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Understanding Mourvèdre

This feature was first published in US magazine Wine Business Monthly (2006) examining Mourvèdre, Monastrell or Mataro in southern France, Spain, Australia, South Africa and California.

Understanding Mourvèdre

'Comparing Mourvèdre's European growing characteristics and winemaking styles provides an understanding of its US potential...' by Richard Mark James.
An edited version of the feature below was published in the August 2006 issue of Wine Business Monthly and on their website winebusiness.com (goes to article on their site).

'Dial M for Mourvèdre…Monastrell…or indeed Mataro'

The very fact that it has (at least) three names says a great deal about this migrant, mystifying and misunderstood variety. It depends on where in Europe or the ‘New World’ you find yourself, although Mourvèdre seems resolutely ‘Old World’ wherever it’s grown. Early confusion over synonyms and vine provenance, let alone erratic performance, cannot have helped further understanding or interest in planting it elsewhere. This report explores climate, vineyard location, plant material and viticulture in some of the regions where the variety excels. A comparison of techniques, philosophy and styles across southern France, Spain, Australia, South Africa and California thus aims to offer a broader perspective on the potential for high quality American Mourvèdre/Mataro varietals or blends, as well as imported wines.
Outside of Spain, fashion appears to back putting Mourvèdre on the label, no doubt due to growing visibility of ‘Rhône’ or ‘GSM’ (Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre) blends and introduction of new French clones. It’s worth emphasizing certain characteristics of the variety. The old saying “Mourvèdre needs its feet in water, head up to the sun and to see the sea” should be interpreted cautiously. However, the right balance of sunshine and rainfall/humidity is a critical factor, as it favors particular conditions in terms of microclimate, proximity to water or high ground and soil composition. It’s firmly in the late budding and ripening camp. Other features include strong growth dictating the need for natural or imposed limitations in the vineyard; and tannin properties that demand precise phenolic ripeness and extraction. Mourvèdre is often described as ‘reductive’ and ‘animal’, which may derive from the variety itself and/or traditional vinification and maturation methods.

Climate and location

In Europe, Mourvèdre flourishes only in specific regions of Mediterranean Spain and France (even if it’s called a Rhône variety elsewhere). The spiritual home of Monastrell is eastern Spain in Murcia and Valencia – the town of Murviedro is in this province – where it’s the dominant grape in Alicante and Jumilla. Looking at the latter Denominación de Origen (DO), Monastrell makes up 85 percent of the vineyard area at over 74,000 acres. It’s planted in sandy loam and limestone soils at altitudes of 1220 to 2440 feet, about 50 miles from the coast; an environment that alleviates the hot dry climate. An average year delivers 12 inches of rainfall and the annual mean temperature is relatively high at 61ºF, often with summer and winter extremes. Replanting in the 1990s, following the belated arrival of phylloxera and fuelled by a shift in thinking, is resulting in a number of impressive, good value reds. Patrick Rabion, managing director of up-and-coming winery Finca Omblancas, said: “Traditionally it was a bulk wine region; that’s now changed completely, we’re developing premium labels.” Torres bought vineyards two years ago in Tobarra (Albacete), which says a lot about the quality outlook. 100 acres are ungrafted old bush vine Monastrell, producing low yields of 1⅓ tons/acre, plus 50 acres of new co-plantings.

Mourvèdre at Château de Pibarnon.

