Robert Mondavi is a ubiquitous label. I’m trying to remember the last time I walked into a wine store and didn’t see at least a few selections from Mondavi. One reason we should all appreciate Mr. Mondavi -- back in the 1960’s, Mondavi was one of the first vintners in California to label wine by varietal instead of by vineyard – which is now, of course, the standard in the nomenclature wine bottled outside France, Italy, and a few other places.
Mondavi was known in the 60’s and 70’s for making high-end wines (and they still do – their 1997 reserve Chardonnay was rated #1 in the world). Over the years, the wild success of their more inexpensive labels like Mondavi Coastal and Woodbridge overshadowed their more premium bottlings (aside from some of the super high-end stuff like Opus One, done in partnership with Chateau Mouton Rothschild of Bordeaux). Mondavi has been trying to improve the marketing of its “inexpensive premium” wines, as well as giving a facelift to some of the less expensive lines. I had the opportunity to try a couple from each of these categories.
The first lot we received was from the “Napa Valley” series. This wines run $20-50 and are from selected sites within that appellation. This series includes a fumé blanc (aka sauvignon blanc, the wine that put Mondavi on the map), chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and merlot. We had one bottle each of the pinot noir and the chardonnay:
Robert Mondavi 2010 Carneros Pinot Noir – Carneros is a region that bridges Napa and Sonoma Counties. It includes some of the cooler climates found in either region – which makes Carneros a very good candidate to grow pinot noir. This bottle definitely needs a chance to breathe before you get down to it. Short of giving it a good solid spin or decanting it for a bit, I expect you’ll be a bit taken aback by the initial tannin level. Once it calms down, there’s lots of vanilla on the nose, followed by big flavors of plums, cherries, and smoke. The finish is firm, lasting, and smoky. We thought that it went well with a challenging pairing of stuffed green peppers. Quite nice with dark chocolate, too. If you like your pinot on the bolder side, it’s a pretty solid choice. Retails for $27.
Robert Mondavi 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay – I imagine makers of California Chardonnay as engineers hovering over three dials labeled “Oak,” “Butter,” and “Fruit” -- manipulating dials to generate an algorithm of time in barrel, type of barrel, percentage of malolactic fermentation, residual sugar, etc. to create a consistent profile. This Chardonnay, sourced from all over Napa with a little Sonoma fruit thrown in, had a winemaker crank up the “Oak” and “Fruit” knobs. On the nose and palate, you’ll experience ample but reasonably well balanced oak. Flavorwise, I found pears, cantaloupe, and oak in a relatively friendly, stable environment, which follows through to the finish. Poured on its own, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I split on this wine. I liked it, but she didn’t. With a slow-cooked fall vegetable soup, the roasted veggies played off the oak nicely, making it a tasty meal wine. It retails for around $20.
The second lot was two bottles of the “Robert Mondavi Private Selection” series. Near as I can tell, this is the rebranding of the less-pricey Mondavi “Coastal” line. Most of these wines fit squarely into the Naked Vine wheelhouse, retailing in the $10-15 range.
This pair of wines, however, came with some bonus swag. The wines came in a very attractive soft-side picnic basket with a roll-up picnic blanket, a travel guide to California’s Central Coast, and some very spicy salami. The implication seems to be that these are good picnic wines. We received one bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and one bottle of Chardonnay. The Private Selection catalog also contains all the other major varietals: Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, a Meritage red blend, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Grigio. How did this pair fare?
Robert Mondavi 2010 Private Selection Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon – We’d had a very long week at work and decided to grill some filets. What goes better with steak than California cabernet, right? Whew! On opening, this wine was tight. Tight enough to yield entendres galore on Match Game. My first impressions were tart flavors over graphite – not a particularly pleasant combination. Thankfully, after some air, the flavors mellowed. Some blackberry flavors started to emerge, and the tannin calmed down a bit. The finish was tart and a bit clipped. We sipped on it some more while waiting for the steaks to rest, and we each went through half a glass without thinking. When we had it with the steak, it was a decent accompaniment, but we didn’t notice that it did anything special. My note says, “Well, it’s there.” Simple, straightforward, and not unpleasant after decanting, it wasn’t exactly memorable. Retails for $11.
Robert Mondavi 2011 Private Selection Central Coast Chardonnay – Returning to our “Chardonnay engineering” friends and their hypothetical three dials, this time they’ve got the oak dialed way back. There’s a hint of it at the very end of the finish, and a few notes floating through the bouquet and flavor, but it’s largely background, which is a nice surprise for an $11 California bottle. The butter’s turned up a little, as it has a creamier vanilla flavor, but it doesn’t go all the way to full-on buttery. Fruitwise, it’s actually got quite a nice balance of mango, pear, and apple. I thought this was quite a pleasantly drinkable wine. We did another “breakfast for dinner” evening with this wine – and with an open faced omelet with sausage, a bunch of roasted veggies and mushrooms, it worked right well. With California Chardonnay, it’s a matter of finding a combination of the three dials that you like. I honestly enjoyed this one more than I did its doubly-priced cousin.