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Napa Valley: Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet

Written by JW. Posted in California


Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was one of Napa’s foremost wines in the 1970s, as much a product of the effort and genius of Robert Mondavi himself as the famous To Kalon vineyard in Oakville that, by and large, provided the wine’s core of great Cabernet fruit since its inception. Fast-forward forty years since the first Reserve Cab was first released and much, seemingly, has changed.

First the Mondavi’s have gone. They departed the business for good in late 2004 when the winery, its labels and 50% of the Opus One joint-venture, was picked up by Constellation Brands, in a $1.3 billion takeover that followed a period of inner turmoil and what many saw as strategic mismanagement of the business. Then in 2008 Robert Mondavi himself passed away. More than anything else this marked the end of an era. Even though he’d not been at the controls for many years, it’s difficult to imagine a more influential figure in the Napa or, in the entire world of wine, save perhaps for Mondavi’s great friend, the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild.

Yet despite all the corporate upheavals and the passing of its founding icon, a recent tasting held in the summer by the Napa Valley Vintners of vintages that spanned that turbulent period showed the Mondavi Reserve Cabernet to be in good shape. Partly it’s because the ingredients remain the same. Partly, ownership aside, the brand is also largely in the same winemaking hands.

The 450 acre [182 ha] To Kalon block still contributes up to 90% of the Reserve Cabernet blend. This vineyard, planted with extremely high density, results in small, concentrated berries, is founded on clay and gravelly soils and has excellent drainage. First planted in 1868, the name derives from the Greek for ‘highest beauty’ and is widely regarded as one of Napa’s great terroirs. There has also been much investment in the cellar at Mondavi since 2000 and a dedicated new To Kalon fermenting facility. But it’s actually the continuity in winemaking that’s important to my mind, not so much the investment.

Mondavi WineryGeneviève Janssens

Behind-the-scenes Geneviève Janssens has been involved in winemaking one way or another since starting out with Mondavi as an oenologist 1978. Head of production at Opus One for a time before returning to the Mondavi stable as chief winemaker in 1997, it’s where Janssens has been ever since, providing a steady hand while the Mondavi corporate world has spun around her. Janssens, it would seem, is the keeper of the Mondavi flame. There are lessons here. If you keep your eye on the ball, don’t tinker with the product [assuming it’s not broken] and maintain a sense of continuity, it shows that brands can keep their lustre even after the originators part company from their progeny.

I was certainly very struck by the 2008 vintage Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. It had real complexity and depth. The 2005 was leaner and a little more austere to me. It will age further I’m sure but 2008 is much better bet. I think this is clearly a vintage thing. The 2002 is a real belter. Already mature, this wine will develop more nuances with age I reckon and seems to have sufficient tannic backbone to warrant it. If you have a few bottles, don’t be in a hurry to finish them up.

Robert Mondavi Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, Napa Valley, 2008

Deep and saturated looking; layers to the nose; attractive blackcurrant cassis; ripe and creamy; density to the palate; chocolate; chew and a degree of bite. Firm tannin at the end. Like this a lot. Very good effort. 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot. 93+/100 Drinking now to 2025

Robert Mondavi Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, Napa Valley, 2005

Deep and glossy looking; earthy; slightly dusty blackcurrant note; leaner style than 2008. Some austerity in the finish. A little diminutive like some other Napa ‘05s for me. 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc. 89+/100 Drinking now to 2020

Robert Mondavi Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, Napa Valley, 2002

Deep colour; some reddening at the edge; rusty; spicy notes with attractive satiny blackcurrant tones beneath; very good indeed; attractive and lifted; mature but with real depth; blackcurrant/blackberry notes on the palate; quite structured with plenty of material and will last. Overall excellent wine – has elegance, depth and length. 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, and the balance Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. 93+/100 Drink now to 2022

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