Tag Archives | California

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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CA Wine Market ~ Past & Future

Sometimes it seems wines just stay the same, as consumer preferences cycle through predictable patterns.

Historical Wine Background

     When one considers something as venerable as wine, two generations seems rather paltry. Forty years isn’t very old for a vine, and it’s nothing but a quick glance compared to the 5,000 years human beings have been seriously turning grapes into commerce. Nevertheless, the knowledge base of humankind has advanced rapidly since 1970, and wine is no different.
     It may be helpful to set the stage. In the early 1960’s there were only a few hundred U.S. troops in Viet Nam, and they were still called “advisors.” At that time nearly half the wine consumed in America was called “Port” and/or “Sherry.” JFK and his dazzling wife were in the White House and setting fashion around the world. Zinfandel was the most widely planted “premium” wine grape in California. The Civil Rights marches in Mississippi and Alabama were just beginning to happening, and 60% of the grapes crushed in CA for white wine were Thompson Seedless. Pills for birth control were about to come on to the market, and Robert Mondavi, although just turning 50, was still employed as a salesman for his family’s winery, Charles Krug. Women still went to college to get an ‘Mrs.’ degree, and you could buy a 1,200 sq. ft. cottage on a half acre in St. Helena for $30,000. Of course if you lived in St. Helena, you’d have to drive to San Francisco to get a good restaurant meal. The 280 freeway down the Peninsula from San Francisco had not been built yet, but South Bay wineries like Paul Masson, Almaden, and Mirassou were prestige players on the national scene. Seven years later, in the late 1960’s, while Jimi Hendricks and Janis Joplin were setting the tone musically, Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy was hailed by the New York Times as particularly noteworthy amongst international wine competitors because it was sound, clean, reliable, and reasonably priced.

Consumer Wine Style Preferences

     Yeah, things have changed.
     But I’ve changed too. Sometimes it is hard to say the wines or the marketplace have really changed more dramatically than my own preferences and opportunities have…

     To read this post in its entirety, including commentary about changing wine styles and the importance of future markets, visit the Stanford Wine Blog.

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MALBEC

Intense color. Middleweight. Tar + plums w/ cocoa + flowers around each corner. Hope popularity doesn’t screw it up.

Malbec Description

     Malbec is au currant. It is selling briskly during a recession when most wines are retrenching. It goes great with a big hunka’ red meat, and confers a gaucho image which understandably appeals to salarymen everywhere. Dr. Roger Corder, a British pharmacology researcher, even says Argentine Malbecs are particularly rich in the polyphenols which help protect against artery disease. Good news when you’re having a big hunka’ red meat. And really good Malbec can be had for less than $25. Sign me up!

Malbec Wine Education

     The success of Argentine Malbec on the U.S. market over the last four years is the envy of wine producing regions all over the world. Wines of Argentina says they sold 628,000 cases of Malbec in America in 2005, and 3.15 million cases in 2009. Particularly jealous is the district of Cahors in southwest France, which specializes in Malbec (traditionally called Cot there), and from whence the Argentine vines are reputed to have come.
     Of course commercial success on our shores usually has more to do with pricing and adroit marketing than it has to do with what is in the bottle. I’d never bet against the physical attractiveness of any Argentine winery’s PR staff. And, until last month, exchange rates did give the Argentine wines an enormous price advantage over their European counterparts.
     By way of incentive, Argentina has 50,000 acres of Malbec planted, which is more than California has planted to Zinfandel. France has less than 15,000 acres, and even that has been steadily declining since 1970. Malbec vines are quite sensitive to mildew. Hence the variety seems logically more applicable to arid climates such as Mendoza (in the rain shadow of the Andes), than it would be in the frequent summer rains of southwest France.
     Nevertheless a battle of sorts has been joined, and vintners in both California and Washington State are paying attention. There are only 1,500 acres of Malbec in California. Which explains why in 2008 Malbec grapes sold for $4,550 a ton in Napa Valley ~ almost the same price as Cabernet Sauvignon, and nearly twice as much money per ton as Merlot. In Sonoma Malbec grapes were 15% more expensive than Cab Sauv. And in the Sierra Foothills Malbec is nearly 50% more expensive than any other grape. Supply and demand. You think Wall Street is a casino? Try farming.

Malbec recommendations

     Read this post in its entirety on the Stanford Wine Blog, including specific wine reviews and suggestions.

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Pisoni Vyd

Expensive viticulture, ribald personality. Can wines truly reflect both? Does PN need to improve over 8 years in btl?

Wine Education Background

     Gary Pisoni is a wonderful incarnation of a colorful, eccentric lineage of wine personalities in California. They go back a long way, and they’re legendary. Agoston Harazthy, who claimed to be a Hungarian Count, and reputedly died in Nicaragua while trying to cross a crocodile-infested stream on a small tree limb. Paul Masson, who delighted in hosting sparkling wine baths for actresses at his Saratoga mountain winery during the waning years of the Victorian age. His successor, Martin Ray, who sold shares in his winery (Mount Eden) to investors, then denied them access to the property, while pricing his wines at three times more than any other examples on the market. Dr. David Bruce, Randall Grahm, Jim Clendenen. Mike Grgich, always ready with a double-entendre, and a staunch claimant to never having owned a pH meter. Or my favorite, Marilyn Otterman (Sarah’s Vyd), who always responded in interviews as two separate people: as herself and as Sarah. Marilyn was such a delight. She always described her wines in the female gender. As in, “My Ventana Chardonnay is always the center of attention at parties. You know, all boobs and hips. Whereas my Estate Chardonnay is more reserved, tall with a Greek nose. She hangs back, and waits for maturity on your part.”
     It’s an extensive thread ~ completely wacked out, and further distinguished by the fact they ALL made (or make) excellent wine. Gary Pisoni fits right in. He reminds me of Mario Batali: tuxedo shirt and madras shorts; catnip for the high-end collector and socialite crowds …

Read this entire post, including information on the World of Pinot Noir festival, descriptions of 6 current-release Pinot Noirs from Pisoni Vyd grapes, and 6 older examples, on the Stanford wine blog.

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BV PR Cab

Class compared 1994 + 1995 vintages. Clear advantage 95. Better acid, much more distinct bouquet. Steak house wine.

Wine Classes

     Tasted in Art & Science of Fine Wine class held in Menlo Park (see Class Schedule). Beaulieu 1994 and 1995 Private Reserve Cabs are priced around $150 per bottle (if available) in most fine wine stores. Reference year-to-year California growing conditions on this website under Useful Wine Info – California Vintage Reports.

Wine Education Background

     Beaulieu ‘Georges de Latour’ Cabernet Sauvignon is a classic of the American landscape, and has been for a very long time. Originally crafted by the legendary Andre Tchelischeff, from grapes grown on Napa Valley’s Rutherford Bench, the wine was famously aged in 100% American oak. That gave the wine a considerable relationship with Bourbon Continue Reading →

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