The more moderate climate in Bandol (links to features archive) and pre-eminence of Mourvèdre go hand in hand. Appellation (AOC) regulations stipulate a minimum of 50 percent Mourvèdre for red wines; the longest-lived cuvées are sometimes pure Mourvèdre. This coastal region, located between Marseille and Toulon, totals 3540 acres around the eponymous town. On the Winkler scale it registers 3680F degree days, and rainfall is quoted as 22-26 inches with frequent Mistral wind lending a drying effect. Walter Gilpin of Domaine de la Vivonne said: “Latitude is the key to ripening and the number of sunshine days” rather than heat per se. It’s significant the French regions mentioned are found slightly further north than latitude 40°N, whereas elsewhere plantings are slightly closer to the equator than 40°N or 40°S. Reynald Delille of Domaine de Terrebrune added: “the big paradox with Mourvèdre is that it needs a lot of sun to ripen but struggles when it’s very dry and hot.” Gilpin summed up: “The time between flowering and maturity has to be precise; neither too short nor too long, which is where the maritime influence comes in.”
Mourvèdre is estimated at one to two percent of Côtes du Rhône plantings and six percent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which probably means below 3700 acres. The more continental, desert-like climate and terrain perhaps explain the muted enthusiasm. Pierre Perrin, technical director of Château de Beaucastel, long-time champion of the variety, agreed: “Mourvèdre is very southern and climate sensitive. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the northern limit for ripening.” Other important factors are strong Mistral, which concentrates the berries, and global warming meaning optimum ripeness reached more regularly. “We’re continuing to plant but you have to choose sites carefully,” Perrin concluded. In Bandol, model soils for regulating drainage, vigor and ripening show a balance of limestone, sand and/or gravel with some clay. Estates where chalk dominates, such as Château Pibarnon, Domaine Laidière and Domaine Tour du Bon, get marked finesse in their wines. Those from Domaines Lafran-Veyrolles, Gros’Noré and Tempier, with more clay in certain plots, can be more powerful and structured yet still poised. Perrin also highlighted “not too drying soil to avoid stress and blocked maturity, with low yields.”
The search for ideal micro-climate and location in California isn’t, of course, a recent phenomenon, although there are only 829 acres in total (2004). Randall Grahm has been working with Mourvèdre at Bonny Doon since 1984, sourcing from Sacramento Delta around Oakley (Contra Costa), old vineyards in San Martin (Santa Clara) and young in Paso Robles. He commented: “quality of fruit is down to age of vines grown in limiting soils, yet not too poor to minimize dehydration. Proximity to water may offer relief from punishingly warm days in the Delta.” Ridge also has experience in the Sacramento River area: “The microclimate of Bridgehead Vineyard, where Ridge sourced Mataro from 1993-1997, is hot,” commented vineyard director David Gates, “with 3500 degree days and rainfall of 15 inches.” In contrast, Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John didn’t think “Contra Costa is such a great place because the season starts so early there…too warm.”
Edmunds described the history of Mataro in California as “ignorance of what the variety needs to produce the best wine, with a misapprehension of what kind of wine it produces.” One problem is that many first-rate sites are now planted to more popular varieties. He cited fruit from Brandlin Ranch on Mt. Veeder, Napa, “that was probably the finest Mourvèdre in the Western Hemisphere.” Edmunds also said, echoing European winemakers: “The variety is best when grown in a site that’s cool enough to ripen fairly late, and just barely. It likes the clay-limestone soils in Paso Robles.” The Central Coast could prove this winning match. Bob Lindquist at Qupé, who’s been growing Mourvèdre at the Ibarra-Young Vineyard in Los Olivos (Santa Ynez) since 1987, called the site “very good but not great, the climate’s probably a bit cool for a stand alone Mourvèdre varietal.” Dave Corey, sourcing from Cuyama Valley (Santa Barbara) at 3200 feet, said: “It’s cooler than other areas, so I prefer the warmest part of a particular vineyard.”
The majority of plantings in Australia, although small, are found in Barossa. In McLaren Vale, D’Arenberg is one of few pioneers of varietal Mourvèdre as well as GSM blends. There are three old vineyards remaining planted with 80 year old dry-farmed Mourvèdre: “it’s very site specific,” according to Chester Osborn. He believes “sand on clay with ironstone and limestone work best, allowing the roots to find just enough moisture to avoid over-vigor and obtain smaller berry size.” These plots are five to nine miles from the sea with Mourvèdre found mostly on hilltops. In South Africa, Charles Back looked at “southern Rhône varieties because of the climate and ripening period of Mourvèdre, which is late season so reaching phenolic ripeness should be easier here.” The first parcel produced interesting results: he now has 62 acres, the oldest being eight years, mostly in Malmesbury (Swartland). “It’s quite close to the sea at 1220 feet, fluctuations in temperature help,” said Back.

