By Rick VanSickle
NAPA VALLEY, Calif. — It’s a familiar sight to anyone who has visited the Napa Valley. The California Mission-style arch that opens up onto Robert Mondavi’s most prized vineyard and beyond to the Mayacamas Mountains.
If you beat the tourist buses you will get a picture-perfect photo of this entranceway into one of Napa Valley’s most historic wineries.
I never tire of the view here at Robert Mondavi Winery in the heart of the Napa’s Oakville region. It is always on my agenda whenever I visit.
The winery is surrounded by the famed To Kalon vineyard, home to the oldest vines (planted in 1945) in Napa and the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines in the New World. The vineyard was first planted in 1887 by Napa wine pioneer H.W. Crabb and through several sales of the property and replantings, the majority of the vineyard is now owned by Mondavi with the rest split between Opus One, Beckstoffer Vineyards and UC Davis, a wine and viticultural university which uses it for research purposes.
The oldest plantings are big, gnarly vines that yield small but concentrated berries that go into the top wines at the winery, some commanding $250 a bottle for the Cabernet Sauvignon and $85 for the top Sauvignon Blanc, which Mondavi calls Fume Blanc.
Robert Mondavi established his namesake winery in 1966 with a vision to create Napa Valley wines that would stand in the company of the world’s finest. He chose To Kalon Vineyard in the heart of the Napa Valley as the home for Robert Mondavi Winery.
The winery, now owned by Constellation Brands, likes to consider To Kalon a first-growth vineyard, with wines made from there among the top bottles in California.
Along with the To Kalon Vineyard, Robert Mondavi Winery sources grapes from some of Napa Valley’s finest vineyards, including Stag’s Leap (Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc) and Carneros (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay).
Mondavi long believed that wines should reflect their origins, that they are the product of the soil, the climate, and the careful stewardship of those precious resources. He also believed in combining the newest techniques and technology with time-honored winemaking traditions.
Mondavi, who died in 2008 at the age of 94, left a legacy the winemaking team at the winery continues to this day.
The mandate has been to always strive higher, to pursue Mondavi’s goal of excellence with the same passion and innovative spirit, moving forward with programs that break barriers and open new frontiers.
Leading that initiative is director of winemaking Genevieve Janssens, who started with the winery in 1978 and was named Winemaker of the Year by Wine Enthusiast in 2010.
Her passion for Robert Mondavi the man and the winery that bears his name and the vineyards he nurtured are expressed in everything she does. She is a believer in the tradition of all things Mondavi and is continuing the path of excellence the founder began.
Mondavi always believed his winery could produce wines in Napa that could rival anything produced in Europe.
And, as if to prove that point, our first taste of wine on our first day visiting the winery, is not a Mondavi wine at all, but a who’s who of the greatest wines in the world.
Krug Grand Cuvee Brut, perhaps the greatest name in Champagne, is poured as we enter the Robert Mondavi winery, a 20,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility that took five years to build and was finished in 2001.
The bubbly is exquisite and we savour it as we admire the 56 5,000-gallon Taransaud oak fermenters that form the backbone of the red winemaking program. The winery is entirely gravity flow, gently allowing wines to age in the first-year barrel room where the winemakers choose from among 10 different coopers to achieve the complexity and balance they seek.
It is a spectacular sight, all clean lines and fine oak in perfect symmetry from top to bottom where, three floors down, new French oak barriques house the wine for nine months before moving to another cellar for a further nine months. The wine spends a further year in bottle before being released.
As we tour the facility, our hosts pour, in order, Domaine Gros Clos Clos-Vougeot Musigni 2009 from Burgundy, Chateaux Margaux 2006, a first-growth Bordeaux, Sassacaia 2008, one of the great Super Tuscans from Italy, and finally, Penfold’s Grange 2006, considered the top wine from Australia.
It’s a bold gesture to pour these wines from the greatest wine regions of the world while standing in the heart of Napa wine country, but you can’t say you want to be among the best without pouring your wines beside the best.
Granted, Mondavi is not trying to make top Burgundy, Bordeaux or Super Tuscans. But it does excel at making terroir-driven wines from grapes that do best in the heat of the Napa Valley — Cabernet Sauvignon (with a bit of blending from Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cab Franc) and Fume Blanc (with a touch of Semillon and barrel aging). The winery also produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and range of other products, but at the heart are those two varieties sourced from its To Kalon vineyard.
Wines at Robert Mondavi, which is celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday this June, are made across several tiers, including:
“The ultimate expression of terroir.” Hand-selected fruit from the finest blocks within the vineyards, these wines combine complexity with density and structure, and demonstrate the “art” of winemaking at the highest level at Mondavi.
Oakville is home to some of the finest Cabernet Sauvignon and terroir in the world. In the heart of the Napa Valley, this appellation possesses a diversity of volcanic and riverbed soils that create some of the most complex Cabernet Sauvignon wines each year.
NAPA VALLEY WINES
These wines are sourced from the finest appellations in the Napa Valley including Oakville, Stags Leap, Carneros and other select vineyard sites. The wines are blended together to create wines of complexity and elegance that come from working with the diversity of these vineyard sites.
Over four days we are poured everything Robert Mondavi has to offer from the top Reserve and special “winery-only” single vineyard wines from To Kalon to the Napa Valley wines sourced from various vineyards. The Cabernets are variously paired with food prepared perfectly to match the wines and they are also shown beside their peers from around the world (Bordeaux, Australia, Washington, neighbouring Sonoma etc.) and other top Napa Valley wines.
The Fume Blancs are shown beside the great Sauvignon Blancs of the world including the Loire valley in France, New Zealand and Bordeaux.
It is the flagship wine, the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, that the winery builds its portfolio around.
After tasting it several times and through four decades of back vintages, the wine begins to reveal its defining characteristics.
“For us, the Reserve is not about being bigger, it’s about being better,” says winemaker Janssens. “It’s about more density, length on the palate and brighter fruit.”
That is exactly the common link in Mondavi wines no matter the vintage. That brightness of fruit, a bit more acidity than other Napa Cabernets, that lift the flavours on the palate.
Napa Cabs can be highly concentrated, thick and powerful but also soft and chunky in the mouth.
You can see it in the 1989 Reserve we tried over a meal of rib eye steak, roasted sunchokes, Maitake mushrooms and Bordelaise sauce, those succulent red fruits, cassis, currants, plums and spice balanced by refreshing acidity that makes you want to take sip after sip, even in a wine 24 years old.
It’s what you expect from a gracefully aging Bordeaux or Italian red.
Yes, I think Mondavi’s wines can stand among the best in the world. His legacy is in safe hands.
Note: See Rick’s Picks for reviews of a selection of Robert Mondavi’s wines.