I’m feeling a Mondavi shiver and a To Kalon shimmer coming on. Another anticipatory Mondavi experience is looming, a next week return venture to the iconic and archetypal Napa Valley winery. This will be my third deep delve into the wines of Robert Mondavi spread out over the past 15 months, after a February 2016 California visit and a June VINTAGES 50th Anniversary structured tasting and dinner. I thought it might be me that was the one getting around but clearly it’s the other way around.
THIS VINEYARD STOOD HEAD AND
SHOULDERS ABOVE THOSE AROUND IT
“The extraordinary quality of this wine originates in Napa Valley’s generous terroir. When I taste this, I’m reminded why Cabernet Sauvignon is the varietal on which Robert Mondavi built his reputation.” These are the comments of Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking. I’d hedge my bets that Fumé Blanc should also fall under the auspicious umbrella of such a statement. Mondavi turned the ideal into copyright and it should be argued that Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc would not be where it is today without the farming, research and development put in by generations of the Mondavi team.
No matter the varietal, the To Kalon Vineyard is where it all stems from, the rib from which the eponymous winery was born and the subsequent 50 years of wines that have comes from those storied vines. In 1966 Mondavi chose To Kalon as the epicentre of what would turn out to be a great big winemaking universe. “It was a vineyard with a distinguished history and a magical nature, ” he wrote. “Ideal soils, sunlight and rain – to my eye, the vineyard was a treasure.” Five decades of Fumé Blanc have sprung, along with more than a hundred renditions of Cabernet Sauvignon.
During that February 2016 visit we tasted through Napa, Oakville and Reserve Fumé Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Carneros Pinot Noir and To Kalon Vineyard bottles were poured in the Margarit Mondavi Vineyard Room at dinner prepared by Chef Jeff Mosher, including the 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.
Last June Mark De Vere MW led a masterclass in celebration of Mondavi’s 50th anniversary. The line up was outstanding bordering on ridiculous. Vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon starting at 2012 and going back through 2007, 1996, 1995, 1994, 1980 and 1975. The VINTAGES sponsored event and dinner at George Restaurant was prepared by the predilection of Executive Chef Lorenzo Loreto.
With 50 years of To Kalon and a specialized certification program up next, there is no better time than the present to publish these notes on 16 Mondavi wines tasted during these recent events and a few others that have found their way through the VINTAGES release program. Here they are.
The landmark 2015 is the culmination of five Mondavi decades spent elevating and differentiating sauvignon blanc, now in the its 50th vintage. The name fumé blanc and Mondavi are synonymous with one another in unequivocal signature, identical twin, trademark, signature fashion. Not just for Oakville, Napa Valley and California but anywhere and everywhere. You can throw in benchmark, Fodor’s or Lonely Planet guide, dictionary entry or whatever moniker you like. Mondavi’s is all this and in 2015 at its richest and adroitly balanced best. The nose is all ripe orchard fruit from seed to stone and the palate full of texture, acidity and length. The flavours repeat the apple-pear-peach-plum fodder with great tang and near-essential aridity. Great vineyards produce great sauvignon blanc and the rest is history. Drink 2017-2021. Tasted February 2017
The Oakville fumé blanc is a To Kalon gathering, the vineyard that surrounds the Robert Mondavi Winery. With so many “highest beauty” offerings it’s hard to keep track but this qualifies for the distinction with as much respect as any in the ever moving squall of the portfolio. Here from the geographic mean of the valley, a benchmark Bordeaux blend in bench abutment, composed of 89 per cent sauvignon blanc and (11) sémillon. This is only the third vintage and once in cohorts you note the elevated toast, struck flint and smoke. More citrus involves the senses, something almost rare for Napa Valley, in this way. With time (and please be encouraged to hang out for a while) the butterscotch joins the fumé party. The increased tense intention translates to excellent length. The sémillon makes a statement into the nicely bitter finish, with weight, stoicism and certainly the great potential for age. By way of comparison to the Napa Valley bottle there are 5,000 cases of this Oakville. Drink 2017-2022. Tasted February 2016
The To Kalon Vineyard Reserve produces 2500 cases (in a big year) and 2012 topped out at 1700. The vintage delivers more green apple and elastic elegance so good luck in your search for reduction, flint, toast and smoke. You should look to 2013 for such a deferential stylistic and make plans to embosom the two side by side 10 years onward. This is mostly sourced from the 1959 planted Robert’s Block within the larger vineyard, primarily gravelly and well-draining with some alluvial soil edged against the Mayacamas Mountains. The spice here is exceptional, with some anomalic Napa Valley mineral tang afforded by the sémillon blended into the sauvignon blanc. Drink 2017-2023. Tasted February 2016
Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Chardonnay 2014, Napa Valley, California (492124, $44.95, WineAlign)
There is a richness defined in a Mondavi chardonnay that goes beyond the simple fact that the fruit is Carneros in origin. It’s a luxe composition because of that terroir and also because winemaker Genevieve Janssens is painfully shy to let the fruit speak on its own behalf. The crux and the key lies and turns right there because this is a Mondavi wine. Just as it is always noted with fumé blanc, chardonnay too develops this obeisant disposition, full of emotive ability and perhaps not exactly what you are want to expect, varietally speaking. This is singular for Carneros chardonnay and it’s all Mondavi. It’s both country kitchen in weekend baking mode and a walk in the ripening orchard. It’s a starred Michelin kitchen in baking fury, with a multiplicity of sugars caramelizing overtop a myriad of ramekins welling with tropical fruit. Finally, it’s a Mondavi acidity, elevated and integrated. It’s good chardonnay. Drink 2017-2022. Tasted April 2017
