Robert Mondavi Winery established a reputation for the sauvignon blanc grape soon after the charismatic and innovative Robert Mondavi broke away from his family and established his own winery in 1966. Long a neglected grape in California, used for blending generic proprietary white wines or badly made on its own, sauvignon blanc became in his hands a fresh, grassy, appealing wine that bore a made-up French name on the label, “Fumé Blanc,” a nod to the Pouilly-Fumé appellation in the eastern Loire Valley, where sauvignon blanc reigns supreme. The result was a marketing triumph. In fact, some wineries in California still maintain a theoretical distinction between sauvignon blanc wines, supposedly made in the fashion of white Bordeaux, and fumé blanc wines, fashioned in the Loire Valley manner, if such distinctions can practically be made.

Today I look at three fumé blanc wines from Robert Mondavi. While I give out two Excellent ratings here and one Very Good+, my caveat is that the winery seems to make a fetish of French oak barrels and of employing every possible winemaking technique to shape a sauvignon blanc in a particular image rather than — especially in the instances of the Oakville 2014 and Reserve 2014, made from the almost hallowed To Kalon Vineyard — allowing the character of the vineyard to achieve eloquent expression. One feels, again particularly for the Reserve ’14, that the wines were poked and prodded and minutely examined rather than being allowed a natural development. Still, two Excellent ratings out of three ain’t bad. I especially liked the basic Fumé Blanc 2015, which at about $20 rates as a distinct bargain.

Director of winemaking for Robert Mondavi is Genevieve Janssens.

These wines were samples for review.
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The winery’s basic product in this iteration is the Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2015, Napa Valley, a blend of 96 percent sauvignon blanc grapes and 4 percent semillon. The grapes derived from a Wappo Hill vineyard in Stags Leap District (70 percent); from Mondavi’s famed To Kalon Vineyard (13 percent), with the balance from Napa Carneros. Eighty-five percent of the juice was barrel-fermented — the rest in stainless steel — and then aged five months in French oak barrels on the lees, hand-stirred twice a month. This is a smoky sauvignon blanc, truly fume, that offers a very pale straw-gold color and entrancing aromas of roasted lemons and lemon balm, lime peel, pea shoot and lilac. The texture is silky, talc-like but balanced by bright acidity and the burgeoning edge of limestone minerality, all in support of pert and tart flavors of guava, greengage, lemon and heather, the latter for a subtly grassy touch; spicy oak stays at the filigreed periphery. 14.5 percent alcohol. One of my favorite sauvignon blanc wines of the year. Drink now through 2019 or 2020. Excellent. About $20, marking Great Value.
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The Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2014, Oakville District, contains 21 percent semillon grapes, a factor that lends the wine notes of honeydew melon and fig and a particular sunny-leafy aspect that I associate with the variety. Ninety-one percent of the wine fermented in French oak and then aged on the lees for eight months, undergoing regular bâtonnage (hand-stirring); only eight percent of the oak was new barrels. Grapes for this wine derived from the renowned To Kalon Vineyard that surrounds the winery in Oakville. The color is pale gold; besides the features I already mentioned, the wine teems with hints of lime peel and lemongrass, crushed gravel, verbena and fennel, hay and heather. Vivid acidity and scintillating limestone minerality provide the balance between fruit and oak, which indeed as the moments pass becomes a dominating aspect of the wine: dry, spicy and burnished, a bit more powerful than I would like. Still, this sense of tension and resolution in texture and structure gives the wine its exciting quality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 to ’20. Excellent. About $40.
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Strangely, or sadly, my least favorite of this trio of sauvignon blancs is the Robert Mondavi To Kalon Reserve Fumé Blanc 2014, Napa Valley. The amount of new oak increased to 42 percent, the aging to nine months, from the previous example; a small difference one might think, but enough to make this wine feel burdened by its wood regimen rather than enhanced, at least from mid-palate back through the finish. There’s a bare two percent semillon. The grapes came from the To Kalon Vineyard, half from Robert’s Block, first planted in 1960. A small portion of the fruit was fermented in cement egg-shaped containers and was added to the final blend. Of course the wine was barrel-fermented and hand-stirred in barrel. The color is very pale straw-gold; aromas of lime peel and celery leaf, lemongrass and preserved lemon are woven with notes of spiced pear, tangerine and just a hint of fig, all abetted by a snap of gunflint and graphite. The wine offers a texture almost dense in its fluid materiality, though it’s lightened and heightened by vibrant acidity and a sense of lithe energy. That oak, though, develops from a subtle haze to a formidably drying factor in the mouth, powering over all other aspects to become the wine’s raison d’etre. Through all the technique exercised in the winery, does the character of the vineyard shine through? It just feels all too handled. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $52.
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