Casually mention your predilection for Robert Mondavi wines in polite society and you could cause something of a stir.
But if having a name so similar to a universally loathed dictator has ever troubled Mr Mondavi, one of California’s preeminent vintners, he’s not letting it show in the quality of his wines, which provided the chief liquid accompaniment to my holiday in Palm Desert last year, courtesy of Ralphs supermarket.
Having navigated the logistical nightmares of procuring a Ralphs card (to prevent every purchase from being needlessly and nonsensically expensive) and ensuring every bottle of Mondavi brand wine we stuck in our trolley had a collar promising a couple of dollars off your shopping bill (again – something of a charade, as this only resulted in the wines being mid-price, perhaps 50p cheaper than they would be at home), all that was left was to knock them back, one after the other, and scribble a few notes to round up my thoughts on one of the more ubiquitous supermarket-fillers from the Golden State. And so:
I expected this to be good and by golly, I wasn’t disappointed. Californian Chardonnay remains my Chardonnay of choice and it’s wines like this that justify that decision, for me. Donald can fill you in on Mondavi’s history in his excellent article here, but for my part I’d just like to say that this light gold, vanilla and marmalade on toast bottle of heavenly manna hit the spot exactly. We tried a specially-bottled Cheesecake Factory Chardonnay in the, well – in the Cheesecake Factory, too, and it was equally good: perhaps a touch more pineapple and tropical fruits about it; perhaps just my meal and surroundings, and my determination to differentiate doing the tasting.
The Pinot Noir
This was a pleasant surprise; I haven’t tried a whole lot of American Pinot Noirs, but given their reputation for them, and the vast hectarage of vineyards across California given over to them, I’d feared I’d have to break the bank to sample a praiseworthy Pinot this side of the globe, but far from it: Mondavi’s was the only one I tried on my visit and it satisfied my needs for this special grape without a qualm. It was fabulously fruity and dry in equal measure. Not complex, by any means, but a really pleasing Pinot and well worth the supermarket-standard asking price (which I think roughly translated at about £6.)
The Sauvignon Blanc
The one of the bunch I wasn’t so impressed with: it’s always going to be more difficult to impress me with a Sauvignon Blanc, because, frankly, I prefer other wines. And this one had none of the star quality I’ve tasted in French, Chilean or Kiwi Sauvignons over the last year so I’m afraid I’m going to have to call it the dud of the crop. Perfectly drinkable and almost pleasant dry, apple and pear flavours lurking under a citrus tang, but really, when there’s only so much soil in the world, I’d happily have all these vines uprooted and replaced with the Chardonnay, which is infinitely more remarkable.
Woah, hold up, wait up, take a rain check (or something): what’s a Meritage? Far from being a secret variety of grape developed in Mondavi’s underground laboratories (of which I presume he has some), this is a recognised US blend in the style of the internationally envied Bordeaux appellation.
(Mondavi: “This Meritage blend is a collage of the five classic Bordeaux red varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.”)
A quick read-around suggests vineyards are encouraged to limit production of these to their bestest grapes and to blend using only those Bordeaux would approve of (though I’ve no doubt Bordeaux doesn’t approve one bit). The good news for those of us who like to try new things as well as old things is that Robert Mondavi’s Meritage is a rich, complex and rewarding wine: a real joy. A huge surprise to me it was to find competition for the solid Chardonnay among the reds, (of all things and places), but the Meritage has all the easy-drinking versatility and excellence of a good French Claret and for a comparably modest price you can almost begin to understand why so many Americans have never tasted a wine from outside America (source for citation = anecdotal evidence based on wine tastings attended by aunt and uncle on previous trip to California – or was it Arizona?).
Peppery, darkly fruity and well-rounded tannins all combined to make the Meritage an ideal accompaniment to the steak my uncle cooked – I’d definitely pick up one or two of these again next time I’m stateside, though I don’t doubt there’s hefty competition if this one Californian winemaker can excel at three very different varieties at such affordable prices. Great stuff: I’ll stop before I begin to sound like a sales pitch.
One question, though – to whom is this selection private? All you need is access to Ralphs and they didn’t mind me padding about in my slacks and sneakers. Must be code for something…