The tough little mourvedre makes a big, bold impression.
STORY BY ANNE SAMPSON
When I was a kid, my father used to entertain us by making fun of the French language, mangling common phrases into weirdly translated grunts. Je t’adore came out as shut-the-door. “It’s like talking with a napkin stuffed in your mouth,” he explained, stuffing a napkin in his mouth.
For non-native speakers, it’s pretty easy to garble French words, even (particularly?) wine names. Whenever I encounter mourvedre, the spicy Rhone grape, I’m not quite sure where to go with the pronunciation. Mor-vee-dre? Mur-vay-druh? Myur-vayd? No matter how you twist the vowels, it sounds a little creepy, like a vine twining its way through the gravesites of ancient Gallic winemakers. But be not afraid: The tough little mourvedre is marked by big, bold flavors, though it has a gentle side, too. It can display tastes of bright-blue fruits and a soft texture, or dominate with gamy flavors and peppery nuances. On its own, it makes a big impression. And in increasingly popular grenache-syrah-mourvedre (GSM) blends, mourvedre brings the boom.
Mourvedre goes by many names (mataro and monastrell are Spanish versions). It is best known as a Rhone variety, although it also thrives in warmer sites. It’s so prolific in the Bandol region, along France’s Mediterranean coast, that wines there are required to contain at least 50 percent mourvedre.
Here in Washington, winemakers look from the Yakima Valley to Red Mountain to the Horse Heaven Hills for it. Mourvedre is not the most abundant Rhone grape in Washington – that honor goes to syrah. In fact, there are only 126 acres planted to mourvedre in the state, and that limited production means most of the fruit is directed to blends.
“We’ve always worked with syrah; all Washington wineries do,” explains Cody Janett, winemaker at Forgeron Cellars. “But a GSM blend really hits all the points on your palate. Grenache hits the first part, that first bite, while the syrah encompasses your mid-palate, which is all the body and the structure. The mourvedre is that last little taste of white pepper you get as it’s going down your back palate.”
A big harvest in 2013 gave Forgeron the opportunity to bottle a mourvedre varietal, sourced from Kiona Estate’s Heart of the Hill Vineyard on Red Mountain, where heat reigns. “We were just shooting to showcase that vineyard, really, to show everybody that mourvedre can stand by itself,” Cody says. “It shows more earthy but spicy notes, and it’s really amazing.”
The winery produced 121 cases for the Forgeron Société collection, available only through the wine club and tasting room. “The Red Mountain area for that varietal hits the spot just perfectly,” Cody says, but for the most part, he’ll continue to focus on blends. “The GSM is definitely going to be our crowd-pleaser.”
James Mantone, owner and winemaker at Syncline Winery, specializes in Rhone wines. As early as 2003, he was one of the first in the state to bottle mourvedre as a varietal. James says he loves the fruit from Coyote Canyon Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills — where caliche-loaded cobblestones and cooling winds yield softer, plusher wines — as well as Heart of the Hill on Red Mountain, where grapes basking in the heat tend toward strong tannins.
“In Washington, power and color is easy, so trying to craft prettiness into bigger wines is our goal,” he explains. Syncline’s 2015 mourvedre from Heart of the Hill was hand-harvested and de-stemmed with no crushing; fermented in concrete; and aged in two- to three-year-old neutral French barrels. It shows a deep ruby color, intense flavors, and a rich, velvety mouthfeel.
At Airfield Estates in the Yakima Valley, assistant winemaker Travis Maple works with a plot of mourvedre first planted in the early 1990s by Mike Miller. The late patriarch of Airfield was passionate about Rhone varieties, Travis says, and carved out small plantings of them in his 832 acres of vineyard. Today, Airfield maintains two and a half acres of mourvedre. Airfield crushes only about 30 percent of its total harvest each year – most of its fruit is sold to other wineries – but all of the mourvedre stays home. Travis directs it into two different Rhone-style blends: Mustang, a classic GSM blend dominated by grenache and backed by syrah and 20 percent mourvedre, and Founders Michael, where he showcases the lush flavors and velvety textures of the vineyard’s Rhone grapes in a premium wine. When the harvest allows, he also bottles small reserve lots of mourvedre for wine club members.
Travis says the cooler temperatures in the valley help tame the characteristic spiciness of the grape. His goal, he says, is to find balance. “Here in the Yakima Valley, we definitely see higher acidity. Mourvedre can get very peppery, so I want to make sure that the extraction is very gentle. We get the nice colors, the body, and mouthfeel, all the varietal expressions. There’s still a hint of that white pepper and black pepper, but it’s followed by really luscious blue fruits, as well, and very, very lush and silky tannins.”
But whether it’s blended or straight, mourvedre always announces itself. At Syncline, James also produces a Rhone-style blend called Subduction Red. Just as he does with the varietal, he works toward a softer, pretty style, but the mourvedre doesn’t lose its punch.
In fact, the feral flavors intrigue him. “With mourvedre, there’s a bit of what the French call savage, that rustic animal side that’s not quite as polished as the Burgundy or Bordeaux varieties,” James says. “The best way I can describe it is with a food analogy. Grilled foods might not be the prettiest or most refined style of cooking, but they’re really satisfying. Just because something is not refined doesn’t mean it’s not delicious.
“Mourvedre inherently has some pepperiness, but we don’t want that to be the dominant characteristic,” he continues. “We want elusive blue fruits, a little bit of plum, some blackberry, but we also love that gamy side of mourvedre, that little bit of meat, animal – that’s a really important aspect for me. Mourvedre is an interesting grape because you can pick it early, and it can be really delicate and pretty. You can pick it late, and it can be big and monstrous. Both versions can be delicious. It just depends on the style of the winery.”
Anne Sampson is a fellow of the Professional Wine Writers Symposium. She writes from her home in Richland about wine and the people who create it. She also writes about food, travel, and culture around the Pacific Northwest.