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Mourvèdre & Mataro: Past, Present and Future
By Norm Roby
May 3, 2022
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In today’s expanding world of Rhône-style “GSM” (Grenache – Syrah – Mourvèdre) wines made in California, Mourvèdre seems to play the part of the cliched “third wheel,” the tag along, not an officially invited third party.  At least I suspect that’s how most wine drinkers see it.  And that’s understandable since so many back labels declare the GSM blend contains a tiny percentage of Mourvèdre, sometimes as little as 5% or even 1%.

In the late 1980s when the Rhône Rangers began to highlight Rhône varieties, the group preferred to use the Mourvèdre name, even though it was also known as Mataro, the Spanish name, in California long before then. In those pre-Ranger days, It was also known as Monastrell, the name common in Southern Spain, primarily in Valencia and Jumilla. But the group went with the French name.

Bill Easton of Terre Rouge, one of the early Rangers who views Mourvèdre “as a great variety for California,” feels that the odd sounding, not-easy-to-pronounce French name doesn’t help its appeal.  Morgan Twain-Peterson with Bedrock, a newcomer on the Rhône-ish scene, insists on using the Mataro name as a bow to California history.  In its lineup of single vineyard wines, Ridge Vineyards uses Mataro.  Easton noted that the federal wine labeling guidelines don't allow the use of the popular Spanish name.  That is a shame, given the boatloads of Monastrell now selling briskly in the US.

So, does this mean Mourvèdre is destined to remain a hard to pronounce bit player?  Or as a varietal, will it be limited to a few cases made from some ancient vineyard?  

It seems weird that given the lofty reputation of Bandol and its two leading producers, Domaine Tempier and Château de Pibarnon, Mourvèdre has never been a major story from California.  With its “Old Telegram,” Bonny Doon set its sights on Bandol, but very few of the original Ranger gang focused much attention on Mourvèdre.  Qupe still makes its Los Olivos Cuvée with 30-40% Mourvèdre, but its lineup is now highlighted by several Syrahs and other Rhône varietals.

The one big exception was Fred Cline of Cline Cellars.  He began making wines in 1982 from the family’s Big Break Vineyard in Oakley which was planted in 1909.  Even after moving to Carneros and expanding his roster, Cline worked with that old dry farmed vineyard containing Zinfandel, Carignane and, as it was then called, Mataro.  Those vineyards like others in and near Oakley in Contra Costa were planted on sandy soils which were and still are phylloxera-free.

When the Ranger movement came along, Cline held the keys to that red grape, which he sold to Bonny Doon, Edmunds St. John, and others.  Today, Cline offers his “Ancient Vine” Mourvèdre, a “Small Berry” Mourvèdre, and a Rosé.  Most are sold out of the tasting room, except the “Cashmere Red” blend made in part from the old vineyard.

So while Cline persisted, it seemed nobody else was interested in Mourvèdre until I discovered a winery that was making Mourvèdre its centerpiece.  With its Rhône blend, Holly Hill’s Vineyard in El Dorado puts “M” as the leading player. Yes, an MSG wine. The 2020 Holly Hill’s “Patriarche,” a Châteauneuf-du-Pape inspired wine, was made from more Mourvèdre (41%) than Syrah (38%) and with only a splash of Grenache (11%).

A rising star, Holly’s Hill is placing a lot of emphasis on Mourvèdre.  Currently offering six wines made in part from Mourvèdre, winemaker Carrie Bendick explains why: “On its own, it is a wine with great structure, a blend of red and dark fruits, and earthiness – all without being overbearing or falling short anywhere.  Makes for a great workhorse for our blends too. At Holly's Hill the blends just taste right when Mourvèdre is the lead grape.”   

Then she added a key piece of information: “Before our own grapes came into maturity, we worked with the old California clone that is much different.  It's a lot lighter, more red fruits and softer on the palate.  It lacks the complexity.  We now grow the Tablas Creek Clone A Mourvèdre.”

