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Mourvedre’s Dark and Terroir-torial Personality

I took a run at the Rhone Rangers’ Tasting  a couple weekends ago (Sunday, April 6). It has moved from Fort Mason in San Francisco to Craneway Pavillon in Richmond. What a spectacular venue. Wall of windows looking across the Bay right at the Golden Gate Bridge. I was there in the afternoon, but sunset must be spellbinding. As is my habit, I picked one variety on which to concentrate my attention.

Compact cluster with wing, thick skin, and triangular leaf-shape that looks like it was cut out with pinking shears.

Compact cluster with wing, thick skin, and triangular leaf-shape that looks like it was cut out with pinking shears.


Mourvèdre has been around for a long time. It is thought to have been brought to Spain by the Phoenicians two centuries before the Muslims arrived on the Iberian Peninsula, and nearly a century before the Islamic Prophet Mohammad was even born (570 AD). The Spanish name for the grape is Monastrell. The grape moved east, and acquired its French name in the late 17th century, which is about the same time Cabernet Sauvignon was spontaneously hybridized in Bordeaux. While not prominent, the grape also moved to California and Australia (where, for a long time in both places, it was called Mataró). It showed up in Australia in 1823 (in Dr. Busby’s importation), and played a role in the Barossa Valley’s production of Port-substitutes for the London market. In California it was part of the collection brought to Santa Clara by the Pelliers in the 1860’s. It was a popular addition (along with Carignan, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Alicante Bouschet) to the field blend vineyards Italian immigrants liked so much in California.


Since the advent of the Rhone Rangers in the mid-1980’s, Mourvèdre has played a more publicly recognized role in the GSM blends of both California and Australia. Bonny Doon’s Cigare Volant was probably the first example to gain notoriety in the US (1983 initial vintage), and Randle Grahm played a pivotal part in explaining that California’s old Mataro vines were the same grape as Mourvèdre in the southern Rhône Valley. Chateauneuf-du-Pape was, of course, the classic example of this blending genre, and the Perrin family’s Ch. Beaucastel was a particularly well-known example in the US. Beaucastel is usually about a third Mourvèdre. That’s a little unusual; Grenache commonly dominates, followed by Syrah. When the Perrins came to Paso Robles to join their US importer, Robert Haas, in a winery called Tablas Creek, it was only natural they would rigorously evaluate Mourvèdre in California on its own. Moreover, they brought their modern French clones with them.

Mourvèdre as a stand-alone varietal flourishes in the Bandol region of the French Riviera east of Marsailles, but west of Monaco, Cannes, and St. Tropez. As such, it gets a lot of exposure in Europe, both as a hearty red, and as a rosé (made by bleeding off part of the juice just as fermentation starts in order to concentrate the color and tannin in the remaining red wine). At one point Bandol wines represented a great bargain. However Kermit Lynch, an importer from Berkeley, put paid to that situation back in the 1980’s. He imported Bandol’s best wine to the US, Ch. Tempier, and quickly drove the price from $16 to $35. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse were complicit in this aggrandizement of Ch. Tempier. It goes nicely with grilled vegetables.


Over the last eight years or so Paso Robles and places like El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills have been waging a relentless campaign to popularize Rhônish wines. I don’t see it as a zero sum game, whereby a bottle purchased from one area means one less bottle purchased from the other area. I see it more as an attempt to release the tide, which will in turn raise all boats. Furthermore these two regions present different growing conditions, which should eventually show us certain terroir characteristics. That’s an insight to which we can look forward, and I was hoping to tease it out of this Rhone Rangers Tasting. El Dorado is colder, with more rain, and a shorter growing season. Soils in Paso Robles have a higher pH, and more carbonates in them. Could I taste these attributes?

First let’s take a cut at the fruity aromas displayed by 100% varietal Mourvèdres. I’m really tempted to say El Dorado produces something akin to cranberries, whereas Paso Robles produces more of a really ripe black cherry note. Would that wine criticism were that straight-forward and organized. It wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence. Let’s call the distinction a tendency.


