Originally created 07/10/02

Robert Mondavi shows rare form

In recent columns I heaped praise on three chardonnays and a cabernet sauvignon from the Robert Mondavi Winery, a Napa Valley institution that seems to be making wine at the top of its form now.

These were the Robert Mondavi Chardonnay 2000 (Excellent, about $22), the Robert Mondavi Carneros Chardonnay 2000 (Excellent, about $26), the Robert Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay 1999 (Exceptional, about $35) and the Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 (Exceptional, $125).

What distinguish these wines are balance and purity, nuance that unfolds in seamless hints and nods, broad width and depth of detail, fruit and structure mutually allied, and the ability to be enjoyed in the present or in years to come.

Those qualities, the result of thoughtful, hands-off winemaking, also characterize most of the Robert Mondavi wines we'll look at today. Bucking the trend in California, alcohol levels, except for the zinfandel, are kept to a sensible 13.5 percent. A Napa Valley designation for these wines is understood.

However, not all the wines are successful, so let's get those out of the way first.

The Boomerang! 2000, a blend of 59 percent syrah and 36 percent cabernet sauvignon with dollops of cabernet franc, merlot and malbec, is too anonymous and generic and too toasty with new oak. About $45. The unbalanced Robert Mondavi Reserve Pinot Noir 2000 seems attenuated while being earthy and a bit too spicy and brown-sugary. About $50.

OK, now let's get to the good stuff, beginning with four renditions of the sauvignon blanc grape.

A ringer for a perfectly made Sancerre from France's Loire Valley, the Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc 2000 bursts with lime, lime zest, grapefruit and limestone in a fabric of great weight and presence; bracing in the mineral sense, slightly briary and leafy yet clean and pure, it finishes with subtle spice and a touch of bitterness. Superb and a Great Bargain for the Price, about $19.

The crisp and lively Robert Mondavi Stags Leap District Sauvignon Blanc 2000 offers green pea, thyme and tarragon and fruit that leans toward lemon in the bouquet; dusty elements of chalk and flint support a slight tension between lime-currant flavors and a leafy aspect, nestled in a dense powdery texture. Excellent. About $23.

Large-scale, complicated yet subtle, the Robert Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Fume Blanc 2000, from the winery's most famous vineyard, offers peach and mango, jasmine and honeysuckle, exotic spice and a touch of tarragon and anise in the nose; oak and mineral elements play supporting roles to lemon-lime flavors, all of which combine in a crisp but cushiony finish. Excellent. About $35.

Finally, there is the Robert Mondavi To Kalon 1 Block Fume Blanc 2000, made from a section of 55-year-old vines in the To Kalon Vineyard. The most profound sauvignon blanc wine I have tasted from California, it displays amazing length and depth and is incredibly sensuous while being undeniably austere. Lime and orange blossom, pear and melon, brambles and currants in the nose lead to a wine of astonishing weight, density and presence that fills the mouth from start to finish. Exceptional. About $75.

Now red wines, getting a few out of the way - not to be rude about it: They're excellent - before getting to a roster of cabernets.

Pure blackberry and black raspberry with hints of boysenberry and blueberry teem in a glass of the Robert Mondavi Zinfandel 2000, a zin that wears its 15 percent alcohol the way an ingenue wears a chiffon scarf on moon-blanched shoulders. Yet it's heady, too, with powerful earthy-mineral elements, exuberant spice and waftings of black pepper and sweet oak. Excellent and absolutely delicious. About $21.

Black cherry, cranberry and cola control the Robert Mondavi Carneros Pinot Noir 2000, a dense, spicy and satiny pinot whose touches of new leather and clean earth, rose petals and Earl Grey tea make for an intriguing and gratifying drink. Excellent. About $40. Warm and minerally, the Robert Mondavi Stags Leap District Merlot 1999 displays cedar and lead pencil and licorice and vivid currant and black cherry flavors set in heaps of polished, grainy tannin; it's deep and dense, chewy and velvety. Excellent. About $35.

Now for six wines based on cabernet sauvignon, the noble grape upon which rests the Napa Valley's reputation as a great wine region.

A lovely bouquet of black olive, dried thyme and cedar and the dust that blows from rosemary and lavender bushes doesn't prevent the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 from offering quite a bit of bark and bite; dense and chewy, from mid-palate back it gets pretty austere with underbrush and dried porcini, and it could definitely use more fruit. Give it two to four years. Very good. About $30.

The sumptuous Robert Mondavi Oakville District Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 offers a complex and seamless amalgam of floral and mineral qualities and fruit and oak that characterize full-flavored and full-bodied wines that are elegant and drinkable on the one hand and tough and slightly rigorous on the other. It could age three to five years. Excellent. About $50.

The Robert Mondavi Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 smells like a vineyard on a summer afternoon. Rich and ripe and intense, plummy almost to the point of being jammy, thick and dusty, it's a perfect example of a high-elevation wine in its combination of pure cassis and black raspberry fruit with a monumental mineral and tannic presence. Four to six years. Excellent. About $50.

The ripe and fleshy Robert Mondavi Equilibrium 1999, Stags Leap District, blended from 52 percent cabernet sauvignon, 33 percent merlot and 15 percent malbec, is a lilting convergence of licorice and lavender, minerals and macerated plums and currants with a touch of blueberry; in short, it's a lovely wine, etched with smoke and lead pencil, that gathers the weight of polished, grainy tannins, dust and velvet in the glass. Two to four years. Excellent. About $60.

What a revelation! The Robert Mondavi Marjorie's Sunrise Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Oakville District, balances power and elegance with pinpoint accuracy. Which aspect is going to dominate, we ask: the elements of spice and smoke, lavender and violets or the gravity of tannin, minerals and oak? Such a question is superfluous, since the wine's remarkable substance is permeated by luscious, scrumptious jammy fruit. Still, it requires three to six years' aging. Exceptional. About $85.

The Robert Mondavi To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 reminds us that great cabernet wines smell like death and that beauty, the fulcrum of mutability, is sad. Loam, fallen leaves, moss and mushrooms, briars and brambles - the whole rigorous and over-ripe panoply of decline and decay forms the foundation of this stupendous wine that smolders with smoke and fading potpourri, seethes with macerated currant, raspberry and black cherry fruit. A huge, austere, autumnal wine, it's also roasted and fleshy, dense and polished, deeply spicy and as suave as something this elemental, this essential can get. I almost wrote the word "archetypal." Try now, of course, or age it five to eight years. Exceptional with veal chops crusted with fresh rosemary and black pepper and grilled over charcoal. About $150 (a bottle).

Picks of the week

Now: Made by the Fabiano company, Sangue d'Autunno 1999, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo - that's right, "blood of autumn" - is rustic and uncomplicated, making it a perfect hearty quaff with burgers and hot dogs from the grill. Ripe and fleshy, smoky and meaty, it features spicy plum and black cherry flavors in a solid, slightly velvety structure. At about $8 a bottle, it's worth buying by the case.

Spirit. Americans don't drink digestifs in the manner of Europeans, who tend to baby their stomachs. Perhaps the Amaro Siciliano from Fratelli Averna will change our minds. What does it taste like? Chocolate and coffee and mocha, black pepper and cloves, dried thyme and rosemary, licorice and cola with a hint of lavender, all cushioned in a lovely, silky texture; it finishes in a slightly bitter but luxurious fashion, though it's far less bitter than the more familiar Campari. Sip it on the rocks with a twist of lemon. About $23.


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