So, hold on, there’s something new with Mourvèdre which most often in the past has been a part of an Old Vine mix.  It turns out that Mourvèdre was thoroughly evaluated by the folks at Tablas Creek, and they imported clones from Château Beaucastel.  As Jason Hass says:  “We brought in 5 different Mourvèdre clones, which we named A, B, C, D, and E.  All five have made it into circulation in California and beyond.”

While the names are not exactly wild and crazy, the fact is that the widespread planting of these five new clones changes things.  Also, there’s an ongoing study of those old field blend vineyards being led by Morgan Twain-Peterson.  He’s part of a project that maps and DNA-tests California's heritage vineyards, and to work with UC Davis's Foundation Plant Services to then clean up, archive, and reproduce these varieties so other grapegrowers can plant them.

Old vines have been a focal point with Joel Peterson, first with Ravenswood and now with his own winery, Once & Future.  He is now making wine from Mataro and, he adds that he is, “loving the character of the vineyard and the resulting wine.  Really, there is not that much Mataro planted in most of the old vineyards in Sonoma and Napa where I did most of my old vine grape sourcing.  It is one of the varieties that is fairly easily identified from its leaf shape, leaf color, and upright nature, so I did note it when it was in the Ravenswood Old Vine Zin mix.”  In Contra Costa, Joel works with the 119 year old Oakley Road vineyard’s Mataro, and makes a few hundred cases for Once & Future.

So, here in 2022, we have new clones and a new understanding of the historic vines.  This mix of authentic ancient vines and new clones add a new chapter to the history of Mourvèdre, an amazing, complicated history of ups and downs.

In 2020 in his blog, Jason Hass provides an in-depth review of its strange journey.

Check out the detailed report at:  https://tablascreek.typepad.com/tablas/2020/12/Mourvèdre-sidelined-by-phylloxera-no-more.html

To summarize:  Before phylloxera began slowly destroying vineyards in the late 19th century, Mourvèdre was seen as a star in the south of France. In 1884, the famous ampelographer Charles Wentworth summarized reports about grape varieties and refers to one from France.  "All the great French authorities agree in placing the Mataro as the finest red wine grape of the southern regions."

This is a good reminder that before phylloxera, Mourvèdre was the dominant Rhône grape, not Grenache.  After some comments on its ripening, Wentworth says: "The apparent defect of this grape is the roughness of the new wine; but this is the defect of most noble varieties.  Like the Cabernet-Sauvignon of Bordeaux, it requires age to develop its quality."

In assessing the situation in California, Wentworth also concludes with a look at the variety in California and ends with this backhanded compliment:

"I believe there are few red wine vineyards in California, whether for dry or sweet wine, wherein the introduction of a proportion of Mataro, varying from ten to seventy-five per cent, will not be a positive gain."

However, after 1884 the sitting-on-top-of-the-world Mourvèdre story takes on something of a bad Netflix script.  Lurking in the background was phylloxera, which was about to march through and destroy France’s vineyards.  However, the cure was grafting onto native American rootstock.  The major twist is that of all varieties, Mourvèdre did not respond well to the rootstocks and after grafting failed, it was removed as the French replaced it with other vine varieties, often Grenache.

As for the parallel plot in California, well in the 1890s vineyards were faring well, almost all on their own rootstocks.  Mourvèdre/Mataro was more popular than Zinfandel, and was often a part of a field blend with Zinfandel and other varieties.  But then Prohibition came along in 1920.  Home winemakers working on their jug red must have relied on Mourvèdre because in the early 30s after Repeal there were over 7,000 acres still producing, with considerable acreage in Placer, Santa Clara and Contra Costa Counties.  But with the main market being cheap jug wines following Repeal in 1933, it gradually lost out to more prolific varieties, especially Carignane and Zinfandel.

By 1987 when the Rhône Rangers were beginning to saddle up, Mourvèdre was down to 300 acres with half of that in Contra Costa County.  But while those old vineyards in Contra Costa centered around Oakley and a few others scattered in San Benito remain a major part of the current story, Mourvèdre/Mataro is experiencing renewed interest.