What seemed more apparent though, was a distinction between fruity examples, and what the pourers liked to call “earthiness.” One winery even had an example of each. Oz Clarke, the British song-n-dance man turned wine personality, comments that a ‘barnyard’ character serves as signature for Mourvèdre. It is certainly true Ch. Beaucastel was famous for that smell over a great many years. I’m sorry, that’s brettanomyces, a microbiological infection. It comes from winemaking practices; not from a grape varietal. We can argue coherently about whether it adds complexity when present in small amounts, but full-blown examples smell like a day at the racetrack, and that’s a fault. I find the phrase earthiness completely disingenuous. It implies minerality. Brett has nothing to do with minerality; it has more in common with stinky cheeses. One common byproduct of a Brett infection is 4-ethyl-phenol, which you would recognize as the solvent that makes bandages sticky. ‘Adhesive’ and ‘mineral’ may seem like somewhat similar characteristics in wine, but it is wrong to conflate them together.


A truly distinguishing feature between Mourvèdres is heft: alcohol, body, tannins, pigments, overall mouth-feel. These are all positive contributions Mourvèdre makes to a blend, but they can easily become too extreme in a stand-alone model. They can also seem coarse. Paso appears able to produce these ingredients routinely; El Dorado much more rarely. So one may fairly posit the best Mourvèdre vintages in El Dorado will be warm ones, but wait. Mourvèdre has a thick skin, and relatively small bunches. It shrugs off late season rain. That can be an enormous advantage in the Foothills. Holly’s Hill has their 2011 Mourvedre Classique for sale ($25). It’s excellent. Very fruity, in the cranberry mode, and medium-bodied. 2011 was one tough year for the Foothills: snow on 4 June and four inches of rain on 4 October. But Mourvèdre could be left on the vine to continue ripening after the rain was over. Skinner also has a Foothills Mourvèdre, albeit 2012, and it too is clean, balanced, cranberry fruited, and medium bodied ($24).

Mari Wells Coyne, consultant atDavid Girard Winery in El Dorado County near Coloma

Mari Wells Coyne, consultant at David Girard Winery in El Dorado County near Coloma

Both Holly’s Hill and David Girard are good examples to evaluate. They both make at least two stand-alone Mourvèdres, as well as a blend or two. Mari Wells, winemaking consultant at David Girard, likes Mourvèdre in the Foothills. David Girard Vineyard is only about a mile from Coloma (site of Marshall’s gold discovery on the south fork of the American River), and they make a point about drawing parallels to conditions in France’s Rhône River Valley. The Mourvèdre Girard makes from their head-pruned vines is their most expensive wine (2010 vintage $54). It’s a mouthful, with lots of oak, concentrated flavors, a chewy texture, and good acid balance. No one is going to call this wine flabby.

Paso just starts from a different place. The Tablas Creek ($40), even in 2011, is a big, blowsy wine that smells like Bing cherries harvested for juice after the fresh fruit market is closed. Cypher made a nice Mourvèdre in 2011 ($55). It’s stylish, has an herbaceous thread woven through it, but remains resolutely big-bodied and plush on the palate.

For contrast, consider Cline’s 2012 Ancient Vines ($20) offering sourced from the sandy Delta soils of Oakley. It’s fat, but still possessed of fine complexity. Or Bonny Doon’s 2010 Old Telegraph ($45), a wine simultaneously fresh and fruity in the nose, but dense and brooding on the palate.


Given Mourvèdre’s long association with the east coast of Spain, it makes sense to look to Jumilla, and Valencia, and Penedes for a traditional food match. The easiest one, and a real good one, is Serrano jambon (dry-cured ham), olives, some smoky cheeses, and crusty bread. That’s not exactly opening up new pages, but it works right down to the ground.

Another item is equally traditional, and much less frequently seen in the US. Make a paella with kid goat and escargot. It’s delicious. Plenty of saffron, lots of garlic, some dried ancho chiles, Japanese (narrow) eggplant, handful of golden raisins, and about a pound of pork sausage. Get the goat at a Mexican market. Cut it up into cubes. Clean the snails in hot water (not boiling), and only put them in the dish at the end, like you would with clams. The dish is communal and very hearty. So is the wine. Mourvèdre’s ample extract helps to focus the rich flavors and rounded textures of the food. The density of the wine’s taste is a match for the strength of the food’s impression. Everyone can have a second glass and another scoop of paella. This combination is particularly good when it’s cold outside. I generally use disposable paper bowls, and finish with citrus wedges. Easy peasy, after the shopping is done.