Plant material and viticulture

‘Massale’ (en masse) selection is traditionally favored in Bandol, where the best assortment of material, hence clones, is picked in situ based on field observation. The latest Mourvèdre clone 1069, selected from Jumilla, was registered in 2003. Daniel Ravier, general manager at Domaine Tempier commented: “I’ve worked a little with clones, the one I preferred was 369. Its only fault is a rapid drop in production with age, but berries were relatively small and bunches not too tight. A few colleagues had 247 and 249, which gave satisfactory results.” As for pruning, the consensus is preference, or historical practice, for gobelets (bush vines); but some are attaining better results using a training system or even double cordon. Pibarnon has classic and “trellised gobelet” with up to three wires, as Eric de Saint-Victor explained. “Mourvèdre stands upright demanding gobelet, but this gives poor photosynthesis. At altitude, we need better leaf area by allowing a fine canopy up to 3’8”. This brings maturity forward by 10-15 days.” Yields range from about one ton/acre up to the AOC limit of below three tons.
Lindquist focused on importance of vine age. “The vineyard was planted in 1973 and grafted to a Mataro UC Davis clone in 1986… now overriding any short comings of the clone.” Historically Mourvèdre was dry-farmed in California, which Grahm still backs. “Irrigation should be restricted to control vigor,” with yield restrictions “lower than expectations of our unreconstructed growers. Mourvèdre on trellis tends to be over-cropped and doesn’t ripen…head-trained ‘goblet’ is the way to go. We’ve not found interesting flavors at lower sugars.” Ridge is on the same wavelength selecting pre-1900 own-rooted vines, “head-trained and spur pruned with yields from 1-3 tons per acre,” Gates confirmed. Corey was more ambivalent about age: “old vines have a certain smoothness and depth but lack some edges that make the wine interesting. I have a couple of clones and they’re definitely different; I’m doing more clonal work.”
Edmunds also enthused about plant material: “the clones Tablas Creek imported seem very good, much superior to most of the older material available through Davis.” Tablas Creek (Paso Robles) propagated new material from Beaucastel (joint owner) in 1990, which is actually a ‘massale’ selection rather than one specific clone. Benjamin Silver, in Santa Barbara, commented: “stylistically it ends up driven by clones instead so much by winemaking. When I worked with the older California clone, it had beautiful blackberry fruit; the Tablas Creek Mourvèdre Noir is earthier, more savage and spice driven. The Davis clone didn’t have the longevity/structure that Mourvèdre Noir has… perfect in blends but by itself didn’t have structure to stay charming.” Back uses original French clones “producing smaller berries: no bloated fruit!” He crops less than two tons/acre from bush vines, which “don’t show heat stress… Mourvèdre bounces back quickly after a hot day.”

Blend or pure?

Blending in Bandol becomes more philosophical than technical and puts in context Mourvèdre’s role in top reds. Winemakers create their assemblage according to vintage, varietal characteristics, parcel and house style, as anywhere else; yet the priority is Mourvèdre. Even if varietals were formally sanctioned (AOC says not), it doesn’t necessarily make the most interesting wine, although in certain years or sites it can (e.g. Bastide Blanche). Ravier remarked: “In the south, tradition has always been to blend. You should be suspicious of 100 percent Mourvèdre cuvées, which can be simplistic.” Alain Pascal of Gros’Noré aims for “as much Mourvèdre as possible,” usually at least 75 percent. “I’m not convinced about 100 percent: you have Mourvèdre for extract and richness, but old Grenache brings fruit and Cinsault can add finesse.” Beaucastel’s ‘Hommage’ cuvée has around 60 percent, the latest being 2003 following a run of good vintages from 1998 to 2001. Even their Côtes du Rhône Coudoulet contains 25-35 percent, above the norm.
In the New World, it too depends on site and personal viewpoint. Paul Draper said: “Occasionally we’ve added 5 percent of a complementary variety to give more structure, however most of the time this vineyard expresses itself nicely with 100 percent Mataro.” Mourvèdre makes up all of Bonny Doon’s Old Telegram and is “an important blending component” of Cigare Volant (one third). “We’re a long way off from getting the level of elegance I’d wish for,” Grahm concluded characteristically. Corey, on the other hand, is “fully in the blending camp with Rhône varieties. Mourvèdre and Grenache complement each other better than any other grapes.” Similarly Edmunds stated: “It almost always needs some Grenache, and/or Syrah, maybe Counoise.” The 2004 D’Arenberg Twenty Eight Road is actually a 60/40 McLaren Vale/Langhorne Creek blend. “Reaction is strong,” commented Mark Bolton, brand ambassador. “Mourvèdre is selling but from a very small consumer base in Australia and other markets.” Back releases two Mourvèdre labels: Spice Route (100 percent) and Fairview (90 percent + 10 Shiraz). He concluded: “It has Old and New World style: not as primary as Shiraz with sophisticated tannin structure and no greenness. I’ll continue to plant as I really think it’s right for South Africa.”
As for any vine variety, the challenge is finding and optimizing the perfect terroir. For Mourvèdre, in the search for optimum quality, you have to be even more demanding like this ‘difficult’ grape itself. In Spain and France, the frontiers are perhaps established but growers aren’t complacent. In the New World, sites are being (re)discovered and exciting wine styles developed. In California and specifically the Central Coast, young vineyards with fresh plant material may take time to reach their potential. As the most suitable sites are recognized, hopefully growers will have the courage, and incentive, to plant ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘Rhône’ varieties rather than staples. California can produce world-beating wines from these, although the jury’s still out whether varietal or blended Mourvèdre offers the ultimate expression.

