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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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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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