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Tannat Finds a Toehold in California

Several grape varieties have raised their hands to be recognized in California’s trendy marketplace, only to be tried and then seemingly forgotten two years later when the fashion wheel just keeps rolling on. Could be Tannat’s (pronounced tuh NOT) turn on California’s big stage is just around the corner. Tannat is not new in the wine world. In fact it is even famous for a couple reasons. And Tannat vines have existed in California for well over a hundred years. They just never had their day in the spotlight. That’s not unusual. Dr. Eugene Hilgard brought hundreds of grape varieties to the University of California Ag school (then at Berkeley) in the 1880’s. Tannat was one of them. It joined the others in a research plot. As recently as 1960 there were 50,000 acres of Zinfandel vines planted in California, and less than 800 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel was your grandfather’s wine. Today there are 80,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in California, and 400 acres of Tannat. Cabernet is the wine of your successful business contemporaries. Perhaps Tannat will be the wine of the Millennial Generation.

Iroulegay in the French Pyrenees on theSpanish border. (GI)

Iroulegay in the French Pyrenees on the Spanish border. (GI)

Tannat comes from a region in southwest France traditionally known as Gascony. The region is bounded on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by the Pyrenees Mts. It is historically considered bounded on the north and east by the river system (Dordogne and Garonne) flowing out of the Pyrenees to form the Gironde estuary at Bordeaux. The region has a rich history, including Basque language antecedents from way before the Roman Empire, and 200 years of English rule (after Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152).  The climate is variable because the topography ranges from coastal plains to 10,000-ft peaks in the southern mountains. In plantable districts, soils often have high clay content from eroded glacial till. Two districts in the region are well-known for their unique grape varieties: Cahors for Malbec; and Madiran for Tannat.

Uruguay LabelIn 2007 Madiran wine was singled out by Dr. Roger Corder in his book, The Red Wine Diet, as the world champion for its procyanidin production in Tannat’s thick skins. Corder’s research indicates procyanidins are particularly useful at maintaining healthy arteries, and thus conferring longevity. Did I just hear everyone sit up a little straighter? Tannat grows well in clay soils, and resists the late Spring frost of mountain districts. It shrugs off mildew, and produces bigger crops than other varieties do in the mountains. Hmmm? You say Tannat wines are really good for you?

Would Tannat fit well in California’s Sierra Foothills? Did Rose Kennedy own a black dress?

Deeply colored Tannat berries.  (GI)

Deeply colored Tannat berries. (GI)

In the 1870s Basque emigrants arrived in Uruguay along with their Tannat vines. Today Uruguay has over 21,000 acres in wine grape production, with about a third of those being Tannat. Uruguay refers to Tannat as its national grape. Makes a lot of sense. Like Argentines just across the River Plate, Uruguayan restaurant diners love a big grill filled with grass-fed beef and sausages ~ pasta on the side. Tannats cost anywhere from $5 to $75, with tannin management playing a huge role in defining quality. The technique of micro-oxygenation was developed in Madiran in the early 1990’s specifically to hold down the abrasiveness of tannins in Tannat.

Blending with other grape varieties is the most common technique for arresting tannins in France. Madiran producers traditionally use an obscure grape called Fer.  Basque producers in a district on the Spanish border called Iroulegay routinely use 25% Cabernet Franc. In Cahors some producers blend 15% Tannat into their Malbec as a stiffener. Those are the wines they tend to age for the longest periods.

Uruguay has several high-quality producers. Montes Toscanini won a top medal at the London Intl. Wine Fair for their 2002 vintage. Fernando Carrau is also an Enology Professor at the Urugayan state university. H. Stagnari makes great wine, especially their Viejo Vinedes range for under $20. Bouza is run by a math professor whose top Tannats sell for $50-60 in the US.

In California Tannat has been pioneered by Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles. They are a cooperative venture between the family of importer Robert Haas (Vineyard Brands) and the Perrin family who own Ch. Beaucastel in the southern Rhône Valley of France. When they started in Paso, they operated as a nursery. Their nurseryman in France sent the original Tannat cuttings on his own saying, “Tannat should do well in the steep coastal hills.” The cuttings came out of mandatory US quarantine in Geneva, NY in 2002. The 2011 Tablas Creek wine is extremely dark, but fruity and plush in the mouth. It has lots of extract, but less grittiness than many Madiran or Uruguayan examples. The fruitiness has a character not unlike dried cranberries and fully ripe Santa Rosa plums (thank you Luther Burbank).