Copyright Richard James and Wine Business Monthly 2006.

Resources: contacts, books and websites

Domaine Tempier (Peyraud family), 1802 chemin des Fanges, 83330 Le Plan du Castellet; 04 94 98 70 21, satempier@aol.com, www.domainetempier.com
Jean-Marie Castel, estate manager, Domaine Lafran-Veyrolles (Claude-Marie Jouvé-Férec), 2115 route de l’Argile, 83740 La Cadière d’Azur; 04 94 90 13 37, contact@lafran-veyrolles.com, www.lafran-veyrolles.com
Château de Pibarnon, 410 chemin de la Croix-des-Signaux, 83741 La Cadière d’Azur; 04 94 90 12 73, contact@pibarnon.com, www.pibarnon.com
Domaine de la Vivonne, 3345 montée du Château, 83330 Le Castellet; 04 94 98 70 09, info@vivonne.com, www.vivonne.com
Domaine de Terrebrune, 724 chemin de la Tourelle, 83190 Ollioules; 04 94 74 01 30, delille@terrebrune.fr, www.terrebrune.fr
Domaine du Gros’Noré, 675 chemin de l’Argile, 83740 La Cadière d’Azur; 04 94 90 08 50, alainpascal@gros-nore.com, www.gros-nore.com
Domaine de la Tour du Bon, 714 chemin de l’Olivette, 83330 Le Brûlat du Castellet; 04 98 03 66 22, tourdubon@wanadoo.fr
Freddy Estienne, Domaine de la Laidière, 426 chemin de Font Vive, 83330 Evenos; 04 98 03 65 75, info@laidiere.com, www.laidiere.com
Association les Vins de Bandol www.vinsdebandol.com
Fédération des syndicats de producteurs, Maison des vignerons, BP 12 – 84231, Châteauneuf du Pape Cedex; Tél : + 33 (0) 4 90 83 72 21 - Fax : + 33 (0) 4 90 83 70 01, www.chateauneuf.com
www.fincaomblancas.com Phone/Fax Number: +34 968 780 850
Bonny Doon Vineyards, 1-831-425-3625, P.O. Box 8376, Santa Cruz, CA 95061 www.bonnydoonvineyard.com
Ridge Vineyards, 17100 Monte Bello Road, Cupertino, CA 95015, Direct Phone: 408-868-1367 www.ridgewine.com
Edmunds St. John, 1331 Walnut Street, Berkeley, CA 94709; t: (510) 981.1510 f: (510) 981.1610 www.edmundsstjohn.com
Qupé, P.O. Box 440, Los Olivos, CA 93441; Main Phone: (805) 937-9801, Fax: (805) 937-2539 www.qupe.com
www.corewine.com Phone/Fax 805.938.7567, P.O. Box 5997, Santa Maria, CA 93456
Benjamin Silver Wines, T/F (805) 963-3052, www.Silverwine.com
D’Arenberg www.darenberg.com.au PO Box 195, Mclaren Vale, South Australia 5171. Telephone: +61 8 83238206 ex 270, direct: + 61 (0) 404 809544, facsimile: +61 8 83238423
Charles Back www.fairview.co.za
Jancis Robinson MW (Ed): The Oxford Companion to Wine (forthcoming 3rd edn 2006) with references to Galet, P: Cépages et vignobles de France (2nd edn, Montpellier 1990) and MacDonogh, G: Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre (London 1992)
John Radford: The New Spain (Mitchell Beazley)
UC Davis website http://www.ucdavis.edu/index.html: 1999-00 DNA testing of FPMS vines
John Lito: De la Vigne au Vin users.swing.be/john/vignevin
Office National Interprofessionnel des Vins www.onivins.fr
Etablissement National Technique pour l’Amélioration de la Viticulture www.entav.fr.

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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.