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On the value -- and peril -- of waiting two years for Mourvedre

Last month, we hosted a vertical tasting of nearly every Mourvedre we’ve ever made.

Mourvedre Vertical

Mourvedre is our most important grape, the lead grape in the Esprit de Tablas every year, and the grape of which we have the most planted acres, at 27.  To put that number in perspective, it accounts for 26% of our 105 planted acres and about 5% of the total Mourvedre acreage in California.

The tasting was wonderful. Mourvedre is a grape that ages gracefully, which can be somewhat surprising to the uninitiated because the wines are not particularly tannic when they are young. Or, at least, not tannic in the sense that most people think of, with the drying force of a young Syrah or Cabernet. Mourvedre tannins are generally chewy rather than hard, but their capacity to resist oxidation is one of the reasons that the grape is planted in Chateauneuf du Pape despite the challenges of getting it ripe there. Even if you only include 5% in your blend (which there would be typically mostly Grenache) you’ve done a lot to improve the longevity of your finished wine.

The fact that Mourvedre is so late ripening was one of the key factors in our choice of Paso Robles as our location for our collaboration with the Perrins (which we would name Tablas Creek after the creek that runs through the property) back in 1989.  Paso Robles’ climate includes a very long growing season which can provide good ripening weather into mid-November. And while it hasn’t been necessary in the recent string of warm years, we’ve harvested into November nearly as often as we’ve finished in October.

All this is a lengthy preamble to a simple point: Mourvedre has meant a lot to us over the years, and we’ve bottled a varietal Mourvedre each year since 2003 except for the drought- and frost-reduced 2009. So, when we gathered with about 100 of our fans and VINsider Wine Club members in July to taste them all, it was an occasion that we were all looking forward to.

Although each wine was lovely in its own way – and the different personalities of each vintage were clearly reflected – there were four wines that people particularly gravitated towards. These included the 2003, for its mature flavors of leather, game, and meat drippings, and its soft tannins. Another favorite was the 2007, for its power and richness, with secondary flavors layered on top of still-intense fruit. A third was the newly-bottled 2014, which showed all of Mourvedre’s youthful charm, with bright currant and red plum fruit, and a loamy mocha depth that provided a wonderful counterpoint. The fourth was the 2008, which for many of us was the wine of the tasting: a lovely silky texture, expressive flavors of dark cherry and spice, and an ethereal quality that several people commented reminded them of what they loved about Pinot Noir: its ability to be intensely flavorful without being heavy or one-dimensional.

The last time we had tasted our full sequence of Mourvedre bottlings was in 2014. I wrote up that tasting on the blog shortly thereafter. It was fascinating to me to look back at the description of the 2008:

“It’s hard for any vintage to follow the 2007, but my sense from the shy nose and the clipped finish is that this is in a closed period that it will come out of. The aromatics of raspberry and black pepper are classic, and the good acids and modest tannin are in balance with the medium-intensity red fruit. Wait another year or so, then drink in the next 2-3”

One of the real standouts in 2014 was our 2010:

“Showing crystal purity in the Mourvedre aromatics of roasted meat, wild strawberry, orange peel, pepper, and mint. The mouth is beautiful: mid0weight with pure plum and currant, nice clean tannins, and good length. Like a kir made with a great Chablis, if such a thing weren’t sacrilege. If I were going to pick one wine to show off the appeal of the Mourvedre grape in its youth, this would be the one.”

In our recent tasting, the 2010 wasn’t many people’s favorite: a quiet wine, showing nice balance and modest intensity, but little of the sparkle that made it such a favorite just a few years ago.

So, what gives? I think the 2008 has emerged from – and the 2010 entered – the closed period that I’ve written about in the past. In that blog, I compared this phase to a teenager: with neither the charming exuberance of youth nor the elegance and balance achieved with age. And to have these two wines show this change would hardly be surprising; typically, Mourvedre is one of the grapes most prone to this midlife crisis, and it usually happens about 3 years after the wine is bottled, and lasts a couple of years.  The 2008 was bottled in 2010; it was 4 years in bottle in 2014, but is now 6 years in bottle.  And the 2010, which was bottled in 2012, was just 2 years old at our last tasting – still typically in its youthful openness – but is now 4 years old.

Many of you know that we maintain a vintage chart on our Web site, and update it every few months based on the tastings we do in-house and the feedback we get from fans and crowd-sourced sites like the remarkable cellartracker.com. We have different markings for appealing phases: youthful maturity, full maturity, and late maturity.  We also have markings for phases we suggest people avoid: some wines’ extreme youth (which gets red) or old age (pink), and wines in this in-between phase, which we mark on our vintage chart in purple. One of the main reasons that we created our VINsider Wine Club Collector’s Edition was so that we could give more recently converted fans a taste of what the wines were like after they’d emerged into their mature peaks.

Would someone who didn’t know the wine and opened it in it this middle phase be able to identify it as less than optimal? I doubt it. But I also think it’s unlikely to wow them, and they might well wonder – if it’s a wine that got great reviews or which a friend recommended highly – what all the fuss was about.

And based on our recent experience of the 2008, there’s definitely a fuss waiting on the other side, if you can have the patience to get there.