Mourvèdre (more-vehd-ruh), with its meaty richness and wonderful longevity, forms the backbone of our Esprit de Beaucastel. Twenty-one acres of our vineyard are devoted to Mourvèdre, representing the largest acreage of any of our grapes and over a third of our red Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties.
Mourvèdre is native to Spain, where it is known as Monastrell and is second only to Grenache (Garnacha) in importance. From the Spanish town of Murviedro, near Valencia, Mourvèdre was brought to Provence in the late Middle Ages where, prior to the phylloxera invasion at the end of the 19th century, it was the dominant varietal.
The phylloxera invasion was particularly devastating to Mourvèdre. Whereas most of the other Rhône varietals were easily matched with compatible rootstocks, Mourvèdre proved difficult to graft with the existing phylloxera- resistant rootstock. Thus, when the vineyards were replanted, most producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape chose to replant with varieties that were easier to graft, such as Grenache. For decades, Mourvèdre was found in France almost exclusively in the sandy (and phylloxera-free) soil of Bandol, on the French Mediterranean coast, where it is bottled both as a red wine (blended with Grenache and Cinsault) and as perhaps the world's most coveted dry rosé.
Compatible rootstocks for Mourvèdre were developed only after World War II. Shortly thereafter, Jacques Perrin of Château de Beaucastel led regeneration efforts in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and made Mourvèdre a primary grape in the red Beaucastel wines. Since the late 1960s, total plantings in Southern France have increased dramatically, but Beaucastel is still distinctive among Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers for using an unusually high percentage of Mourvèdre: up to 35% in some vintages.
Mourvèdre in the New World
Mourvèdre came to California as Mataro (a name taken from a town near Barcelona where the varietal was grown) in the mid to late 1800s. In California it was probably first established in Santa Clara County, although the oldest surviving vineyards are in Contra Costa County. It also found a home In Australia in the Barossa Valley. Until recently, the grape was rarely bottled by itself, and was instead generally used as a component of field blends. The increasing popularity and prestige of Rhône varietals, the importation of higher-quality clones (in which Tablas Creek played a role) and a return to the French Mourvèdre name has given the varietal a new life. Currently about 400 acres are planted in California.
Mourvèdre was one of the initial eight grape varieties that we imported into the United States. While we were waiting for the vines to be released from USDA quarantine, we planted about two acres of the California-sourced Mataro clone near the top of our vineyard. We vinified the French and American clones separately, and found that Mourvedre showed the greatest disparity in quality. We grafted over the American-sourced vines to our French clones in 2003.
Mourvèdre in the Vineyard
Mourvèdre is a late-ripening varietal that flourishes with hot summer temperatures. As such, it is beautifully suited to our southern Rhône-like climate at Tablas Creek, where its lateness in sprouting makes it less vulnerable to late spring frosts. In the vineyard, Mourvèdre is a moderately vigorous varietal that does not require a great deal of extra care. The vines tend to grow vertically, making Mourvèdre an ideal candidate for head-pruning (the method traditional to Châteauneuf-du-Pape), although vines can also be successfully trellised. When head-pruned, the weight of the ripening grapes pulls the vines down like the spokes of an umbrella, providing the ripening bunches with ideal sun exposure. It is typically our last varietal to be harvested, often not coming into the cellar until early November.
Mourvèdre berries are moderate in size, medium-dark in color, with very thick skins. These thick skins are important because with its extremely late ripening, Mourvèdre is often still on the vines at the time of the first rains of the fall. Its thick skins protect it from the swelling and splitting that thinner-skinned grapes (such as Grenache) are susceptible to.
Mourvèdre in the Cellar
Mourvèdre is relatively easy-going in the cellar, and can be successfully fermented both in open-top fermenters with punch-downs, and in closed-top fermenters with pump-overs. In Bandol, it is typically fermented in whole clusters. In California, the stems of Mourvèdre often remain green into November, and we have felt that fermenting whole-cluster with green stems will make the resulting wine too tannic. However, in 2008, when a fluke October freeze lignified the stems of a Mourvèdre block, we took advantage by making a whole-cluster lot.
We typically press off our Mourvèdre after about 10 days of fermentation, and move it to large, neutral barrels. It is very well suited to aging in foudre, as it does not take particularly well to new oak, and does not move the same tendency toward reduction that Syrah does. We try to blend our Mourvèdre lots in the spring or summer after harvest, and then return the blends to foudre for an additional year of aging.
Mourvèdre is a wonderful blending component; its structure and mid-palate richness complement the openness, warmth and brighter acids of Grenache and the mineral, spice and tannin of Syrah. It blends successfully both in a leading role (as in Bandol, or our Esprit de Beaucastel and Panoplie) as well as in a supporting role in Grenache-based wines (as in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or our Cotes de Tablas). In years when it gets fully ripe, it can also make a delicious single-varietal wine. We have bottled a varietal Mourvèdre each year since the 2003 vintage.
Flavors and Aromas
Wines made from Mourvèdre are intensely colored, rich and velvety with aromas of red fruit, chocolate/mocha, mint, leather, earth and game. They tend to be high in mid-palate tannin, and are well-suited to aging, although they are also often more approachable when young than the more overtly-tannic Grenache or Syrah.
In middle-age (anywhere from two to five years after bottling) Mourvèdre-heavy wines often close down and become tight and unyielding. This closed period can last for as little as a year, or in extraordinary vintages as long as a decade. When the wines reopen, the meaty flavors present in youth resolve into aromas of forest floor, leather and truffles. The more intense a Mourvèdre-based wine is, the longer it stays open at the beginning, the longer it stays closed, and the longer it will drink well after it reopens.
Food Pairing Suggestions
Mourvèdre-based wines pair well with grilled and roasted meats, root vegetables, mushrooms and dark fowl such as duck: flavors that harmonize with the earthiness of the wine.