Mourvedre: Sidelined by Phylloxera No More
December 02, 2020
One of the silver linings of the last nine months unable to travel has been the chance to spend time virtually with some of California winemakers whose work I find inspiring. One of these is Bedrock Wine Company's Morgan Twain-Peterson. He and I were paired up in the finale of the California Wine Institute's "Behind the Wine" series. We got a chance to talk about heritage clones and the work he's doing as a part of the California Historic Vineyard Society, which has interesting parallels to the work we've been doing bringing in the complete collection of Rhone varieties. It turns out that in mapping the pre-phylloxera vineyards he's working with, he's uncovering genetic diversity that has amazed even him. The vineyards are, as you would probably expect, mostly Zinfandel, but (as I learned in the lead-up to our session) include plenty of Rhone varieties like Mataro (the old name for Mourvedre), Grenache, and Carignane. He found one vineyard with three Vaccarese vines, and another with one Clairette Blanche. That's amazing.
Week before last, Morgan sent me a link as a follow up to our conversation about Mourvedre/Mataro. It was a link to a copy of the 1884 Ampelography by Charles A Wetmore, archived via Google and the University of California. Wetmore was at that time the Chief Executive Viticultural Officer of California's wine's first governing body: the Board of State Viticultural Commissioners.
Inside, Wetmore takes the major grape varieties that had at that point made their way to California and evaluates each for its success and potential in the state. One of the grapes that he was most excited about was Mataro. [A quick aside; even then there was confusion about its name, with Wetmore noting that it was "called generally Mourvedre" along the Mediterranean coast of France, but Mataro "along the Spanish coast" with both names in widespread use.] He begins: "Although this is not as extensively cultivated now as other varieties for red wine, yet its present popularity demands for it a place next to the Zinfandel; indeed, I believe that for the future it will have a wider range of usefulness."
He continues with (for me) the piece's most interesting assertion: "All the great French authorities agree in placing the Mataro as the finest red wine grape of the southern regions." This is a good reminder that before phylloxera, Mourvedre was the dominant Rhone grape, not Grenache. After some comments on its ripening, he says "The apparent defect of this grape is the roughness of the new wine; but this is the defect of most noble varieties. Like the Cabernet-Sauvignon of Bordeaux, it requires age to develop its quality."
He goes on: "The chief merits of Mataro are, viz: The vine bears well and resists early fall rains; the fruit contains an abundance of tannin; the wine is wholesome, easily fermented and contributes its fermenting and keeping qualities to others with which it is combined." That is an amazingly pithy summation of why so many Rhone (and Rhone Rangers) producers work with Mourvedre, even if it's not a lead grape for them: the tannic structure and resistance to oxidation that Mourvedre brings to a blend even in small quantities.
After quoting some French authorities, he concludes "I believe there are few red wine vineyards in California, whether for dry or sweet wine, wherein the introduction of a proportion of Mataro, varying from ten to seventy-five per cent, will not be a positive gain." So, if both French and California authorities were so bullish on Mourvedre's potential, what happened to it? Why did it become a relatively trace variety, which in 2000 represented some 7,600 hectares in France, less than one-tenth of Grenache's 95,000 hectare total, while also languishing in California and representing just 605 acres in 2000, barely more than one tenth of one percent of total wine grape acreage? There are doubtless many reasons, but I think it's fair to put a significant portion of the blame on the root parasite phylloxera.
It is significant that Wetmore's work was published in 1884. That date comes during the phylloxera outbreak in Europe, and just before phylloxera devastated vineyards in California and forced widespread replanting onto grafted vines. Mourvedre didn't graft easily onto the rootstocks of the period, so was largely lost. The exceptions were the regions (like Contra Costa here in California, and Bandol on the Mediterranean coast) where the sand content of the soil was high enough to resist phylloxera, and vines could be planted on their own roots. It's from Bandol that Jacques Perrin got the Mourvedre clones that won Beaucastel renown.
This time capsule of a document is a great reminder of what a setback that era was and how many of the planting trends we accept as normal and historical are in fact a reaction to what was fashionable (and possible) in its aftermath. Case in point: the widespread pan-Mediterranean rise of Grenache. While digging in the online French viticultural archives, I found this remarkable quote from this book from 1892, whose title roughly translates as "Investigation of the Reconstitution of the Vineyards in France and on American Vines" (pictured right) speaking about the region of the Var, which is now largely planted to Grenache. My translation of the relevant section is below. Riparia is the scientific name for the first of the American-sourced rootstocks that became necessary in the post-phylloxera era:
"The dominant plant is Alicante-Bouschet grafted on Riparia. We still notice Clairette, Ugni Blanc, Chasselas, Calmeite Noir, and Mourvèdre also grafted onto Riparia; while all the plantations made up of the first grape varieties indicated are vigorous, those made up of Mourvèdre are much less so, and seem to suffer. The owners of Saint-Cyr especially believe that this last grape takes [grafts] with difficulty."
Mourvedre isn't an easy grape even without its grafting issues. It ripens late, typically three weeks after Grenache. It is less vigorous and productive than grapes like Grenache, Cinsaut, and Carignane. And in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, when neither California nor the south of France were commanding high prices for their wines, it's easy for me to imagine the decision making process of growers wondering what to replant after having to pull out thousands of dead vine trunks. That grape that ripens late and might not take successfully to this still-new grafting process? Or something easy and vigorous like Grenache. Yeah. Easy choice. If they worried about quality or color, it would be easy enough to figure they could solve that problem later. But getting something that would grow successfully had to be priority number one. A few decades of decisions like that and it's easy to understand how Mourvedre could become scarce.
That cautionary tale also highlights Jacques Perrin's bravery (and wisdom) in searching out the traditional grapes of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the decades after World War II. Grafting technology was better. Viticulturists in France had a half a century of experience cross-breeding rootstocks and better understood which crosses worked well for which soils, which climates, and (critically) which grapes. Jacques' experimental vineyards are still there, including this great hand-lettered sign.
The success Beaucastel has had with Mourvedre and other even-rarer Rhone grapes is a major inspiration for our push to bring in and plant the historical grapes of the Rhone. There are, after all, lots of reasons that grapes can have become unfashionable that has nothing to do with the quality of wine they might make here and now. Take Picardan for example. It proved to be prone to powdery mildew -- a scourge of French vineyards in the mid-19th Century -- and was already in steep decline when phylloxera hit a few decades later. It would likely have gone extinct but for Jacques' efforts. But here, with mildew hardly ever a problem and a warming climate making higher-acid grapes more appealing, it's been terrific. And there are likely more discoveries like this to be made.
Success stories like these are one more reason to admire and support the work that Morgan and the other founders of the California Historic Vineyard Society (including Turley's Tegan Passalacqua, Ridge's David Gates, and Carlisle's Mike Officer) are doing to map and DNA-test California's heritage vineyards, and to work with UC Davis's Foundation Plant Services to then clean up, archive, and reproduce these varieties so other grapegrowers can plant them. They've already shown that these old vineyards contain amazing diversity, with grapes there that appear to be unique in the world -- likely rare European varieties that have since gone extinct in their homelands. Which of these might be the next Picardan... or Mourvedre is an exciting question to consider.
Mourvedre, if you're curious, may be starting to recover both here and in France. From those 7,600 hectares in France in 2000, as of 2016 it was up to 8,754, an increase of about 15%. In California, its acreage has climbed as of 2019 to 1,166 acres, growth of 93% since 2000. There's hope yet.
Meanwhile, if you're looking for a time capsule into that nearly-lost world of pre-phylloxera, pre-Prohibition California viticulture, check out the Ampelography. It's a treat.