Reconsiderng a Napa Valley Legend; Robert Mondavi Winery

As we’ve grown precipitously as a wine drinking nation over the last couple of decades our choices have also increased. The number of outlets selling wine is way up and the options we have once we go there are in sharp contrast to what was available a number of years ago. The temptation in our culture is also to chase the new hot thing. Sometimes that leaves little room to reconsider or reconnect with something we already love. In this case that something is the Robert Mondavi Winery. There was no greater ambassador for both California wines and the importance of wine on our tables in this country than Robert Mondavi. Napa Valley and perhaps the entire US wine industry would look radically different today if not for the chances he took and the advances, in quality and more, that he championed. In the sea of wine that’s out there it’s easy to forget that. Recently I had the opportunity to taste through some current and older releases with winemaker Genevieve Janssens.

Tasting both new offerings and an older Cabernet Sauvignon really showed off the quality of winemaking that is still going on at this venerable Napa Valley house. A particular standout was the 2007 I Block Fume Blanc. This wine is made in tiny quantities (207 cases) and sourced from a specific block of the To Kalon vineyard. It was one of the more impressive Sauvignon Blancs I’ve tasted in quite awhile. At three plus years old it’s fresh and vibrant and still has plenty of life ahead of it. It’s only available through the winery (SRP $75) and well worth the extra effort to get it.

The event took place at Hearth Restaurant in New York and this allowed us to taste these wines as they are meant to be consumed; side by side with food. I sampled the 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay with a rotating cast of different appetizers. This wine was produced with fruit sourced in Carneros (58%), East Napa foothills (29%), Sonoma County (10%), other Napa vineyards (3%). 69% of the juice was fermented in barrel; 13% of them were new. The balance was fermented in stainless steel. This Chardonnay which is widely available has a suggested retail price of $20. Orchard fruit aromas fill the nose of this wine along with a hint of spice. Golden delicious apple, pear, pineapple and guava all make their presence know through the palate. Minerals, apple pie crust and baker’s spice are each part of the finish which has impressive length for a Chardonnay in this price category. The use of oak here was judicious and it adds to the complexity, as opposed to some Chardonnays where it becomes a distraction. The bottom line is that this wine pairs well with a wide array of different foods and also drinks beautifully on its own. It’s one of the work horses in the Mondavi portfolio and it’s well worth trying if you haven’t had it in awhile.

Two vintages of the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon were impressive for different reasons. The 1996 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is an excellent example of the age worthiness of good Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. Most (79%) of the fruit for it came from Oakville; much of it from To Kalon. When Robert Mondavi spoke of comparing Napa wines to his French counterparts it was wines like the reserve Cabernet that I bet he had in mind. This wine still has plenty of fruit on it, but it’s also become earthier and softer. It’s a pleasure to drink both with food and without.

The Robert Mondavi Winery 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon was made entirely with fruit from Oakville and 93% of it from To Kalon. This wine is bigger, bolder and a bit brasher today. It has firm tannins that need some time in the bottle or some aeration to soften a bit. The elements which make the 1996 so drinkable today are also there in the 2007. It’s simply loaded with fruit and spice flavors that are accented by the time spent in barrel. Just less than 10,000 cases were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $135. Ultimately, the 2007 has the hallmarks of a wine that promises to be an even more impressive effort than the 1996. The question after purchasing it is if you have patience. It’s very enjoyable now, particularly with full flavored foods. However if you give it 5 or 10 years of proper storage you’ll be rewarded with a slightly mellower, more resolved wine that will just knock your socks off. You really can’t go wrong either way, it depends which experience you prefer.

Tasting these wines and several others with food, over a leisurely evening made a couple of facts crystal clear. Most importantly if you haven’t had wines from the flagship Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley for a while, it’s high time to revisit them. Their releases still showcase some of the best that Napa Valley has to offer. This was apparent both in widely available wines like the Chardonnay and Cabernet as well as small production items like the I Block Fume Blanc. The other point is that as much attention as the To Kalon Vineyard gets, it should probably get more. The wines that were sourced there show off a tremendous sense of place and are simply impressive efforts. Genevieve Janssens who has been making the wines at Robert Mondavi Winery since 1997 (she worked at Opus One previously) is doing an impressive job shepherding the philosophy of Mr. Mondavi into the future. The best way to thank her for that effort is to taste these wines.