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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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New World Albariño. Hope You’ve Got a Thick Skin.

Albariño grapes have been written about in Spanish monastery records for 800 years. The name may translate as “White Rhine,” but frequent attempts to stitch together comparisons with Riesling have generally struck me as promotional twaddle ~ fanciful at best. Let’s not forget Semillon was called “Hunter Valley Riesling” in Australia for much of the 20th Century. Actually Albariño is carving out a niche all its own. That process is instructive; no less because it’s happening before our very eyes, with barely twenty years of antecedents. We have the opportunity to play a role in Albariño’s cultural story.

Prior to the mid 1980’s white wines in Spain and Portugal were frequently blended affairs, largely forgettable. Which is not to deny millions of people the memorable experiences they may have had in Spain involving white wine. You must understand there is a difference between the quality of the wine and the poignancy of the memory. The most widely planted white grape in the world is Airen, at around 750,000 acres. That’s more acres than all the wine grapes in California. Almost all the Airen in the world is in Spain. Airen is drought resistant. It makes a reliable foundation for alcoholic, oxidized junk sold cheaply in Spanish bars. Where the situation began to change was in 1986 when the Galician (northwest Atlantic coast of Spain) Province of Rias Baixas (pronounced REE-ahs BUY-schuss) was granted experimental DO status by the Spanish Government. Ninety percent of the grapes grown in Rias Baixas are Albariño.

Rias Baixas

Stylistically and culturally the wines of Rias Baixas bore something of a resemblance to the white Vinho Verdes of northwestern Portugal, from the Duoro River north to the border with Spain at the Minho River. No wonder. Albariño (called Alvarinho in Portugal) is a commonly used grape variety in Vinho Verdes, especially in the Minho district. In most instances the grapes are grown on high trellises (what Italians call a pergola), which help them dry out in the wind after frequent rainstorms coming off the Atlantic. It also allows for cultivation of row crops underneath ~ this lush section of Portugal is densely populated. The wines frequently have startling acidity, because it is hard getting ripe in these wet, maritime vineyards. And the wines are a wonderful match for the dominant cuisine of both regions: seafood.

High Trellises

DO (Denominación de Origen, Spanish appellation control) status for Rias Baixas put Albariño on the radar for consumers worldwide, goosed exports, and raised prices. Which in turn allowed more careful vineyard practices, and more artistic winemaking techniques. Growers in California and Oregon began to take notice. Which in turn spurred vintners in Galicia to raise their game further. It’s all happened recently. Which brings us to the TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society, www.TAPASsociety.org) tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco last weekend, 9 June 2012. These are American wineries making wine from grapes indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula. They put on a nice spread. I went to focus on Albariño’s future on America’s Left Coast. If it goes with seafood, it ought to play well from Vancouver to Ensenada.

There were some 40 wineries, and about half of them had an Albariño or two on display. I was delighted to have a chance to chat with a couple highly qualified commentators amongst the winemakers. Ken Volk (www.Volkwines.com) is the guy who owned and grew the Wild Horse label in the Central Coast to 150,000 cases by the turn of the millennium. He then sold it. Today he is beginning again, using his family name, and a healthy bit of capital from the Wild Horse sale. His emphasis is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but he enjoys auditioning lesser known varieties. He is convinced Albariño will show best in California’s cool, coastal vineyards. I asked him, “Is it possible for Albariño to be too fruity?” Ken isn’t the kind of personality to bad mouth other people’s wine at a public promotion, but his answer strongly implied there were areas of California where the grapes would get riper than his personal preference. I’m inclined to go along with him.

Albariño grapes have thick skins, which is important in the wet (read moldy) climate of Spain’s Atlantic coast. Importers of Spanish wine are constantly waxing on about the peach and melon fruitiness of Albariño wines from Rias Baixas. I don’t see it. I’m routinely struck by the earthy brackishness of those wines. Call it minerality if you must. To me it is the intersection of saltiness and acidity. I perceive it as a mildly metallic glint. There may be some crab apple aroma sitting harmoniously on top, but the overall impression to me is built for mussels or grilled sardines; not for peach cobbler or watermelon salad. I also feel Albariño shares a slightly phenolic tendency with white wines from the Rhône Valley, which means winemakers need to manage skin contact very carefully.

But these remarks refer to traditional Albariño from Rias Baixas. Albariño grapes grown in California could be quite a different matter. For comparison take a look at Pinot Grigio from Veneto in Italy side-by-side with Pinot Gris from Alsace. The low elevation Italian Pinot Grigio is classic fish wine: good acid, long finish, not a lot of aromatic high jinx, well-suited to cuisine from the Po River delta. The Alsatian example (I’m partial to Kuentz Bas ~ www.kermitlynch.com) is where you find texture, along with those peach and plum skin smells. Same grape variety, but dramatically different wines. The same thing is going to be true when you compare Albariños from different regions in California. If you want a fruit-forward example, try one of the many grown around Lodi. Priced for everyday consumption, but not my personal cup of tea. Simple, was the descriptor I used several times.

Based on evidence from the TAPAS tasting, I’m drawn to further exploration of Albariño from coastal vineyards in the New World.  Ken Volk’s Albariño was very nice in a restrained style, with hints of both fruit and salt. Think melon wrapped in prosciutto. Bob Lindquist, of Qupé fame and arguably California’s first Rhône Ranger, was there pouring two Albariños (www.verdad.com) made by his wife Louisa. The one from their own vineyard had a bracing acid backbone with hints of caraway in the nose. Perfect for steamed clams. The bargain of the day was a finely honed example from Tangent with big passion fruit and a whack of lemon on the nose. It is sold to restaurants in kegs, and priced at the equivalent of $15 per bottle retail (www.nivenfamilywines.com).

