Robert Mondavi reds: Three affordable standouts

Genevieve Janssens learned the Robert Mondavi philosophy of winemaking from the maestro himself. (Images courtesy of robertmondaviwinery.com)

Genevieve Janssens learned the Robert Mondavi philosophy of winemaking from the maestro himself. (Images courtesy of robertmondaviwinery.com)

My visit to Robert Mondavi Winery in April with other wine media for the 50th anniversary included rare tastings of many older vintages and up-close moments with the winemakers. It was a revealing experience that frames that way I taste these wines now. Director of winemaking Geneviève Janssens, who worked closely with the late vintner, expresses the Robert Mondavi mission: “To produce wines of great density and rich fruit character, wines of elegance and finesse.”

As Robert Mondavi always intended, the reds especially are unique: They are built to be rmw_2014_cabernetsauvignon_napavalley_lowres11soft and approachable early on but still have the right stuff to age for decades. They project an earthy, robust character with intense fruit and good acid balance. They are graceful at the same time they are powerful. They have structure and complexity.

What better person to preserve the legacy of Robert Mondavi and teach his philosophy to winemakers than Geneviève Janssens. French born and trained, she worked in the wine lab at Mondavi from 1978 to 1979. She took the head winemaking job at Opus One, which was the collaboration of Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, in 1989. In 1997 she was named director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi, a job she still holds now. Today, she is sharing her vast knowledge with new winemakers Megan Schofield and Joe Harden. There is unmistakable continuity in the style of wines made here.

Here’s a taste. Prices are suggested by the winery. These three are a great value for the quality of the grapes. They give you a very good preview of the more expensive Reserves.

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014, $28: Ask any longtime staffer at the winery about the best value wine and they’re likely to say the Napa Valley Cabernet because it’s the affordable way to taste grapes from the renowned To Kalon Vineyard surrounding the winery (where the famous Reserve Cabs are made) plus Robert Mondavi’s Wappo Hill Vineyard in the Stag’s Leap district. This vintage won’t disappoint with its inviting creamy texture and bright fruit braced with the power of seamlessly infused French oak. It has amazing concentration and silky tannins. Flavors of black cherry, plum and blackberry are layered with sweet spice, an herbal twist and kiss of tobacco. It’s 86 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Merlot, finished with other Bordeaux varietals. The 2014 vintage is a memorable one: For the fruit, it was a strong growing season with spring rains to ease the effects of the drought; but it will be most remembered for the earthquake that rattled Napa Valley on August 24.

Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir Napa Valley Carneros 2014, $27: This is a meaty, savory wine, full-bodied and brimming with dark fruit — cherry, pomegranate, raspberry and sweet brown baking spice. It has earthy notes, supple tannins and good balance, and pent-up power that will mellow over the years.

Robert Mondavi Merlot Napa Valley 2013, $23: It’s a powerhouse all right. Earthy, dry, packed with dark fruit and plum flavors, with a hint of herbs. Think concentration, rich texture, drinkability. More than half of the fruit comes from the volcanic and poor shallow soils of the famed Stag’s Leap district, which accounts for the intensity and structure. Many of the grapes were fermented in the big French oak tanks in Mondavi’s To Kalon Cellar, the rest in stainless steel to capture the bright fruit. It’s big and full-bodied but approachable.

You can reach Sandra Silfven at ssilfven@hotmail.com.