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What I Learned from Tasting Three Decades of Cabernet

F&W’s Ray Isle raids the Mondavi cellar to sample incredible California Cabernets and Bordeaux dating back to 1978, all in an effort to understand the evolution of wine style.

Wine obsessives have one huge advantage over food fanatics. They can go backward in time. For instance, most foodies I know would give their left eyeteeth (though that would make it hard to eat) to have chef Fernand Point cook them a meal at his famed La Pyramide—but since Point died in 1955, that isn’t going to happen. Wine, on the other hand, lasts. It can easily outlive its maker.

That was one of the things on my mind at an extraordinary tasting I was lucky enough to experience at the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi passed away in 2008, but to celebrate the centennial of his birth, the winery put together a retrospective tasting of wines from its cellar: Mondavi Reserve Cabernets dating back to 1978, together with great Bordeaux from the same vintages. Because I am neither comatose nor jaded to a level that would stun a rock star, I was pretty excited that they asked me to attend.

So were the three wine experts I invited along to try the wines, too, at least based on the more or less supersonic speed with which they got back to me about the offer. It’s rare, even for top sommeliers, to taste that many great old wines in one sitting—on top of which, as educator and author Andrea Robinson pointed out, “It’s particularly fun when some of them are from vintages when you weren’t even of legal drinking age.”

One other thing on my mind, as I pulled the cork from a bottle of 1978 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, was that Mr. Mondavi probably would have liked to be at this tasting himself. I wish he could have been. He long kept a cellar of top European wines and regularly tasted them against his own. (Willi Sherer, the wine director for Redd and Redd Wood in Yountville, California, and another of the experts in attendance, was at one of those tastings in the early 1990s.)

Along with the ’78 Mondavi, we opened a 1978 Château Mouton Rothschild, the Bordeaux first-growth estate. Its proprietor, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, had partnered with Mondavi in 1979 to launch Opus One, the first American wine to sell for more than $50 a bottle (you inevitably run into a lot of firsts when writing about Robert Mondavi), so it seemed appropriate. The Mondavi wine was gorgeous, an impressive feat for a 34-year-old wine, as well as a relief, as it was one of the last three bottles at the winery. It eclipsed the Mouton, though the Mouton did have a beautiful aroma and satiny finish—“like a mirror lake,” Robinson said.

What was unmistakable about both wines was that they were clearly from a different era than the Cabernets of today: light in alcohol (12.5 to 13 percent, compared to 14.5 or 15 percent now), with flavors indicating they’d been harvested far less ripe than is currently the norm.

Tim Mondavi, Robert’s son, made nearly all of the Mondavi wines we tasted, so a few days later, I asked him about that difference in character. “In the 1970s, things in Napa Valley had been going at a slow, slow pace for decades,” he explained. “So, even into the late ’70s, most of the vines in the valley had been planted before Prohibition and had virus problems. In that era, you couldn’t really get ripe grapes even if you tried.”

Essentially, 1978 was an aeon ago in modern wine terms. Napa Valley was still a bucolic place back then, full of prune orchards, wheat fields, even cattle. In Bordeaux, many châteaus were coasting on reputation, and their vineyard work and winemaking were haphazard at best.

By 1987, though, the year the next wines we tasted were made, changes had occurred. Improved viticulture in both regions was ensuring riper grapes, and winemakers had begun to venture into the vineyards, working together with growers rather than simply accepting what was delivered to the winery door. Mondavi himself was an early adopter: As Genevieve Janssens, the Mondavi Winery’s director of winemaking, notes, “He was always saying, ‘What’s next?’ ” And by the 1990s, wine buyers’ tastes were shifting, too, with the austere, old-school, “English” sense of what Cabernet should be giving way to what could basically be called an American love of richness, plush tannins and ripe, sweet fruit. The stylistic trends of the ’80s continued; as sommelier Gillian Ballance of Murray Circle at Sausalito, California’s Cavallo Point Lodge said when we tried the 1990 Mondavi, “OK, here’s your black fruit.” (When harvested at lower levels of ripeness, Cabernet tends to produce more red currant than black currant or blackberry flavors.) In fact, the 1990 was fantastic—for several of us, the best wine of the tasting. But it was definitely a darker, denser wine than the earlier Mondavi vintages, just as the ’95 Cos d’Estournel that Sherer described as being “full of regal black-plum character” seemed of a different universe than that restrained, savory ’78 Mouton. (And yet both were still unmistakably Bordeaux, too; an interesting trick.)

