones.
The other revelation was negative: how poor the Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs were as a group. Five were from 2011, which the sommelier team from Texas said they preferred to the 2012s. All things being equal, I'm more a Pinot than a Cab guy, like most somms, but at my table we were shocked by how uninteresting these were. And yes, there were some well-regarded names on the list.
Nobody would have expected Napa Valley to crush Anderson Valley in a taste-of-terroir contest judged by sommeliers. But then, nobody expected the Giants. Again.