Octopus… YUM.

My favorite Albariño of the day though offered a good lesson in how vintage conditions need to be overlain upon anyone’s concept of terroir. The wine came from Paso Robles, a warm inland location, but was grown during the 2011 vintage, which was exceptionally cold. The winery is called Bodegas Paso Robles (www.bodegaspasorobles.com), and they only made 160 cases. Price is $22 a bottle. The wine had lots of acid and complexity. In the nose there was a bit of that salt and melon trick, but great peachy length in the mouth marshaled between the lines by ropes of minerality. For the first time I could see the comparison to German Spätlesen Riesling. And I liked it. A lot. The perfect match would be that Spanish bar dish of grilled octopus (pulpo a la parilla) with onions and potatoes in a rich, salty fish sauce. Talk about memorable ~ makes my mouth water just to think about it.

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Betting Your Dessert on California Terroir

The concept of terroir in wine is fascinating; also fairly complicated. The idea is that cuttings from the same grape vine grown in two separate vineyards will produce wines that taste differently. Okay, I’m on-sides so far. But why do they taste differently?

Chardonnay at crusher

Chardonnay at crusher

Thirty-five years ago it was common for sellers of French wine to say the soils in the various vineyards were the primary factor affecting taste characteristics. After all, the common translation of the French word terroir would be ‘earth.’ The French have had hundreds of years [thousands really] of evidence that two vineyards lying virtually side-by-side can often produce wines which consistently over centuries command dramatically different prices. The climate can not possibly be much different over such a small distance. So the difference must lie in the soil. American wine academics never really bought that argument, stating forcefully that top quality wines were produced around the world on a great many different types of soil.

The discussion has shifted somewhat these days. Most Frenchmen now speak of terroir as a concept which embraces everything about a specific vineyard location: soil, climate, viticulture techniques, even cultural tradition. American wine academics are generally inclined to go along with that point of view. Bear in mind though, terroir implies a distinctive, recognizable, predictable, reproducible taste; not necessarily quality.

Wanting to explore this idea re California, I jumped at an opportunity to see three high-end Chardonnays grown in separate districts, but all made in much the same manner by the same winemaker. These are all part of the La Rochelle line from Steven Kent Winery in Livermore Valley. Steve Mirassou (Kent was his grandmother’s surname) met me in their well attended Tasting Lounge to explain how they intend to pursue both Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from prestige growers in at least four coastal districts. The wines are fermented in half-ton bins because they make very small quantities ~ around a hundred cases each in the inaugural 2010 vintage. Should the program prove extremely successful, Steve still doesn’t foresee producing more than about 300 cases from any single vineyard. We had a vigorous discussion about whether the marketplace would demand opportunities to taste the wines side-by-side. In the end we pretty much agreed it wasn’t going to be likely in America these days, at least not outside their Tasting Room.

The current Chardonnay examples are from Ferrington Vyd in Mendocino’s AndersonValley, from Morelli Lane Vyd on the Santa Rosa Plain in Sonoma, and from Rosella’s Vyd in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Let’s begin with factors which blur terroir. Each of these vineyards grows a different clone of the Chardonnay grape: the Robert Young clone in Ferrington; the Hyde (Wente 1) clone in Morelli Lane; and the Dijon 76 clone in Rosella’s. There is also the fact that Chardonnay so notoriously reflects the hand of the winemaker. Our taste comparison controlled for that factor, but two winemakers acquiring grapes from the same vineyard might produce significantly different styles simply by picking two weeks apart. My impression of Morgan’s Rosella’s Vyd Chardonnay, and this one from La Rochelle, supports that notion. The Morgan is more fruit forward, less crisply elegant, more indicative of the long hang-time on the Central Coast. Moreover, American winemakers tend to take decisions that guide wines toward an idea in their head about what constitutes quality. Frenchmen would argue that tendency steps all over terroir. Even a terroir supporter like Steve Mirassou says about acidulation, “If a wine needs acid, we’ll acidulate.”

Despite all these factors which might overshadow terroir in California wines, both Steve and I found several characteristics in the three La Rochelle Chardonnays which we chose to attribute to regional terroir. The Morelli Lane had a clear citrus note. Even though reined in, the La Rochelle Rosella’s was more ‘tropical’ than the other two La Rochelle wines. I found the Ferrington less terroir-imprinted than the other two, but Steve picked it out by its green apple aroma. All of them were good wines, with fine aging potential, but they were distinguishable from each other. And they were set apart like night and day from the Chardonnay Steven Kent makes from Livermore fruit. Different strokes for different folks.

Try this little experiment at home. Get a bottle each of Morgan 2010 Rosella’s Chardonnay, the La Rochelle 2010 Rosella’s, and the La Rochelle 2010 Morelli Lane. Invite two couples for dinner. Serve a planked Salmon and potatoes au gratin. Give everybody three glasses. Serve the wines wrapped in tin foil and numbered. Tell everyone what the three wines are, but don’t tell them which bottle is which. Only those guests who correctly identify all three bottles get dessert. I don’t want to see any money changing hands.

 

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