By the time we got to the 2000s, the transformation from restrained to ripe seemed complete. “Wow—sappy, sweet, huge blackberry; this is what the earlier wines were morphing into,” Ballance said about Mondavi’s ’03. It was a telling comment, given that Mondavi’s overall style is actually more restrained than many Napa competitors, and fascinating in light of the 2003 Latour we opened with it, which was, if not as sweetly fruity as the Mondavi, even more powerful and intense—a kind of beautiful Bordeaux juggernaut. In some ways, it was a freak of its vintage, since in Bordeaux in 2003, temperatures in August regularly exceeded 100 degrees, in many cases effectively roasting the grapes on the vine. Yet somehow (partly by tossing out roughly 45 percent of their harvest), the Latour team avoided the superripe, porty flavors that mar many wines from that year, and made an extraordinary wine.

By the end of the tasting, we’d traveled 35 years. We’d started in the 1970s, an era when, as Tim Mondavi recalls, “You’d go skiing, and someone would ask where you were from, and when you said, ‘Napa Valley,’ they’d say, ‘Huh. Isn’t that where that insane asylum is? And that veterans’ home, right?’ Those were the two things Napa Valley was known for.” And we’d ended in a very different world: over 400 wineries in Napa Valley alone, and more than 5 million people visiting them every year, simply to drink wine. Winemaking, wine, viticulture, reputation, taste—the wines we’d opened showed how everything had changed in those years. With luck, I’ll be around to try all those wines again another 35 years down the line.

The Centennial Tasting at Robert Mondavi Winery

To find older wines like the ones we sampled to celebrate Mondavi’s 100th birthday, try wine-searcher.com or 1000corks.com.

The Seventies

1978 Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($135) “Surprisingly juicy and jammy,” wine educator Andrea Robinson noted. This 34-year-old Cab is from one of Tim Mondavi’s favorite vintages, one he recalls producing wines “full of generosity and expression.”

1978 Château Mouton Rothschild ($350) A good but not stellar year in Bordeaux, 1978 produced graceful wines that are largely fading now, if not gone. The Mouton we tasted was pretty, but light and herbal— a little scaled down, as sommelier Willi Sherer said, compared to a great vintage.

The Eighties

1987 Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($145) A famously good year in Napa, and a famously powerful one as well, which shows in this still formidably tannic Cabernet. In fact, a couple of sommeliers felt it was overly tannic and wondered if it would ever come into balance.

1987 Château Margaux ($375) The unpredictability of Bordeaux’s maritime climate was clear in this vintage: It rained for two weeks during harvest, resulting in thin, diluted wines. Margaux is better than most, but it still prompted sommelier Gillian Ballance to wonder “whether it rained in the bottle rather than on the vines.”

The Nineties

1990 Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($100) One of the stars of our tasting, this perfectly aged red had extraordinary balance and aromatic complexity—and can be found for less than a tenth of the price of the acclaimed 2003 Château Latour we tried.

1990 Château Léoville Las-Cases ($375) A great vintage in Bordeaux, and a spectacular wine, but this bottle was oddly muted and dull, a testament to the variability of how wines age—and a possible hint that it was stored poorly at some point in the past.

The Aughts

2009 Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($135) This is the current vintage of Mondavi’s flagship Cabernet, and it showcases director of winemaking Genevieve Janssens’s deft hand at balancing richness and elegance.

2009 Château Léoville Barton ($130) Though its reputation is less grand than that of the first-growth châteaus in the tasting, Léoville Barton turned out a terrific wine in 2009—beautifully polished, with brilliantly clear flavors.

Video: Wine Experts Discuss Cabernet

Published March 2013
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