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An Eye-Opening “Blind” Tasting of Mondavi Reserve

 

I’m thinking back to one of my first real explorations of Napa Valley, to a time when I disregarded the region for its big fruit profile. It was the early-mid 2000s, and when someone would mention Napa Valley Cabernet, I would think overripe, over-extracted and out of balance. This was long before I understood that every region has its outliers, and before anyone had guided me to the old-school holdouts of the region. What’s more, it was before I had ever visited Napa, as my eurocentric palate had me looking across the Atlantic each time I thought of touring a winery.

With all of that said, at this moment in time, a highly respected and trusted friend urged me to take part in a vertical tasting of Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. As I said, my regard for this individual was high, and if they were tasting Mondavi Reserve, then there must have been a good reason. With that in mind, I attended the tasting that changed the way I thought about Napa Valley forever.

“Wait one moment!” you might say, “Robert Mondavi is one of the biggest names and largest producers from Napa Valley. How could these wines have shown you the light?”

Let’s put all of our preconceptions aside for a moment and understand something. Every region has its ebb and flow, its traditional and its modern, its industrialized and its artisanal. We tasted (and I’m sad to say that I don’t have the notes from this event) Robert Mondavi Reserves from the ‘70s. This was a different time, when Napa Valley was competing with Bordeaux to create serious wines of importance. The good news is that although there was a change in direction during the ‘90s into the early 2000s, today the region is back on track, and one of the wineries that has comfortably remained ahead of the game is Robert Mondavi, especially with their To Kalon Reserve.

A Short History of the Robert Mondavi Winery

Established in 1966, Robert Mondavi was on a mission to elevate the wines of Napa Valley onto the world’s stage. Having split from his family and work with Krug, Robert sought to create his own brand and winery on the Valley floor in the Oakville sub-appellation. His acquisition of choice vineyards and forward-thinking are what separated him then and continue to define the winery today. It started with a 12-acre purchase in To Kalon, where the winery still resides. In 1968, another 230 acres were added, and then more in 1978 as he traded all remaining ownership of Krug back to his brother in exchange for their remaining holdings of the vineyard. Robert Mondavi had become the primary owner of “The” First Growth vineyard of Napa Valley.

As I mentioned before, times did change, and with the ‘90s came an evolution in the way that Napa Valley looked at their wines and the tastes of their customers, and the Mondavi winery was not unaffected. With a diminished image that originated from the company’s emphasis on their high volume, entry-level wines of the ‘90s, the Mondavi winery took a major hit to their status and growth in the fine wine market. Robert pushed back by rethinking the company’s premier brands, and, out of necessity, decided to take the company public. In 2004, the Robert Mondavi winery, the To Kalon vineyard, and its trademark were purchased by Constellation Brands, which remains the owner. Robert Mondavi died on May 16, 2008 as one of the most influential and important figures in Napa Valley, responsible in many ways for its prominence today, as well as that of the To Kalon Vineyard.

The Importance and Terroir of To Kalon

The To Kalon vineyard is without a doubt one of, if not THE, most important vineyards in all of Napa Valley. It’s located in the heart of the region, in the Oakville sub-appellation, between highway 29 on a gentle slope that leads up to the Mayacamas mountains. Beneath the surface is an alluvial fan, which was created over millennia as streams carried deposits down from the mountains above. The larger particles remained in the hillside slopes, becoming smaller, heavier and finer toward the center of the valley. As a generalization, the locations closer to the hills have better drainage with a higher percentage of gravel, while the soils become sandier in the mid-section and have more clay at the valley floor.

This is where the size of the Mondavi holdings in To Kalon come into play, allowing them to use only the best sources for the top wines (Reserve), while including the other parcels in their Cabernet Sauvignon. Keep in mind that many producers source fruit at top dollar from lesser locations in the vineyard, and they are still able to label it as To Kalon.

Speaking of which, the list of wines and producers that source fruit from To Kalon reads like a who’s who of Napa’s most prestigious and expensive wines. Its ownership today remains mainly in the hands of the Robert Mondavi winery, yet it is also here that Opus One grows a large portion of fruit (originally a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild). Other important names include the Beckstoffer family, who maintain 89 acres in the heart of To Kalon, selling their fruit at a premium, and the Macdonald family, which produces one of the most important, yet rare wines of the region, taking a natural and artisanal approach–Yet are unable by law to include the vineyard source on the label (since To-Kalon is a Mondai trademark). Lastly, there’s the 25-acre Detert plot, a family that originally sold much of its fruit to Robert Mondavi, but began bottling their own Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in 2000.

