Have Mondavi and Opus One Lost their Way?

It may be unfair to link Mondavi and Opus One together at this point, since although Opus One started as a joint operation between Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild, they went separate ways after Constellation purchased Mondavi, but I was struck at a dinner with wines from both producers by the similarity in their development. Current vintages of Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc and Reserve Chardonnay were followed by three vintages of Opus One, and it would be fait to say that power is triumphing over elegance all along the line.

In the early years of Napa Valley’s development, Mondavi was a benchmark for Cabernet Sauvignon (the 1974 Reserve was a defining wine for the vintage), the Chardonnay was one of the more French-oriented, and the Fumé Blanc was a master stroke that tamed Sauvignon Blanc with subtle oak impressions. But today the 2012 Fumé Blanc gives an impression of sharp acidity with indistinct fruit impressions, while the 2013 Reserve Chardonnay gives an impression of raw oak in front of fruits. In fact, you might say that the Fumé Blanc is too much Sauvignon and not enough Fumé, while the Chardonnay is too much oak and not enough fruit.

I can’t trace the change in character of the whites historically, but a change in the reds goes back to the early 2000s. There was a long-running difference of opinion between Mondavi and the Wine Spectator over style. The Spectator’s lead critic on California, James Laube, commented in July 2001, “At a time when California’s best winemakers are aiming for ripe, richer, more expressive wines, Mondavi appears headed in the opposite direction… [Winemaker] Tim Mondavi and I have different taste preferences… He has never concealed his distaste for big, ultra rich plush or tannic red wines. I know he can make rich, compelling wines, yet he prefers structured wines with elegance and finesse.” Tim Mondavi replied, “I am concerned… that there appears to be a current trend toward aggressively over-ripe, high in alcohol, over oaked wines that are designed to stand out at a huge tasting rather than fulfill the more appropriate purpose of enhancing a meal.” There you have the whole debate about style in Napa in a nutshell. Yet after this was all said and done, the style at Mondavi changed in the direction of greater richness.

I’ve always found Opus One easy to underrate in the early years, when it tends to be somewhat dumb, and to retain a touch of austerity, but in vertical tastings I’ve found it to age well. Tasted at the winery five years ago, the 2005 was showing beautifully, the 1995 showed the elegance of a decade’s extra aging, and the first vintage (1979) was still vibrant. My impression at the dinner this week was different. The 2005 shows powerful primary fruits, with not much evidence of development, and a touch of oxidation, showing in the form of raisons on the finish. If it hadn’t seemed the most complete wine of that vertical at the winery, I would say that it must have been brutal when it was young. As this is an unexpected turn of events, I wondered whether perhaps the bottle might be out of condition, whether perhaps the oxidative impressions were due to poor storage, but I think this question was answered by the 2009, which showed a similar, but less evident, impression of oxidation. Again this is a turn-up for the book, as the last time I had the 2009 was at the winery just after it had been bottled: tannins were subsumed by dense, black, and aromatic fruits, and my impression was that the fruit concentration offered great potential for development. But today, aside from taming the tannins with time, I really don’t see much development in flavor variety, and I suspect this is going in the same direction as the 2005. The 2012 is certainly a very big wine, yet identifiably Cabernet-based, with that sense of restraint and hints of tobacco, but I’m concerned that the massive fruits may turn in the same oxidative direction as the earlier vintages. How long, Oh Lord, how long, will it be before the wines develop interesting flavor variety?

I wonder how much alcohol has to do with these impressions? The first vintage of Opus One had 12.9% alcohol, the level stayed under 13% through the 1980s, under 14% through the 1990s, and now alternates between 14.0 and 14.5 according to the labels. Although alcohol isn’t obtrusive on the palate–in the current parlance that winemakers use to explain or apologize for high alcohol, it is balanced—it’s the very high extract and fruit concentration that achieve the sense of equilibrium. This makes it hard for the wine not to over-power a meal. I know that there’s a school of thought that alcohol levels aren’t relevant or interesting, and that no one really cares, but I do: not just because the wine is too heady, but because I don’t like the corollary that there’s simply too much flavor . Or more precisely, too much quantity of flavor and not enough variety. There comes a point where levels of extraction are so high that varietal typicity disappears and everything is just fruit, fruit, fruit. My plea to Napa winemakers is to back off: you don’t have to extract absolutely everything you can from the grapes. It might be a better compromise to harvest under 14% alcohol than to go that last step to super-ripeness.

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One thought on “Have Mondavi and Opus One Lost their Way?

  1. An excellent analysis of why, in my humble opinion, Napa wines are becoming increasingly uninteresting apart from those grown at higher elevations.
    I really don’t understand the obsession with power. Indeed several of my American friends are so discouraged by these ‘fruit bombs’ that I am finding it easy to turn them over to the joys of Europe and, as you so astutely observe, the enhancement of a meal. I am assured that many of them will not be torn int back.
    Bravo Mr Lewin. Another excellent series of observations.

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