We have some big news. With last week's grafting of some 250 Muscardin buds into the vineyard at Tablas Creek, we've achieved our goal of having all the Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes in the ground here at Tablas Creek. This is the culmination of a 30-year project, and meaningful for me in part because it's the realization of one of my dad's dreams.
But what, you ask, is Muscardin like? That's a difficult question. I've been answering it by saying, "well, it's red, but not very" and making a joke that that's all I know. But it's only sort of a joke, because there is so much we don't know yet. Muscardin is barely planted even in its Rhone Valley homeland, and there has been none that I've been able to find that ever made its way outside of the Rhone. But still, I've done what I can to pull together everything we know about it here.
Muscardin is rare nowadays, and it appears never to have been very common, or found anywhere outside the Rhone. Its first mention in the historical record from 1895 talks about it being one of the "old southern grape varieties", along with Grenache, Piquepoul, Tinto, Terret noir, gris and blanc, Counoise, Vaccarese, Clairette, and Picardan.1 Its combination of relatively low vigor, pale color, and sprawling growth appears to have been three strikes against it in the period after Phylloxera2, and in 2009 there were just 11 hectares (27 acres) in Chateauneuf du Pape, and less than that in the rest of France.3 Nevertheless, it is recognized in the official Chateauneuf-du-Pape regulations as a distinct grape, and the Perrins have been one of its advocates, valuing the wine for its freshness and floral lift. When we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties in 2003, our Muscardin cutting came from the Beaucastel estate.
The origin of Muscardin's name is obscure, but the one thing that practically everyone agrees with is that it has nothing to do with Muscat or Muscadet. And the grape's scarcity (it doesn't even appear in Viala & Vermorel's seminal 1905 Ampelographie) means that there is just not that much literature out there on this rare grape. So, we really are breaking new ground here.
The grape did not have an easy time getting into California either. We took cuttings from Beaucastel in 2003 along with Picardan, Terret Noir, Cinsaut, Vaccarese, Bourboulenc, and Clairette Blanche, and all entered quarantine at U.C. Davis at the same time. But while the other grapes were released to us after one, two, or three rounds of virus cleanup, Muscardin took four separate rounds and wasn't released to NovaVine until last year. They have been working on producing buds ever since.
Muscardin in the Vineyard and Cellar
In order to speed up our production of this last grape, we made the decision to graft the 250 buds we were able to secure onto existing vine stock. About 50 of those buds were grafted onto rootstocks that we planted last year, with the other 200 grafted onto a few surplus rows of 20-year-old Grenache Blanc. We expect to get production off of this block perhaps as soon as 2020.
We don't know that much about how Muscardin will do in our vineyard, but we do have some reports from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. There is a great quote from Baron Le Roi of Chateau Fortia that John Livingstone-Learmonth recounts in his 1992 book The Wines of the Rhone: "You know, we would be better off here if we replaced the Cinsault with the Muscardin. The Muscardin doesn't produce a lot, makes wine of low degree and spreads out over the soil, preventing tractors from passing freely between the vines, all of which combine to put people off it. But I believe that it gives a freshness on the palate and helps the wine to achieve elegance."4
As with any new grape, our initial picking decisions are educated guesses, but Muscardin is supposed to both emerge from dormancy and ripen early, more or less in sync with Syrah. This suggests we will need to be ready to protect it from frost. It is known for ripening at low alcohols and relatively high acids. The freshness and floral character it is supposed to bring to the table suggest that ultimately it will become a part of our blends, and serve perhaps a similar role to Counoise. That said, we plan to bottle the first few vintages on their own, so that we can wrap our heads around them and so we can show them to other people and get their feedback.
Flavors and Aromas
At Beaucastel, because it is so scarce, Muscardin is rarely vinified on its own and I was not able to taste it on either of my last two visits. I did taste a tank where they co-fermented it with two other pale, floral grapes, Vaccarese and Terret Noir. It was delicious, rose petals and fresh acids, spicy with yellow plum and strawberry fruit. I suspect from our own experiences here that the tannic bite I remember came from the Terret; neither Vaccarese nor Muscardin are supposed to be particularly tannic. But we will know more soon. As for aging, Muscardin is reputed to be prone to oxidation, like Counoise, so it may well be something best drunk young, and I suspect we will choose to bottle it under screwcap. We look forward to finding out, and sharing our discoveries with you!