To Kalon and The Robert Mondavi Reserve Today

The most interesting thing about the Mondavi Reserve Cabernet was that is was created in a time when the importance of individual place was much less than it is today, and because of this, the first few decades of its release contained a high portion of To Kalon fruit, but was blended with the best Cabernet from throughout the winery’s Napa holdings. Only from 1997-2001 did the public see a true To Kalon Reserve from Robert Mondavi, until the 2013 vintage. With a renewed importance of place in Napa Valley and the holdings to make it possible, over the past decade, the Robert Mondavi winery has worked to resurrect (or re-imagine) one of the most significant wines and locations in the valley, which has allowed the new To Kalon Reserve to become a reality.

Blind Tasting, the Ultimate Equalizer

My interest in understanding the 2013 vintage of To Kalon Reserve prompted an invitation to the To Kalon Certification course, a series of eye-opening, blind tastings hosted by the Robert Mondavi Winery, with guests Mark De Vere, MW and Kathryn Morgan, MS to lead us through the flights. For the sake of space, I have left out my notes from “Cabernet Sauvignons of the World” tasting, which placed the Mondavi Cabernet (30-40% To Kalon fruit) and Oakville Cabernet against different expressions from around the world. This tasting showed me how refined and not “California” in style the Mondavi wines are in general. It was quite enjoyable.

However, the two tastings that really showed the potential of the Mondavi Reserve, both past and present, were “The Distinctive Style of To Kalon Vineyard” and “The To Kalon Vineyard Through Time” tastings. I can’t stress enough how well the 2013 To Kalon Reserve performed against First Growth Bordeaux, top of the line Penfolds, and two of the giants from Napa Valley. What’s more, to witness the evolution of this wine, starting with the 1975 vintage and ending with the highly anticipated 2015, was amazing. The ‘75 reminded me of exactly why I had fallen in love with these wines in the first place, while the ‘96 proved that Mondavi was at the top of their game, even when the entire region was pushing for over-ripeness. As for the 2015, like the 2013, it’s a wine that has decades of maturity ahead of it. It’s built like a skyscraper, and was showing a classic tannic structure against intense depths of fruit.

The most amazing part though, when you take all of what we tasted into consideration, is how fairly priced the Mondavi Reserve remains in today’s market, especially considering the prices of Napa’s cult wines, wines with the To Kalon name emblazoned across their labels, and First Growth Bordeaux. I left this event with a grocery list of vintages to hunt for.

* For a history of how the To Kalon vineyard was created, make sure to keep reading after the tasting notes, or click Here

On To the Tasting Notes

The Distinctive Style of To Kalon Vineyard (Blind)
Wines that Stand in The Company of the World’s Finest.

Chateau Margaux 2012 – The nose was dark with herb-infused rich black fruits, minerals, haunting floral tones, and hints of animal musk. On the palate, silky textures with medium-weight gave way to refined red and black fruits, as it swept across the senses effortlessly, leaving hints of licorice and inner floral tones. Balanced and poised, the finish was long, with lingering minerals, violet florals, and blackberry. (93 points)

Penfolds Bin 707 2014 – The nose was wonderfully perfumed and lively, with tart cherry, blackberry, sweet herbs, eucalyptus, dusty spices and crushed stone. On the palate, I found silky, polished textures showing refined ripe red and black fruits, offset by herbal spice, brisk acids, and a coating of fine tannin that lingered long through the finish. This is a beautiful example of what the best producers can achieve in Australia. (94 points)

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon To-Kalon Reserve 2013 – Here I found a more restrained example, with crushed blackberry offset by minerals, earth dried herbs, and hints of animal musk. On the palate, silky textures ushered in notes of ripe blackberry, currant, sweet spice and dark inner florals. Fine tannin made itself known throughout the structured finish with lingering dark fruits and sweet herbal tones. It’s a balanced and structured wine with loads of potential for the cellar. (94 points)

Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer To-Kalon Vineyard 2014 – The nose was rich with crushed blackberry, brown spices, sweet violets, dusty minerals, hints of tobacco and vanilla. On the palate, I found velvety textures, yet offset by brisk acidity with ripe cherry, blueberry and currant fruits, as sweet spices and minerals swept across the senses in a sweet, energetic effort. The finish was long, showing hints of cherry, vanilla and tobacco. Oak Influence and ripeness came through more than purity of fruit, making this difficult to love. (91 points)

Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Stags Leap District 2013 – The nose was restrained, with hints of bell pepper and rubber up front, giving way to spicy florals, tart cherry and crushed stone. On the palate, I found silky textures showing earth and floral tones up front before ripe black and red currants combined with sweet minerality and spice. It finished with saturating fine tannins, a coating of intense red fruits and the slightest hint of heat. I must admit that I liked this more than I would have expected, had it not been served blind. (92 points)

The To Kalon Vineyard Through Time

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005 – The nose was slightly restrained, showing crushed black cherry, plum, herbal tea leaves, floral undergrowth, and moist soil. On the palate, I found soft textures, and still quite fresh, with brisk acidity adding a juicy quality to its ripe cherry, black currant and sweet spice, which washed effortlessly across the senses. It finished medium-long with black cherry, sweet spice and hints of lingering tannin. (92 points)

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1996 – The nose was dark with moist soil tones and hints of animal musk, gaining richness in the glass to show crushed strawberry, hints of orange zest, minerals and floral undergrowth. On the palate, I found refined silky textures with a mix of tart red and blackberry fruits complemented by brisk acidity, with hints of dried florals, tomato leaf, bell pepper and minerals. It finished long and still vibrant with lingering dark red fruits, savory herbs and hints of fine tannin. The ’96 is a model of balance with gorgeous inner sweetness and is maturing beautifully. (94 points)

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1980 – The nose showed dried floral tones with dark earth and crushed stone minerals, as hints of dried cherry and spice evolved in the glass. On the palate, I found lifted, feminine textures with tart red fruits, earthy minerals, red bell pepper, inner dried floral and herbal tones. The finish was long and plummy, with lasting herbal tones and hints of gruff tannin. Some tasters really seemed to enjoy the ‘80, but I found it to be past its prime. (89 points)

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1975 – Here I found an earthy expression with moist soil tones up front, giving way to animal musk, minerals, dried herbs, hints of cedar and stone dust. On the palate, I found a still-lively and vibrant expression with silky textures ushering in tart cherry and strawberry fruits, along with saturating spice and gorgeous inner floral tones. It finished long and spicy with lingering sweet and sour cherry, earth tones and minerals. This is amazingly youthful for its age and drinking beautifully–Wow! (95 points)

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2015 – The nose was intense, showing cassis, crushed cherry, plum, sweet minerals, haunting floral tones, and hints of dark chocolate. On the palate, I found velvety textures offset by zesty spice and acids, with ripe cherry and black currant cascading across the senses, along with sweet spices, as inner florals and a hint of savory herbs developed. The finish was long with saturating black and red currant fruits and fine young tannins, which coated the palate. It pays to note that the very next thing that I did after going back over my notes from the tasting, was to reach out and inquire about purchasing the 2015. Well done. (95 points)

The Origins of To Kalon

To Kalon (ancient Greek for “The Highest Beauty”) was first planted by Hamilton Crabb in 1868; however, the true borders of the original To Kalon are unknown, as the vineyard continued to grow in size since its original planting, much like the classified vineyards of Bordeaux, where vineyard boundaries are determined by ownership. By 1872, Crabb began bottling wine under the winery name, Hermosa Vineyards, later changed to To-Kalon Wine by 1886.

The work and experimentation done by Crabb in the vineyards and nurseries of Napa Valley laid the foundations for the entire region. A list of the varieties planted within the vineyard went on and on, totaling nearly 300 unique, and in many cases, obscure grapes. However, his most popular wine was labeled “Black Burgundy,” and really had no connection to Burgundy or Pinot Noir; in fact it’s believed to have been made from Refosco.

Nearing the turn of the century, Crabb was responsible for a third of the Valley’s total production of wine, outpaced only by Charles Krug and Gottlieb Groesinger, with the To Kalon vineyard totaling 359 total acres. However, the onset of Phylloxera took a heavy toll on his holdings. Crabb died in 1899, leaving his family with a large amount of debt, which forced them to turn ownership of the estate over to the bank. To Kalon traded ownership multiple times throughout history, mostly because of  prohibition destroying much of Napa Valley’s business.

Credits and Resources

Article, Tasting Notes and Tasting Photography by: Eric Guido

A special thank you to Tru Estates and Vineyards and
Constellation Brands

A special thank you to our tasting hosts, Mark De Vere, MW and
Kathryn Morgan, MS

Vineyard, winery and additional photos courtesy of
Robert Mondavi Winery

Find Robert Mondavi Reserve at: Morrell Wine

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