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Robert Mondavi at 100

chalk4by Andrew Chalk

The late Robert Mondavi would be 100 this year were he still with us. The winery (part of Constellation Brands since 2004) is making a national tour to acquaint their wholesalers and retailers with their latest offerings. I was an invited guest at a tasting in the metroplex this week and it seemed an appropriate point to see what had changed and what had remained the same since Robert Mondavi himself ran the show.

Gary Midyette, Director of Operations for Robert Mondavi Winery, led the tasting. He has been with the winery since before the Constellation purchase. Likewise, the wine maker of the offerings that we tasted, Genevieve Janssens. In fact, a lot of the same faces still work there and the same core line of wines is still made. I examined the style of the wines as well as we progressed through the product line.        

Culling some highlights: The 2011 Fumé Blanc Reserve, To Kalon Vineyard  Napa Valley represents a unique continuation of the Mondavi heritage. Robert Mondavi invented this style of California Sauvignon Blanc and he invented the name. In the mid 1960s in California, Sauvignon Blanc was usually a sweet and uninspiring beverage. It was grown on over cropped fruit and made in an industrial accountant-driven environment. Mondavi believed the grape was capable of better. He reduced the yields of Sauvignon Blanc vineyards in order to concentrate the fruit in fewer grapes. Then, he fermented the juice in French oak barrels and aged the wine in new French oak barrels. The resulting wine was dry, and had a heady bouquet of the vanillin inseparable from new oak. Those barrels also imparted phenols into the wine, giving it a weighty mouth feel, as if it wanted to say that this was an altogether serious and important wine. He named it Fumé Blanc, to distinguish it from the prevailing style of Sauvignon Blanc. The market loved it and the imitators followed all over Napa Valley.

The 2011 carries on the tradition of Mondavi Fume Blanc although now, as with the whole range of Mondavi, the new oak is more restrained. This is a sophisticated wine that complements fleshy fish (e.g. grouper, orange roughy, etc.) and poultry or game bird preparations. I have never had the willpower to keep this wine long enough to age it, but I suspect the results would reward the patience.

The other defining Mondavi wine, and their most renowned wine of all, is the Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Reserve’. This wine, crafted either entirely or almost entirely from grapes from Mondavi’s To Kalon vineyard (hence the ‘Oakville’ viticultural area designation), has won countless awards. The vintage that we tasted was the somewhat pre-pubescent 2009. As a result, the nose was still somewhat closed in, but had the young dark fruit notes common in Cabernet. The color resembled an intense, opaque raspberry coulis. In the mouth, the flavors are of dark fruit and herbs and the tannins still forward tannins but will doubtless dissolve with age. Keep this rather than drink it. At least five years, but it will prevail a lot longer.

My overall impression is that the Robert Mondavi Winery story is of continuity and preservation. Followers of the house style will be re-assured. New drinkers can get a window into a historic American winery secure in the knowledge that this is the real thing.

Mondavi wines are widely available around town at high-end wine merchants.

Wines Tasted
2011 Chardonnay, Napa Valley
2010 Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley
2011 Fumé Blanc Reserve, To Kalon Vineyard,  Napa Valley
2011 Pinot Noir, Carneros, Napa Valley
2010 Pinot Noir Reserve, Carneros, Napa Valley
2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, Oakville, Napa Valley
2011 Moscato D’Oro, Napa Valley

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