A Great Grape

The stinky pleasures of Mourvèdre.

Thanks to the global wine boom, a few grape varieties that previously languished in obscurity have suddenly become quite fashionable. Take, for instance, Mourvèdre. This thick-skinned, slow-ripening red grape, believed to be native to Spain, has traditionally served as blending material, its deep color and tannic core used to compensate for deficiencies in other, more popular varietals. But with rich, warm Rhone-style wines growing in appeal, and with ambitious winemakers seeking opportunities in overlooked places, Mourvèdre is now getting its close-up.

To be sure, Mourvèdre has not been completely starved of glory. It is one of the main grapes used in France’s Southern Rhone valley: It is usually assigned a subsidiary role in Châteauneuf-du-Papes (which tend to be heavier on Grenache), but it is a primary ingredient in what many consider to be the finest Châteauneuf of all, Château de Beaucastel. Mourvèdre is also the principal varietal in France’s Bandol appellation. Located on the Mediterranean coast just east of Marseille, Bandol’s parched hillsides have proved especially hospitable to Mourvèdre. The best-known Bandols come from Domaine Tempier, whose late owner, Lucien Peyraud, was a tireless champion of Mourvèdre. Tempier has long had a small but fanatical following in the United States thanks to importer Kermit Lynch, who has gotten many Americans, including fellow Berkeley resident Alice Waters, hooked on its lusty reds. (Tempier has been a fixture at Chez Panisse forever.)

But it was long thought that successful Mourvèdres were a uniquely Provençal achievement, possibly even a uniquely Bandolaise one. Although the grape was widely planted in Spain (where it is known as Monastrell), it was generally held in dim regard, and it didn’t command any more respect in either California or Australia (it goes by the name Mataro in both places). Sure, a few iconoclastic New World winemakers believed that Mourvèdre had the potential to rise above its lowly station—Ridge Vineyards’ Paul Draper has been producing a good Mataro for years—but for the most part the grape was relegated to marginal vineyards and used for bulk wines.

In the last few years, however, Mourvèdre’s image has undergone a quiet makeover. With Rhone-style wines increasingly in vogue, a growing number of New World producers are trying to turn Mourvèdre into a show horse. For instance, David Powell of Australia’s Torbreck Vintners, who is highly acclaimed for his work with Rhone varietals, recently released his first Mourvèdre, called The Pict. Spain’s wine renaissance has also helped thrust Mourvèdre into the spotlight. The Jumilla region, southwest of Valencia, has always been a Mourvèdre stronghold, but until recently the wines made there were fairly execrable. Lately, however, the area has seen an influx of quality-conscious producers, and it is now a source of some very good wines that offer excellent value.

Mourvèdre does not suit everyone’s taste. More to the point, its smell can be a turn-off: One of the grape’s signature aromas is a certain gaminess—what the French call animale. Some people, confronted with this distinctive odor, will wonder what fell into the glass and died. Mourvèdre also tends to display a leathery quality and a degree of earthiness, and while the wines it yields do not lack for fruit—they are usually marked by plum, raspberry, or blackberry flavors or various combinations thereof—they can be a bit austere.

For all these reasons, there is some debate as to whether Mourvèdre is best left unadulterated or fares better when blended with a small amount of another varietal, such as Grenache. For what it’s worth, Domaine Tempier, which is still widely considered to be the gold standard of Mourvèdre-based wines, uses between 50 percent and 90 percent Mourvèdre, depending on the vintage and the cuvée. To appeal to the greatest number of consumers, it probably makes sense to soften up Mourvèdre with another grape, but there are some excellent straight Mourvèdres, such as Torbreck’s. And personally, I’m more concerned about the tendency of some producers to turn out sludgy, abusively oaked Mourvèdres that are almost entirely stripped of any varietal character. I suppose it takes a certain talent to make a Spanish Mourvèdre taste virtually indistinguishable from a souped-up Napa Valley Cabernet. But if that’s the aim, why not just go to Napa and make a souped-up Cabernet?

