“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” … From Fitzherbert's Book of Husbandry in 1534 (language updated). Original author unknown
The story goes that RobertMondavi wanted to set a particular style of his Sauvignon Blanc apart. The grape itself was suffering from a poor reputation in the U.S. in the 1960s. Mondavi, having spent time in France, and tasting wine there, came upon the idea of naming an oaked style of his Sauvignon Blanc as Fume Blanc from the French word Fume referring to the hint of smoke in the aroma and taste of Pouilly-Fume wine from that area in the Loire Valley of France (Pouilly Fume is an AOC and Sauvignon Blanc is grown there). Mondavi did not trademark the name and, subsequently, Dry Creek Valley Vineyards and other winery/vineyards began using the term and the rest is history. It became so because people liked it.
But I was not one of them. Why oak a Riesling or Chenin Blanc? Why oak anything that by nature’s dictate should be all about freshness? Everybody knew that, didn’t they? Why oak Chardonnay? …….. oops! Maybe it was time to re-think this. There are meals in which an oaked Chardonnay, or partially oaked Chardonnay, works better than one that is 100% fermented and aged in steel. So I vowed to get around to it “eventually”. In the meantime, I’d keep my “mind open” while not paying attention.
My mind opened in 2014 when I tasted the Sauvignon Blanc of another winemaker (in Sonoma) who was gracious enough to allow me a private tasting during the busy season of October. Famous for its Pinot Noir, this winery had previously rendered a Fume Blanc for a White House dinner. The wine was very well received and had been in production since. The winery was pouring. I was tasting. Why not? And with just one taste I understood why. I “got it”. So yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
That happened again a week ago tasting Mondavi’s “Napa Valley” 2016 Fume Blanc. I “got it” again. What is interesting is that not all Fume Blanc is necessarily oaked (though, generally, it is safe to assume so). What is interesting is that it always gets back to what is in the bottle, because the term “Fume Blanc” is not legally defined in the United States; it is interchangeable with “Sauvignon Blanc”. You just have to taste the product and determine for yourself what suits your palate.
What I enjoyed about Mondavi’s Fume Blanc (the first in the U.S. to be named so) is its finesse. All wine is manipulated grape juice, but there is no manipulation for the sake of trends here. In fact, great care and attention to tradition has been paid into the making of this wine. Grapes are hand-picked in the cool temperature of early morning. Whole cluster pressing is used to minimize skin contact, retaining freshness and aromatics.
Yes, the wine is different. Some might be tempted to consider it a different-though-same-wine relationship (like Pinot Gris to Pinot Grigio). The citrus is apparent and the wine still offers those aromas and taste of grass. But the body is different. Smoke from the oak char adds complexity. The wine is weightier, creamier and more textured. Not better. Different. But different in a way that makes it more suitable for pairing with certain foods. That can be especially fun if you cook because it adds to your repertoire.
The nose offers lemon, a vegetative hint (grass), grapefruit and orange peel. On the palate is the citrus and minerality (wet stone) you expect from Sauvignon Blanc, but the wine is rounder, richer and more melon-like. Lemon takes on character of lemongrass. The smoke of the oak’s char adds complexity and the wine becomes weightier. The lemon is there, but as the wine airs and warms in the glass, lime announces itself though more as lime crème. Other tasters refer to hints of ripe peach and guava. The “Fume” version is simply creamier and more textured. Despite this, there’s a cleansing acidity to this wine – enough to suggest it’s even a good pairing for oysters on the half shell. And that alone is enough to explain better than I have that this wine is in excellent balance. The oak, while adding texture, is handled with finesse. No element in this wine is obtrusive or excessive. Instead, each works in harmony with the other elements to make the total better than its parts.
Not to worry. Mondavi makes both styles. Mondavi even makes a “Reserve To Kalon Vineyard” Fume Blanc. But this label (the “Napa Valley”) is one you can find in almost every wine shop and many grocery stores. And with an average retail price (w/o tax or shipping) of $18, it’s certainly worth looking for. And speaking of the “To Kalon” vineyard, 39% of the juice for this wine comes from that hallowed area contributing richness, weight, age-ability and complexity to the blend, along with floral notes, tropical fruit and minerality. 59% comes from Mondavi’s prestigious Wappo Hill (in the Stag’s Leap District) with the fruit from there contributing the bright citrus and herbal notes along with giving the wine a lift. The balance of 2% is pure Oakville, making the wine 100% Napa Valley. Not to be outdone, the blend is completed as 92% Sauvignon Blanc and 8% Semillon adding another instrument to the complex symphony.
Another quote, attributed to Harry Graham, comes from the last line of a poem he wrote and was first published in 1903. It goes, “It’s never too late to mend.” He knew too that old dogs CAN learn new tricks. I have, and now will include this Mondavi Napa Valley Fume Blanc as a staple in my cellar.
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TECH SPECS & ETCETERA
Robert Mondavi Winery
7801 St Helena Hwy, Oakville, CA 94562
TA: 6.5 g/L
RS: 0.40 g/L
The juice is barrel fermented to add richness and complexity but with only 2% being new French oak. The wine is aged sur lie (makes for creamy texture) for six months in 60-gallon oak barrels and hand stirred twice monthly. Semillon gives the final blend a broader mouthfeel and added complexity.
I served this wine with a modified version of Chicken Cordon Bleu, cubed and baked Japanese Yam and Purple Sweet Potatoes along with Asparagus. It would do nicely with crab cakes (and a mild horseradish sauce), grilled salmon and scallops, grilled squid with lemon, smoked trout and California rolls or other sushi. It can also do nicely with vegetables such as Provincial Tomatoes, grilled Zucchini or Tomatoes – or mini peppers – stuffed with goat cheese. For meat, consider Grilled Pork Chops and Chicken in so many styles, it’s impossible to list.
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