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The Legend Lives On
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
May 4, 2010
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Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2006 ($135)

I suspect that I have tasted more Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve than any other California wine.  I’ve been fortunate to have attended vertical tastings going back to 1971, and I have also bought and cellared the wine.  It is always one of my favorite Napa Valley Cabs, in fact one of favorite Cabernet-based wines outside of Bordeaux.

Recently, I read a Twitter comment praising the 2006 Mondavi Reserve to the hilt.  I had tasted the wine in February and was impressed, but the circumstances, a large dinner, were not ideal for critical evaluation.  I decided to taste the wine again, blind.

I discovered that in many ways this is an amazing wine.  It is huge, massive, dripping with ripe Napa Valley fruit and yet it wears the quiet demeanor of a European wine.  It underwent an unusually long 37-day period of maceration (skin contact) and has spent 18 months in all-new French oak barrels and yet its tannin is subtle.  It has 15.5 percent alcohol and yet it is so well-balanced that it failed to set off my very sensitive alcohol alarm.

This wine is 95 percent Cab Sauv and 5 percent Cab Franc.  Mondavi’s To Kalon vineyard in Oakville is always the basis of the Reserve Cab — in the 2006 it accounts for 91 percent of the grapes — but this wine also includes grapes from other Oakville Bench vineyards, and in some vintages can contain some mountain fruit.  Some vintages have contained other blending varieties, but winemaker-extraordinaire Genevieve Janssens said a few years ago that she is increasingly omitting Malbec and Merlot from the blend of the Reserve, and that this is a decision she makes purely on the basis of the wine’s taste.

One of my favorite aspects of this wine is that it is not extremely fruity.  My nose detects minerally lead-pencil scents, for example, long before it notices concentrated cassis; the aroma also suggests floral and herbal nuances.  In the mouth, the wine is full-bodied, dry, and fairly lean of structure with concentrated but sedate flavors of pure dark-fruit and a lovely, soft, supple texture.  Any oaky character that the wine has comes into play on the rear palate, where it checks and balances the soft texture and keeps the wine trim rather than fat.  This wine is complete, beautifully balanced and profound.  (For me, it tastes best in a relatively small Bordeaux-shaped glass.)

History, and the tannin that’s buried in this wine’s rear palate, suggest that this is a wine to go the distance, to 2030 and beyond.  (I tasted the 1971— the first vintage labeled “Reserve” — when it had 35 years of age, and it was terrific; likewise the 1976, 32 years out, and similar experiences with other vintages.)  If it is like other Mondavi Reserves, it might go through a transitional stage from youthfulness to maturity in another six years or so.  But of course the X-factor here is that 15.5 percent alcohol.  I’ve tasted far too many internationally-styled European wines that were exciting when young but hopelessly ordinary ten years later:  Could something similar happen to California’s new high-alcohol elites?

In the end, I have faith in Genevieve Janssens, whose sensitivity and expertise have shaped so many great Cabernets.  At one wine tasting in which several of us asked her the alcohol level, wine by wine, she commented that we put too much stock in what is just a number.  What matters, she said, is whether the wine is balanced.  Just now, sipping this 2006 Reserve, as much as I hate the idea of a 15.5 Cab, I’m wondering if she might be right.

94 points