Some wise old conditioned and character building vines go into Mondavi’s pinot noir, “purchased from people who have better fruit than we do.” The Hyde Vineyard (40 plus year-old vines) and Rancho Carneros (which includes vines planted in 1979) bring the southernmost windswept part of Napa Valley into the pinot mix. This is optimum extraction in hyperbole, of fruit that runs the gamut from red to deeply dark. It is nothing if not a rich, concentrated and intensely flavourful pinot noir. There is a measure of stuffing to see it drink this way for at least five years from release. Drink 2016-2020. Tasted February 2016
Robert Mondavi 50th Anniversary Maestro Red 2013, Napa Valley, California (459933, $60.00, WineAlign)
Maestro the proprietary blend endows another legacy building notch onto the Robert Mondavi name. This is accomplished through the tenets of wisdom in winemaking as an extension from historic estate vineyards. To Kalon is always the rock and in order to make this 50th Anniversary blend there were sources drawn from throughout Napa Valley though mostly from the Stags Leap District. Merlot (59 per cent) is the pillar with cabernet franc (25), cabernet sauvignon (7), petit verdot (6) and malbec. It’s a true five varietal Bordeaux-styled affair with classic Mondavi elevated pH and acidity. The concept is taken from the image of Robert Mondavi as the maestro of the orchestra and of greater Napa Valley. The liquor of merlot provides the base wine, joined dusty and injected with power by jolts of espresso. It’s an interesting 50th anniversary choice of voice, antithetical to the dominant cabernet sauvignon reds that Mondavi is so famous for and the varietal he staked his reputation on. But rich and velvety helps the cause and the result. Drink 2017-2022. Tasted June 2016
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, California (255513, $37.95, WineAlign)
The aridity of 2013 has now translated into some lovely development in bottle that trials and tribulates with its wealthy pool of rich, ripe and silky chocolate texture. Such a typically reasoned Napa Valley explanation with 47 years under its increscent belt. Serious tannins need five years to seek settlement and to carry structure for to build a home for the ripe fruit. At 14.8 per cent alcohol there is much to fuel and keep the abode bathed in warmth, along with American oak in pancetta ooze, augmented by smoke and spice. Chewy and huge. Drink 2018-2024. Tasted twice, February and June 2016
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 1996, Napa Valley, California (459883, $73.00, WineAlign)
This 1996 is the 30th anniversary bottling at 20 years-old showing with impossible structure and beautiful possibilities still lay ahead. Though expecting it to push through to its 30th birthday is overly ambitious it will drink just like this, with freshness, bright red fruit and pitch perfect acidity for at least three more years. The pleasure it currently brings suggests this is what was meant to be, by design, of great fortune or just plain luck, so get it while it rests in this ethereal state. Those who paid nothing for it early on were the wisest of the wise and also lucky. This Mondavi ’96 would be a Left Bank killer in a Bordeaux blind tasting, teasing as it does with whiffs of Cassis and tobacco, plus a fortune in subtle perfume. The finish brings a note of baked bricks, almost like nebbiolo but the structure is all cabernet sauvignon. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted June 2016
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 1994, Napa Valley, California (459867, $73.00, WineAlign)
From a cool, oft times wet vintage with an elongated ripening season the under appreciated, under-valued and underestimated cabernet sauvignons of Napa Valley continue to get their say. This Mondavi ’94 will not be denied its voice, showing harmonious parts in symphony, of power, grip and elegance from To Kalon Vineyard fruit, amazing acidity and more than impressive longevity. Here now some notes of balsam wood, mushroom and soy have taken hold with more than just two years of extra time as compared to the silly fresh ’96, but the jig is not yet up. The combination of brown sugar and lingering mixed berry fruit is nothing but lovely. Drink up soon. Drink 2016-2017. Tasted June 2016
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2012, Napa Valley, California (670463, $150.00, WineAlign)
Much of the fruit is brought to the Napa Reserve from the To Kalon Vineyard and it is rounded out with complimentary Napa and 16 months in 100 per cent new French oak. From a post 2011 hardship deliverance, more than welcome, hallelujah even vintage. Now a Mondavi return to floral posture above and beyond the Napa and Oakville bottle norms. So very pretty and powerful, out of saturation and into drought from which tannic structure is born. Full on fruit without borders, up to the top of the walls and back down in to the glass. With each sip the tannin builds and builds until the wall is constructed. There is no escape because the architecture is both classic and exceptional. Don’t be in a hurry. Struggle will only tighten the grip. Be patient and the next decade will deliver elegance and grace. Drink 2020-2027. Tasted February 2016
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve To Kalon Vineyard 2012, Oakville, Napa Valley, California (670463, $150.00, WineAlign)