Right now, the numbers, notes Hass, indicate the variety may be starting to recover both here and in France.  From those 7,600 hectares in France in 2000, as of 2016 it was up to 8,754, an increase of about 15%. Thanks to effort from the original Rangers and several newcomers like Tablas Creek, Bedrock, and Holly’s Hill, In California, its acreage has climbed as of 2019 to 1,166 acres, growth of 93% since 2000.  Paso Robles has several wineries now adding a voice in Mourvèdre/Mataro’s reputation, especially Adelaida, Dusi Wines, and J. Lohr.

It has a new, vocal fan club among winemakers and growers.  Ridge Vineyards, which gives us Monte Bello Cab and other single vineyard wines, recently added a third Mataro, 2018 Gonsalves Vineyard.  Ian Brand, a highly respected sommelier, now produces one from the Enz Vineyard.  The folks at Dirty & Rowdy have offered Mourvèdre from several different sites, including Mendocino and El Dorado.  Skinner Vineyards, located in El Dorado, makes excellent Mourvèdre in a slightly oaked style.  And let’s not forget Terre Rouge, which has made many vintages from Amador County.

It sure looks like several new Rangers have joined, with Cline Cellars to now lead the charge. The two that will lead the parade, if there ever is one for Mataro, will be Tablas Creek and Bedrock.  Both have made major commitments to the variety in their future.  At Tablas Creek, Jason Hass reports “as of 2021, we have 25.9 acres of Mourvèdre in production and another 7 acres under development at Tablas Creek, our largest footprint of any grape and more than one third of our total red acreage.  We’re absolutely planning on continuing both of our rosés.  The Patelin de Tablas Rosé is mostly from sourced grapes (and mostly Grenache) but the Mourvèdre-based Dianthus is something we hope to be able to make more of with our increased acreage.  Right now, the two rosés are something like 15% of our production, and there’s room for that to grow if we can grow more grapes.”

At Bedrock, Morgan Twain-Peterson notes that, “Mataro will continue to be part of what we do and will play an increasing role.  The majority of the Mourvèdre we work with is from Contra Costa County at our Evangelho and Pato Vineyards, where it is own-rooted on deep banks of beach sand- again making a very elegant wine for the style.  The Mourvèdre we work with from Bedrock Vineyard in Sonoma Valley is darker, more brooding, and structurally more impactful.”

Morgan sums it up:  “Mataro tends to make a very sturdy, age-worthy wine that is perhaps more subtle aromatically than others – more savory and earthen than overtly fruity.  I think this lack of obviousness is what makes it quite alluring but probably also has hurt its popularity as it is not particularly flashy.  We make two red wines based around the variety (Ude to Lucien and Evangelho Mataro) along with the rosé.  As I said before, though it will always likely be blended with something as even in Bandol it is a requirement; much like Zinfandel, it plays well with others and usually benefits from blending.”

Well, at least playing well with others is better than being the third wheel, or the token 1%.

Here are a couple of specific blend examples to consider:

Holly’s Hill Vineyards (El Dorado) Carignane-Mourvèdre 2018 ($28):  Widely planted throughout the Languedoc and quite prominent in the wines of Corbieres, Carignane is a prolific grape whose wines tend to be, in my experience, rustic and incomplete.  So, I was interested to see how growing it on steep hillsides where yields are low and filling it out with 33% Mourvèdre would work.  It was aged 10 months in neutral small French oak.  With aeration, it shows dried plum and fig along with red fruit aromas.  Fairly concentrated, it has straightforward ripe black cherry flavors with medium tannins.  A bit rough around the edges, it would benefit from a few years of cellaring.  But overall, quite impressive and shows that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.  91

Holly’s Hill Vineyards (El Dorado) “Patriarche” 2020 ($38):  For its GSM, Châteauneuf-du-Pape-style rendition, the winery makes Mourvèdre the lead with 41% followed by Syrah at 38%, with 11% Grenache and 10% Cournoise.  And the winemaker is said to get first dibs on each to assemble this blend.  The wine is aged for 10 months in neutral French oak.  Well, this wine is enormously appealing with lots of spice, cranberry, black pepper and savory flavors.  Medium full-bodied, it has a solid core of ripe fruit that is vibrant and persistent.  It unfolds with each sip, showing a slight earthiness and smooth tannin. It is much more complex and refined than most GSM wines.  95                                        

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