Typical Uruguay restaurant grill anticipates Tannat-based wines. (GI)

Typical Uruguay restaurant grill anticipates Tannat-based wines. (GI)

You have to taste any Tannat in order to plan a meal with it. It’s the tannin. A grilled hunk of grass-fed beef is going to work well with the more tannic models because you’re going to need to chew that meat. Grass-fed implies more flavor, and a lot more effort to masticate it. It’s not a bad trade-off. Plan ahead. Producers who have successfully tamed their tannins allow you to go in some wonderfully different directions. Medium rare duck breast with plum sauce was an absolutely inspired choice with my last bottle of the 2002 Toscanini Grand Tannat.

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Barberas Shine in El Dorado Competition

I judged wine at the El Dorado County Fair last month, and was fortunate enough to be placed on the panel evaluating about 30 Barberas. These placements are never an absolute pleasure. If you get a couple great hours, you pay for it with at least an hour from the bottom of the entry barrel. For my sins our panel also got five flavored sparkling wines, which I’ll never understand. How can US Secretary of State John Kerry look his French counterpart in the eye knowing somewhere in California our government is letting some beauzeau label and sell a wine called ‘Almond Champagne?’  That product should be employed for teaching forensic pathologists to recognize arsenic poisoning.

The two Barbera flights, however, were exceptional. El Dorado is a small, one-day competition. They get about 800 entries, which is a third of what the State Fair gets.  But El Dorado focuses on the Sierra Foothills. They will take entries from anywhere, but they only solicit them from Lodi and the Foothills. During their 25-year history, they’ve also done an admirable job championing varietals which seem to perform very well in the region. For the first ten years or so Zinfandel was the major emphasis, and organizers made an effort to recruit Zinfandel entries from Sonoma and Paso Robles to pit against Foothill offerings. Then there was a Rhônish period where Syrahs from France and Australia were introduced along with qualified speakers who taught seminars and served as guest judges. Recently this educational subplot has moved on to Italian varietals. Sangiovese is a big category, and a number of successful Pinot Grigios were entered. It was Amador County Barbera though, which stole the show.


Judging panel working on a flight of red wines. (GI)

I should also give credit to the Mountain Democrat from Placerville which sponsored the competition this year. I’m sure they paid for my hotel room, and there was an unfortunate misunderstanding at the awards ceremony which I’d like to clear up. Seems I told one of their photographers that the volunteer help at the competition had been unusually young and good looking compared to the standard raft of wine competition volunteers one generally encounters around the world. I pointed out a particularly dazzling example in the audience, and suggested the photographer send me a couple candid images to use in this blog post about the event. Seemed innocent to me at the time. The girl is really pretty, she was wearing a short skirt, and her picture would draw one’s eye to this article involuntarily. Unfortunately, it turns out she is the daughter of the publisher of the Mountain Democrat. So not only have I not received any pictures, but I fear my own mug shot may be appearing soon in the paper captioned “Pervs to avoid in Placerville.” To be fair, I was merely pointing out the publicity value of the photograph. This isn’t exactly an X-rated website. Although, if she is his daughter, then she is probably young enough to be my granddaughter, and I suppose I could have gone about the request in a more decorous manner.

But I digress.


Excellent UC Davis photo of Barber cluster illustrates very strong pigmentation

Barbera is a really useful grape, and the 1,500-foot elevation contour through Shenandoah Valley of Amador County seems to be a sweet-spot for it in California. But this is relatively new information. It is in northwestern Italy that Barbera has seen its widest acclaim. Simply put, and very much in the Italian tradition, there Barbera is ‘every day’ wine. For thousands of years Italians have viewed wine, not as art or fashion, concepts with which they are certainly well acquainted, but as food, a staple of the economy like eggs and pasta. And north of the Apennine Mountains, in the upper reaches of the Po River Valley, the beverage you had ‘every day’ at the dinner table was wine made from Barbera grapes. Not a bottle ~ rather carafes filled from barrels, or from 17-gallon demijohns. It is one of very few wines in Italy which carries a grape name ~ Barbera ~ instead of a place name. Moreover, it is extremely unusual for the name of a grape or a wine to be expressed in the feminine gender, again reflecting the ‘every day,’ nutritional role in which this particular grape and wine have historically been viewed.