This is just the second vintage of the To Kalon Oakville Reserve (as opposed to the Napa bottling) from a vineyard where Robert Mondavi established his winery in 1966 and the next “great one,” after 2009. The To Kalon (western) Oakville Reserve is like the Gretzky of cabernet sauvignons, a generational player that only comes along once (or in wine terms, two or three times) a decade. The finest blocks and the “walk in the park” vintage conspired to make To Kalon a focal point once again, of both pH and acidity on the elevated scale, telling us that longevity will never come into question. The wall of tannin exhibited by the Napa Reserve is not duplicated here and so it is a different sort of structure that builds, with more black cherry rich fruit and coveted acescence, but also an absence refined, as if the French barrel hides, deftly woven into the fineness of grain. There is a dusty, ropey and slow developing rise in character, as if a low, barely audible rumble can be heard, or sensed. A waffling between great and outstanding is certainly understood but by the time we reach 2030 and add up the career statistics of this To Kalon I’m quite certain the jury will be out. Drink 2018-2031. Tasted February and June 2016
Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley, California (670463, $144.95, WineAlign)
Tasted at the nine year mark the vintage warmth has nowhere to hide and the fruit is coming within reason of raisin. A small percentage of petit verdot is part of this Mondavi development from fruit as rich, concentrated and extracted as any. The choices made here surely went a long way towards teaching what subsequent decisions were made with the aridity of 2012, 2013 and 2014. The dried fruit as syrup glazing the layers of cake melts into the decadence of barrel chocolate and a roundness of acidity so different that the 2012s. Some earthy, woodsy floor grounds this ’07 so that you are able to see fruit through the forest’s trees. Drink 2016-2019. Tasted June 2016
Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley, California (WineAlign)
Though sandwiched betwixt and gobsmacked between some infamous Napa Valley vintages (most notable 1995-7 and 1999) don’t look past this golden era 1998. To Kalon Vineyard is the source so right there is pretty much what you need to know about pedigree and potential. At this 17-18 years point in time a few drops of soy and a melt or two of caramel are noted in the ’98 Reserve’s development. Secondary affirmations and vintage structure bring out the purity of the herbaceous quality in cabernet sauvignon together with the slow evolution of a quiet, respectful wine. A tender and silky balsamic reduction chimes in though time is still a friend, willing and allowing the fruit to continue its natural path towards senectitude. I can’t find any reason to not seek tertiary character and continue to enjoy this over the next six years. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted February 2016
Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1995, Napa Valley, California (670463, WineAlign)
A few points of merlot were blended into this 21-year salute to Mondavi’s legacy, a cabernet sauvignon impossibly fresh and bright this deep into life. The acidity is not only persistent it’s downright captivating and spellbinding. With thanks to the vintage of course, after a wet spring and a long, cool summer. Few double digit decade retrospective looks into the Mondavi cabernet sauvignon anthology would deliver such clarity of fruit seemingly immune to the truffled passages of time. By dint of tradition and without any forced supervision wines like this govern themselves and yet this might be a larger consideration regarding the entire portfolio. Drink 2016-2021. Tasted June 2016
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1980, Napa Valley, California (WineAlign)
Mondavi’s 1980 Reserve comes from a time when Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon was made in an unidentified, free and indirect style. The young To Kalon Vineyard may have already known its iconic place but if the makers also knew they could not have so easily created such an early success for us to revel in 36 years later. This is now and still fresh, at least in the context of three dozen years in the bag, with that tied To Kalon triumvirate of acidity, tannin and structure seamless and unsevered. How many aromatic notes can be described? Sarsaparilla, root beer, baked bricks, tomato leaf, pipe tobacco, eryngii mushroom, potpourri and mocha are eight that come to mind and nose. It’s a juicy ’80, not so much in terms of fruit though further sips bring faint memories on the back palate. All this 36 years later manages to remove responsibility from the omniscient perspective of the winemaker and lay it comfortably and pleasurably in our hands and minds. So much thanks for this opportunity. Drink 2016-2017. Tasted June 2016
Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1975, Napa Valley, California (WineAlign)
Forty one years is a long haul for a wine to hang in there and I’m not sure more than a handful of 1975 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon not plucked from the future iconic climat of To Kalon Vineyard could have survived this test of time. Even with the impressive longevity and lifeline ability this is now more curiosity than pleasure. Some might say at this stage the wine may be aimless but who can deny that it is also possessive of poised intelligence. From a vintage overshadowed by 1974, there is some old California Golden Seals hockey bag sweat in the aromatic mix along with savoury mulch and mushroom. There really is no fruit left to speak of, prune perhaps but no berries. The acidity still rips with some strength, swirling into the burnt caramel and all things considered this ain’t dead yet. It does show some Bretty notes that the 1980 does not and in the end the adage is true, spoken so eloquently by Mark de Vere MW. “Flavours you cannot replicate without time.” Drink 2016. Tasted June 2016
Good to go!