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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.

HISTORY

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.

WORLDWIDE PLAYERS

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.

CENTRAL COAST vs. SIERRA FOOTHILLS TERROIR

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.

BRETTANOMYCES

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.

BIG, HEAVY, DARK RED WINES

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.

MATCHING TO FOOD

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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Roussanne ~ My Quaker Moment in the Rhône

Gordes

Gordes

Twenty-plus years ago I was traveling with a bunch of friends in the southern Rhône Valley. We went to visit an art academy in a tributary valley called the Luberon ~ a district subsequently given a big dose of notoriety by Peter Mayle. We stayed in the little village of Gordes, a couple thousand feet above the valley floor with a magnificent view, and an even more magnificent restaurant called La Bastide (http://www.bastide-de-gordes.com/en/index.php). Surely, one of the top five meals of my life. None of us spoke much French, and the sommelier spoke very little English. Didn’t matter. We let him know we loved wine, and that we wanted to place ourselves in his hands for the evening. There were eight or nine of us. He must have brought fifteen dishes, each matched to a different wine. Took about five hours. All the wines were from the Rhône Valley, and half of them were white. Three or four of those were seven to fifteen years old. Each successive pairing was more stunning than the one before. There were bean dishes, followed by parsnip dishes, followed by mushroom dishes. I was transfixed. You had to be there. It was like a Quaker moment: so impressive, and yet so plain.

Prominent among the grape varieties on display was Roussanne. I’d barely heard of it before. But the style was very attractive. It had the weight and length of good Chardonnay. By which I mean serious flavor and complexity in the mouth. It had the ability to age well in bottle. By which I mean the ability to develop enjoyable smells and flavors beyond those that could be found in the wine when it was young. And it had nuanced fruit and floral aromas to which no Chardonnay has ever laid claim. Finally, there was this utilitarian, root vegetable patina to the wine which spoke of noble yeomen, honest labor, and good health.

Roussanne is often blended with other grapes: Marsanne in the northern Rhône; Grenache Blanc in the south. This trick is not to demean Roussanne wine quality, it is a relatively difficult grape to grow, subject to mildew in moist summers and not very productive. The blending grapes add some complexity, but mostly they are used because they are reliable producers, and there are lots of them planted. Assume what you may as to implications for the quality of white wines from the Rhône in the future. My advice: taste each vintage before you buy any quantity to cellar.

In California it is much more common to see wines labeled as Roussanne. That means they are at least 75% Roussanne by regulation. The grape variety is fairly new to California, and its first importation at the end of the 1980’s was a bit of slapstick comedy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roussanne). Today there are still only 350 acres of Roussanne in CA. Twelve of those acres are in Napa, where the grapes sell for over $7,000 per ton ~ 50% more than the average price for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Thirty-five acres of Roussanne grow in Monterey, where the price per ton is a still outrageous $3,765. That is four times what Monterey growers get for Cabernet, and almost four times what they get for Chardonnay. Rarity begats its own privileges. There are 130 acres of Roussanne combined in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, where the grapes sell for half the price they do in Monterey. Go figure. I guess there aren’t enough transactions to really have a marketplace.

Is it any wonder I chose Roussanne as my focus during last week’s Rhone Rangers Show at San Francisco’s Fort Mason?

There were 500 to 600 wines on offer at Rhône Rangers (www.rhonerangers.org). Twenty of them were Roussannes according to the catalog. Four of those producers failed to show up. Roussanne is still in an adolescent stage in CA. There is no standard against which to compare examples. Prices ranged from $15 per bottle to $35. Some of the wines were simply not well made. Nothing unusual there. Common problems were oxidation and overly acidulated, tasteless wines (perhaps unripe). A couple of the wines, from well-known producers, had extremely distinctive characteristics. The Qupé, for instance, had lots of toasty oak, overshadowing ghost-like flavor notes. The Terre Rouge was earthy, with a citrus rind nose, much in the genre of the ‘herb tea’ descriptor used by Jancis Robinson, and duplicated by several commentators who appear to have borrowed from the Oxford Companion to Wine. To me the Terre Rouge spoke of aging potential. The Tablas Creek was fruity in the nose, but nicely restrained at the same time. I was remarking to myself, while smelling it, how finely tuned it seemed. Then I put it in my mouth. Talk about shocking minerality! It was as if my glass had just deployed a steel pike. I’m not entirely sure where I come down on the minerality concept for Roussanne, but I know this one is working outside the box.

I liked three of the wines more than the others: Stephan Vyds from Paso Robles; Truchard from Napa; and Holly’s Hill from El Dorado County. I think balance is extremely important in a Roussanne. Holly’s Hill (www.HollysHill.com) demonstrates that feature very neatly. It has both pear-like fruit aromatics and some shy florals, but they are all nicely cinched down. The flavors reminded me of one of those fragrant Japanese lemons: Yuzu or Sudachi. Not the juice; the marmalade made from the zest. Best of all the wine is priced at $18. The Stephan Vyds (www.aventurewine.com) is twice as expensive, and mildly simple by comparison. It does have that beguilingly fragrant tea leaf nose though, and lots of mouth-filling body. Truchard (www.truchardvineyards.com) has a bit of track-record, so I was surprised to note it priced at $22. It has that combination of pith and orange blossom in the nose, without being too loud or effusive. The profile is long, and the flavors are very complex, faceted. Real nice wine, at a price which in Napa is something of a gift.

If there is a classic dish to pair with Roussanne, I’d vote for cassoulet. No question about the dish being a classic anyway. Personally, being a Californian, I’m more likely to have some Thai soup redolent of lemon grass and loaded with coconut milk. Those elements really have got Roussanne’s number. Put a little seafood in a tomato bisque. Add lots of vegetables. Light it up with some hot sauce. Put in the coconut milk, the lemon grass, and some turmeric. Light chill on the Roussanne. Not a first course; serve as a meal with crusty bread.

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