Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
As the wine world mourns the loss of Robert Mondavi, it is important to remember his contributions to California wine. From our Collector's Bin, Stuart Tobe walks us through a once-in-a-lifetime vertical tasting. This article was originally published in the October/November 2007 issue of Wine Access magazine.
The wine world is mouring the loss of Robert Mondavi, who died in May 2008 at the age of 94. His contributions to California wine cannot be overstated. Here is a look at some of his incredible wines from the October/November 2007 issue of Wine Access.
On June 3, 2007, an historic, 30-vintage tasting of Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve was held at the Hart House Restaurant in Burnaby, British Columbia. The tasting featured three flights of wines, each accompanied by a multicourse lunch of impeccable quality. Dana Andrus, Senior Wine Educator for Robert Mondavi Winery, attended to provide comments and a tutorial on the wines.
The core grape source for the reserve cabernet has always been from various blocks within Mondavi’s famed To Kalon Estate vineyard, located along the west bench in the Oakville District. In certain vintages, small proportions of fruit are added from the Rutherford, Stags’ Leap and Carneros districts. More recently, the winery has been able to utilize certain parcels of grapes that had originally been shared with Opus One in Oakville. At the same time, To Kalon has been successively replanted due to phylloxera and now reveals significant viticultural improvements at higher planting densities.
Since 2000, the wines have been fermented in the new To Kalon cellar in upright French oak vats. Cabernet sauvignon dominates the blend in proportions that have fluctuated between 80 and 95 per cent. That base was usually enhanced by merlot and cabernet franc although, since 1997, small amounts of petit verdot and malbec have also been added. The reserve wines receive little or no refining and are bottled unfiltered. The 1971 was the first reserve release bottling, but there was no significant quantity of a reserve wine until the 1974, where we began our journey.
The 1970s were a rollercoaster decade marked by great vintages and drought years. The 1974 still shows fine concentration, elegance and fruit, but it is fully mature. The 1975 is surprisingly good, fully mature and aromatic, but needs drinking. The two drought vintages of 1976 and 1977 are quite different; the former well-structured with some intensity and the latter long past its prime. The 1978 is somewhat cooked and soupy and just past maturity. The surprise of the 1970s flight was the 1979 which, although just past its useful maturity, showed excellent intensity, fruit and balance. The wines from 1980-1984 and even the 1985 were not high-quality vintages and show some changes in winemaking during the period. They are all past their prime now and express lean structures. The latter part of the 1980s was a strong group of wines with the 1986 still showing the ability to age. The 1987 is similarly restrained, but with more balance, finesse and aromatic complexity. It will peak in the next few years, but will hold for another five. The 1988 and 1989 showed solid fruit cores, but in a leaner style. Drink them at your leisure. The 1990s bottlings are the stars now and reflect a string of excellent vintages and winemaking. Although a touch leafy, the 1990 offers good finesse, maturity and balance for current drinking, but there’s no need to cellar it further. The 1991 has wonderful aromatics, flavour intensity and palate textures. Nearly mature, it should improve and hold over the next five years.
The 1992 and 1993 are very fine, almost mature and showing more ripe fruit characteristics than prior vintages, the 1993 particularly so; a very good surprise for the vintage. The 1994 lives up to its reputation — quite concentrated, ripe, complex and still possessing tannin — it will improve for at least five more years. The 1995 is a bit cooler in style and more elegant, and should begin to peak by 2010. The 1996 is bigger with more complexity, ripeness and tannin structure and so will require a further two to four years in bottle. The wine of the flight had to be the 1997. It has a fabulous ripe palate, fine concentration and complexity and is suffused with smooth grained tannins and a long finish. It will continue to improve for at least the next five to 10 years.
From 1998 to 2000, the wines are more elegant and lack some of the prior vintages’ intensity and balance. The wines lack extract and contain a strong green streak, a partial result of less than optimal vintages. These wines are essentially ready to drink. Perhaps the wine with the best potential of all is the 2001. Warm but long and full, with great fruit concentration and fine tannins, this needs at least seven to 10 more years of bottle age. It is an outstanding effort that equals or betters the 1997, 1994 and 1974. The 2002, although well balanced, is a bit green and forward but still has finesse. It will mature relatively early, in the next four to six years. The 2003 is a riper, warmer style, with good concentration and fruit. Its drawback is a somewhat chunky, alcoholic finish with less finesse. Keep it for another four to seven years.
Overall, the current style is riper, with higher alcohol, yet without that heavy jammy streak, a hallmark of the Mondavi style. The wines show finesse, well-integrated tannins and the deft use of French oak. This was an incredible look at the progress of a single wine with a long history of production. Our tasting served as a testimony to the ability of Napa cabernet sauvignon to age and to the foresight of a man and a family who set high goals and achieved them.