Here are a few Mourvèdres that stood out in a tasting:

Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2004, $96 (France)
A typically terrific Beaucastel. Features raspberry, licorice, and herbal aromas, along with a whiff of the famous Beaucastel barnyard perfume—take three horses, several cow patties, a few bales of hay, and some saddle leather, park them under a hot Provençal sun, and voilà. (Some attribute the aroma to the Mourvèdre in the mix, but others think it emanates from the cellar itself.) Delicious now, and will only get better. Blend: 30 percent Mourvèdre, 30 percent Grenache, 10 percent Syrah, and small amounts of several other varietals.

Château de Pibarnon Bandol 2004, $45 (France)
No avoiding the animal fur here—the wine reeks of roadkill, with some raspberries, plums, flowers, and tobacco garlanding the corpse. But don’t be deterred: This is actually a pleasant, even somewhat elegant Bandol, with ripe, deliciously chewy fruit and fine balance. Blend: 90 percent Mourvèdre, 10 percent Grenache.

Domaine Tempier Bandol La Tourtine 2004, $54 (France)
A winning nose of blackberries, licorice, and herbs, with some minerality, gaminess, and alcoholic heat thrown in. Full-bodied, lush, and very chewy, with jammy black fruit and big, ripe tannins—a mouthful, this one. A nice black-pepper note across the palate, some not-so-nice heat on the finish. A very good Bandol, certainly, but the alcohol does announce its presence.

Ridge Vineyards Mataro Pato Vineyard 2003, $25 (California)
A translucent shade of red (an interesting contrast to the dark purple that characterizes most Bandols). Cherry, earth, tobacco, and black-pepper aromas float out of the glass. Rich, slightly sweet fruit in the mouth, supported by ripe tannins. Seems to gain heft across the palate, and the finish lingers nicely. Holds its alcohol (15 percent) well. Paul Draper, Ridge’s winemaker, never seems to set a foot wrong. Blend: 95 percent Mourvèdre, 5 percent Petite Sirah.

Tablas Creek Vineyard Mourvèdre 2004, $35 (California)
Tablas Creek is a joint venture between Beaucastel and its American importer, Robert Haas of Vineyard Brands. 2004 is the second vintage of the winery’s 100 percent Mourvèdre bottling. Features very Rhone-like aromas of raspberries, tobacco, and baking spices, along with a bit of leather and some telltale Mourvèdre gaminess. Ripe, sweet-and-spicy fruit on the palate, along with some black pepper. A nicely proportioned, satisfying wine.

Bodegas El Nido Clio Jumilla 2004, $60-$80 (Spain)
Enough alcoholic heat flaring out of the glass to incinerate nose hairs and singe eyebrows, enough new oak to conjure images of denuded forests. And how does it taste? Chunky blackberry jam oozes across the palate, followed by an anaesthetizing wave of woodspice. Blend: 70 percent Mourvèdre, 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, with 0 percent appeal. (For me, anyway—this wine got a huge score from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate and has become very scarce as a result. Go figure. The best retail price I could find is $60.)

Casa Castillo Las Gravas Jumilla 2002, $25 (Spain)
A nose vaguely suggestive of a Bordeaux (there’s 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, along with 60 percent Mourvèdre and 20 percent Syrah), with aromas of black currants, tobacco, licorice, and flowers. Lush, spicy black fruit in the mouth, backed by good acidity and tannins. A well-made, toothsome wine that also represents great value.

Torbreck Vintners The Pict 2004, $150 (Australia)
A complex bouquet redolent of plum, leather, earth, black pepper, and oak. A full-bodied wine that is both decadently rich but also somewhat austere—a peculiar combination in any wine, but especially one hailing from the Land of the Fruit Bomb. (More shocking still for an Australian red, it weighs in at only 13.2 percent alcohol.) Finishes with ripe, well-integrated tannins and a lick of oak. An impressive straight Mourvèdre, even if the sticker is a little shocking.