Nebbiolo (which makes Barolo and Barbaresco, two place names) is the artistic grape of Piemonte. There are 15 times as many acres (70,000) of Barbera planted in Piemonte as there are of Nebbiolo. And Barbera isn’t unique to Piemonte. It has been planted in enough other areas to compete for second place among the most widely planted Italian red grapes. Nebbiolo is a special occasion wine, when someone wants to show off. Barbera is what you drink with your family. The style of northern Italian Barbera (say Barbera d’Asti, of which Coppo has a very reliable example called Camp du Rouss) is dark colored, with minimal tannins and pronounced, refreshing acid. Nebbiolo is the opposite: strong tannin, weak color, needs time to resolve the tannins. Barbera is very attractive when young, with food. The acid exaggerates flavors in the food (particularly helpful with tomato sauces), and the color (which will go orange-ish in time) can be vibrantly purple. Flavors are assertive, with a range from cherries to fragrant herbs. Less sunny vineyard locations (say the north side of hills in Piemonte) can often deliver spicy nuances. Italian Barbera is ideal for pasta if you follow the Italian dictum to merely flavor the pasta with sauce; don’t serve a sauce soup with pasta in it.


Barbera leaves have a tongue shape, almost reminiscent of an orchid. (GI)

Barbera in California is a somewhat less defined story. It has been here since at least 1880, when it was reported planted in a Cupertino nursery. It was widely planted in the Central Valley as a blending grape, to contribute color and acid. Today there are 6,300 acres in California, and 5,050 of them are in Madera (20%) and Fresno (80%) counties. Sonoma has a paltry 64 acres, and Napa has about ten. Amador County only had 170 bearing acres in 2012, but had planted an additional 17 acres which were as yet unbearing. Of course acreage must be seen as a relative figure. Amador has about the same amount of Barbera as it has Syrah, 50% more than it has Sangiovese, much more than it has Merlot (24 acres), and much less than it has Zinfandel (2,000 acres).

This distribution may help explain the style of wines we encountered at El Dorado Fair. The good ones fell into two categories: (1) leaner, more fragrant, with brighter acid (what I’m inclined to call the Italianate style); and (2) bigger, blacker, more rigidly structured, and more intensely flavored (for the time being let’s call that the Amador style). It is well understood Barbera vines are vigorous. Left to their own devices, they will produce a big crop, with low tannin and mediocre aging prospects. Increased vine age will gradually raise tannin levels, concentrate flavors, and improve aging prospects. It is unclear how reliably these stylistic features can also be achieved by reducing foliage and production through pruning and water denial, but a decade of experience in Amador seems to imply this will be the case.

1 Lamb

Match Amador Barbera with spicy Lamb Merguez. (GI)

The first category, the Italianate style, may well turn out to come from higher elevation (read cooler) vineyards in California. A good example was Gold medal winner Illuminare 2010 ($24) from Camino east of Placerville in El Dorado County. Further evidence was provided by the 2010 Nevada City ($30), which comes from Boa Vista Vineyard, also in Camino. The Illuminare was medium-bodied with spice and florals in the nose. A very nice wine. The Nevada City was more unusual, with a big whack of black pepper in the nose, but still pretty good depth.


El Dorado Sweepstakes winner!

Much more prevalent were gutsy, Californicated Barberas with very dark purple colors, monster fruit noses, and concentrated flavor profiles. All these winners were from Shenandoah Valley in Amador. Bray Vineyards 2010 ($22) won the Sweepstakes Award with a wine which was simultaneously bold and had a softly persistent finish. Equally high on my score card was a Runquist 2011 ($32), which had a fabulous fruit nose and a nice dollop of vanilla, and the Macchia Righteous 2011 ($22), which was impeccably balanced. Any of these three wines would be a superb match to Moroccan Lamb Merguez or to wild boar sausage. Get the sausage online from D’Artagnan. Make the Merguez yourself with ground lamb and your choice of spices (garlic, paprika, cumin, vinegar, coriander, Tabasco). Serve with couscous and Sultana raisins.

Note two things. First, my impressions come from a blind tasting. All wines arrive in front of judges in glasses with code numbers. We do not even know what wines are entered. We do not get the Key (winery names and code numbers) until ten days after the event. Second, some wineries make several iterations of a grape variety in a particular vintage. Macchia, for instance, makes nine or ten Zinfandels every year. Runquist has three Barberas from 2011. You want to get the right wine! Macchia has a 2011 Barbera called Infamous which is not even close (13.8 pts out of 20) to the quality of their 2011 Righteous (18.5 pts). Runquist is not as critical. Their three Barberas ($32, $26, and $22) got 19.5 pts, 19.0 pts, and 17.8 pts from me.


Cool climate style Barberas go well with pepperoni pizza. (GI)


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