June 18, 2021 would have been Robert Mondavi’s 108th birthday. Despite his passing at age 94 in 2008, his birthday is still celebrated by many in the wine industry, especially those in Napa Valley, where Mondavi was such a prominent being – an icon.
That same week of Mondavi’s birthday, I took part in a special virtual tasting experience that featured two Robert Mondavi Winery cabernets that are almost as iconic as the man himself. Specifically, I got to taste the latest vintage (2017) of the Robert Mondavi ‘To Kalon Vineyard’ Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and, to much excitement, compare it to a vintage 19 years its senior, the 1998. This rare ‘then and now’ experience of tasting two icon wines separated by nearly two decades was just begging to be savoured, digested, and discussed. And so here we are.
As mentioned, the tasting was part of a virtual learning experience, presented by Arterra Wines Canada, and featured Genevieve Janssens, Chief Winemaker for The Robert Mondavi Winery. Showcasing these two wines was done so intentionally, with its fair share of appropriate symmetry. You see, 1998 marked Janssens first vintage as the winery’s newly named Director of Winemaking. Furthermore, in July of 2018, Janssens was given the new title of Chief Winemaker, therefore making 2017 her final vintage in that previous role. Though they sound much like the same title, they do carry different functions. As Chief Winemaker, Janssens continues to provide insight into the heritage and history of the vineyards, winery, and legacy of Robert Mondavi.
Back to those wines. First, it’s important to gain context. This wine, both then and now, is sourced from a very special place within Oakville – a sub-AVA of Napa Valley. Oakville is a sweet spot for Napa Valley grape growing, providing a thrilling combination of power and quality, a virtue relatively unmatched anywhere else in North America.
“To Kalon is the best vineyard to create the best winemakers in Napa Valley.” – Genevieve Janssens
It is within Oakville that one of the world’s most prestigious and legendary vineyard sites rest: To Kalon. Meaning “the highest beauty” in the Greek language, it is a place comprised of several hundred acres of vines that stretch from Napa’s State Route Highway 29 to the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, where up-valley warmth meets cooler air from the south. Heat-soaked, sunny days are moderated by evening and morning fog, which helps to nourish the vines. The soil – gravel, sand and silt washed down from mountain slopes – allows roots to dig and stretch deep, especially in the sandier parts.
To Kalon has produced some of Napa’s greatest (and most expensive) red wines, contributing to the mythology of Napa Valley as a cabernet sauvignon paradise. The wines are layered, soft-textured, opulent, with fine, silky tannins and lovely aromatics. It’s a place that Robert Mondavi himself made famous. He’s quoted as saying “Walking through To Kalon, admiring its contours and vines, smelling the richness of its soil, I knew this was a very special place. It exuded an indefinable quality I could not describe, a feeling that was almost mystical.”
Those who make wine sourced from its fruit know that To Kalon is special – a first growth in Bordeaux terms. In fact, six wineries and growers own parts of To Kalon, but only Robert Mondavi Winery, with some 446 acres, owns the rights to the name. Mondavi trademarked it in 1988, claiming the name had no significance in the wine industry. That was clearly incorrect.
Although each vintage has its unique differences, when it comes to Oakville – and in particular, To Kalon – every vintage is excellent, and it’s important to realize that past performance indicates future greatness in the case of the wines coming from these vines.
“To Kalon imparts a lot of tannin structure,” notes Janssens. “The beauty of knowing the tannin is to understand how to stop the tannin extraction.” Janssens is referring to the process of paying attention to the character of the tannins in a wine which gives insight into the stages of a wine’s development and its potential for aging. The types of tannins in wine can be influenced by several factors—grape variety, conditions in the vineyard, vineyard management practices, vintage variation, and winemaking practices.
“To Kalon is the best vineyard to create the best winemakers in Napa Valley,” affirms Janssens. “And in two years, this vineyard will be certified organic.” In comparing the ’98 way of making wine vs. 2017, Janssens felt inclined to incite a quote that originated from Robert Mondavi himself, saying “fashion fades, style stays.”
Let’s take a closer look:
The 1998 vintage of the Robert Mondavi ‘To Kalon’ Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
The first thing to note is that 1998 was an El Niño year – a name given to a climate pattern that’s described as the unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.
As Janssens recalls, “it was a complicated vintage. Cold weather, rain, and even frost. And when the weather got hot, it was literally too hot. The winemaking team was constantly counterbalancing.”
By the time harvest arrived, the region was experiencing an Indian summer of unseasonably warm, dry weather. “This stretch of weather closed out the harvest and lasted two months,” adds Janssens. “It was perfect weather. It was one of the latest harvests on record, and we were thrilled because it allowed the grapes time to balance out before we picked.”
With the extended hangtime on the vines, the grapes from the ’98 vintage produced a silky wine, with herbal and soil earth tones. There’s a savouriness to it, with fruit leaning now towards the brambled spectrum. The most noticeable aspect is that the wine is delicately soft and harmonious.
Despite being 23 years old, there seems to still be a long life ahead of it, perhaps unsurprisingly, as much as five to seven more years. Without tempting fate too much, this is drinking ever so nicely now, indicative of what beautifully structured and aged cabernet can truly taste like when you’re patient enough to wait for the right moment.
The 2017 vintage of the Robert Mondavi ‘To Kalon’ Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Just as 1998 was memorable for its uncharacteristically strange and polarizing shifts in weather, 2017 will also be remembered as the year of the fires that devasted so much of California’s wine country – the most destructive on record. Almost inconceivably, 1,381,405 acres burned by way of 9,133 total fires. The October fires alone caused more than $9.4 billion in insured property losses, becoming the costliest group of wildfires ever. Yet, somehow miraculously, and despite being a “fire vintage”, vines at To Kalon were not affected by smoke taint, as all grapes were harvested before the fires had a chance to spread.
“It was an early harvest in 2017 – a stark contrast to the one in 1998,” recalls Janssens. “We got a much denser wine, full of concentration.”
The wine has a garrigue flavour profile to it – similarly to the ’98 – with distinct herbaceous notes along with pepper and some smoke. It’s juicy and chewy, showing much more power – an obvious fact considering this is a much newer wine. It’s a certainty that this will be a wine that will age two decades and beyond. A real Napa Valley icon.