Syrah has been the darling of the wine press of late, and Syrah-based
wines are appearing from all over the New World, sometimes under
its Australian name, Shiraz. But in the grape’s home in the
Rhone Valley –in the southern Rhone, specifically –
Syrah is typically blended with a number of other grapes, most notably
Grenache and Mourvèdre. Grenache has already begun taking
on a leading role, largely because of Spanish success with the grape
(there called Garnacha) in places like Priorat. Now, Mourvèdre
is ready for its close-up.
In France, Mourvèdre once dominated Provence, but after
the phylloxera louse hit the region in the late 1800s most vineyards
were replanted with Grenache, which grafted onto louse-resistant
rootstocks more easily; only after World War II did winegrowers
find rootstocks that worked well with Mourvèdre.
grape stands out in Bandol, a small appellation in Provence southeast
of Marseilles where sandy soils prevented phylloxera from attacking
the grapes in the first place. While it does appear as a blending
grape in places like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Bandol is the only place
where AVA laws demand that it make up at least 50% of the wine –
in some wines its proportion is even higher. While it dominates
the best, south-facing slopes of the region, Grenache and Cinsault
are often planted in the lesser sites, and the former in particular
has a fruitiness that Mourvèdre can lack and which producers
find useful in balancing their wines.
Mourvèdre, especially as it grows in Bandol, tends toward
a meaty, spicy character; some sommeliers characterize Bandol’s
aromas as “burnt pot roast.” Herbal aromas are also
common, tasting notes like “sage” and “anise”
are typical. Given the warmth of Provence, Bandol’s wines
are generally full-bodied and dense.
Like Grenache, Mourvèdre also has Spanish connections –
in fact, experts believe Spain is its native territory, and that
it only came to France around the end of the Middle Ages. In Spain
it is known as Monastrell or Bobal, and is the primary grape in
five appellations that only recently turned the corner toward producing
quality wines. Since winegrapes have grown there for many years,
producers have plenty of old vines to work with, making the switch
from quantity to quality easier to pull off. The Jumilla and Yecla
appellations in the southeast of Spain have been the most successful
so far, and are becoming increasingly available in the U.S. The
wines here are full-bodied but fruitier – Monastrell often
has a blackberry aroma – with lower tannins than is usual
In the New World, Mourvèdre was often planted alongside
Syrah under the pseudonym “Mataro” – many winegrowers
looked to the southern Rhone as their model, and intended to blend
their Mataro together with Grenache, Syrah, and other grapes. Some
Californian producers are pushing for an officially defined “Rhone
varietal blend” designation for these wines; in Australia,
these wines are often labeled with acronyms like “GSM”
for “Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre.”
But single varietal Syrah á la the Northern Rhone has become
the norm in much of the New World; some producers have taken their
“leftover” Mourvèdre and bottled it on its own.
Many of the resulting wines are no compromise, offering as much
interest and complexity as their Syrah-based cousins. Styles vary,
but generally follow the New World, fruit forward model, often touched
by roast coffee and chocolate aromas.
Some Recommended Wines:
Domaine Tempier – one of Bandol’s leading
lights; it was winemaker Lucien Peyraud’s efforts that led
to the creation of the Bandol AOC with Mourvèdre as its centerpiece.
Tempier makes a number of cuvées, almost all of which demonstrate
Bandol’s distinctive meaty, gamey character. Many of them
age quite well.
Domaines Bunan – makes several outstanding
bottlings of Mourvèdre-based wines.
Domaine La Suffrene – in 1996 the Gravier
family made their first wines instead of selling their grapes to
the local cooperative, as they had previously. It’s been a
successful move, and the wines demonstrate the area’s terroir
Finca Luzón – produces several good-value
Monastrells which are widely available in the U.S.
Casa Castillo – wines range from a smooth,
modern style to more powerful, rugged wines that need aging to show
their full potential.
Bodegas Castano – an old winery which was
renovated in the 80s, a move which kicked off a jump in quality.
Especially noted for their rich Monastrell Dulce,
a Port-like dessert wine.
Cline Cellars – offers several Mourvèdres.
The Small Berry Mourvèdre is particularly
interesting for the chocolate and mint character lent it by the
eucalyptus trees which surround the vineyard. Their Late
Harvest Mourvèdre also stands out; it’s a
lighter dessert wine but rich in flavor, and avoids the sometimes
cloying character of its Spanish cousins.
Tablas Creek – the 2003 vintage gave birth
to their first 100% Mourvèdre, but the grape figures large
in several of their other wines, including a Rosé,
the Panoplie (available to wine club members only),
and the Esprit de Beaucastel. The latter isn’t
just a tribute to the famed Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape;
Tablas Creek was founded by the Perrin family, who own Beaucastel,
together with Robert Hass, their importer.
McCrea Cellars – Eastern Washington has taken
a strong liking to Rhone varietals, and McCrea produces a number
of blends plus several single-varietal wines, including not only
Mourvèdre but also rarities like Counoise and Cinsault.
d’Arenberg – Here they only used their
Mourvèdre in blends until 1995, when international interest
in the lesser-known Rhone varieties prompted them to take another
look at the grape and offer a single-vineyard, single varietal Mourvèdre,
called The Twentyeight Road.
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