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Spotlight on Mourvèdre: a grape variety on the rise

After languishing in the wilderness for a while, Mourvèdre is now on the verge of becoming hip. It’s in the new world where the real image change is taking place, and in particular California and Australia. It used to be Mataro, a spotty teenager with a crap social life. But it’s undergone an image makeover, metamorphosing into Mourvèdre, the grape that everyone wants to know. It’s been invited to the party.

Its spiritual home is Provence’s Bandol region, which itself has undergone a revolution in the last thirty years. Led by Lucien Peyraud’s Domaine Tempier, Bandol now boasts a clutch of dynamic, aspiring producers, including the likes of Lafran Veyrolles, Gros’ Noré, Pibarnon and Begude. By law, Bandol Rouge must now contain at least 50% Mourvèdre, but many serious producers will use more than this.

But it is Spain that grows the lion’s share of Mourvèdre. Known there as Monastrell, it’s the second most widely grown grape, after Garnacha (Grenache). Producers there are just beginning to wake up to Mourvèdre’s new cachet; will we soon see a wave of varietal Mourvèdres from Spain marketed by the grape’s French name?

All is not rosy, however. Mourvedre is a challenging grape to grow. The yield is irregular, and it has a reputation for ‘alternance’, whereby one year produces a good yield, followed by a poor yield the next. And whereas most grapes produce a commercial yield in three to five years, you can be waiting as long as 10 years for Mourvèdre to deliver. But small yields do deliver good colour, and when it’s not excessively astringent and ripens properly (it needs warm climates), it makes some fairly serious wine.

What are the flavour characteristics of Mourvèdre? Look for leathery, herby, spicy notes on the nose. In the new world there is often some sweetness, too. On the palate think savoury. Part of the reason that this has been so successful as a blending grape is that it provides a spicy, savoury structure that complements the richness of Grenache and Syrah grown in warm climates. It’s not an excessively fruity grape, and in some cases can contribute slightly gamey, almost animal-like flavours, especially in younger wines.

The wines featured below were tasted ‘single-blind’. This means that while the wines were served blind, we knew which ones were included in the tasting. It’s a fun exercise matching them up, and I scored pretty well. I got 7/9 correct, although I think I should be awarded half a mark for wine 4, for which I gave two options, one of which was correct. The group favourites were wines 9 and 6, which shows that groups don’t always get it right: wine 9, the Bonny Doon Old Telegram 1998  was not one of the better wines on show here by a large margin. Notes are as written (blind), with the real identity in bold at the end of each note.

My three favourites were all from Provence, and two of these are from Bandol. The 1998 Lafran-Veyrolles Bandol Cuvée Longue Garde is delicious now and will no doubt improve. Already with some bottle age, the 1994 Tempier Cabassaou is beginning to show some lovely herby/spicy complexity, and will just keep getting better. The third wine is the wonderfully intense Domaine la Courtade, from a small island just off the Provençale coast; quite pricey at around £17, but worth it.

Wine 1
Spicy, dusty notes on the nose, which is dry, savoury and a little leathery. Very dry on the palate with dusty tannins, good acidity and good density. Quite hard and tight at the moment, but with potential. Very good+ Domaine Rocalière Lirac 1998 Southern Rhône (this is a special cuvee they make which is a varietal Mourvèdre, although they are not allowed to say this on the label)

Wine 2
Quite intense liquoricey/herby nose with some lush menthol notes in the background, and a touch of vanilla and cinnamon. Intruiging. Rich ‘new world’ palate has some tannin and a dry finish. Some tannin and an attractive herbiness. Interesting stuff, with some varietal character showing through: it’s the D’Arenberg. Very good+ D’Arenberg Mourvèdre 1998 McLaren Vale, Australia

Wine 3
Ripe, liquoricey nose with some spicy, peppery notes. There’s an attractive savouriness to it. Pretty interesting palate shows spicy, dry tannins and a savoury, earthy, herbal complexity. Quite expressive; not fruit driven. Old world, this is the Courtade. Very good/excellent Domaine La Courtade 1999 Côtes de Provence

Wine 4
Deliciously deep herbal edge with some lush berry fruit and spicy/savoury notes. The palate is rich, modern and sweetly fruited, with some coffee-like overtones. There’s some oak here and it’s quite alcoholic. Tasty stuff. Very good+ From the USA I suspect, but I can’t decide whether this is the Jade Mountain or the Bonny Doon. It’s not the Ridge though. Jade Mountain Mourvèdre 1996, Mt Veeder, California

Wine 5
Quite muted initially, but with a meaty, leathery, tobaccoey depth to the nose. A little bit baked; very leathery. The palate is quite evolved, with more sweet tobaccoey character and some caramel-like notes. Quite unusual. Very good. I think this is the Jumilla. Bodegas San Isidro Gémina Reserva 1995, Jumilla, Spain

Wine 6
Lovely spicy, leathery notes dominate the nose, and there’s quite ripe fruit here with some depth and intensity. It’s rich, leathery and earthy on the palate with a dry finish. Impressive stuff, with lots of depth, some power and complexity. Very good/excellent This is the Lafran Veyrolles I suspect. Domaine Lafran Veyrolles Cuvée Longue Garde 1998 Bandol

Wine 7
This kicks off with a big blast of vanilla-laced sweet oak: it’s a big wine, almost opulent, but with some herby, leathery notes underneath the sweetness. The palate is balanced and savoury, if a touch alcoholic on the finish. Tasty stuff; ripe and rich. Very good+ I’m guessing that this is the Ridge. Ridge Bridgehead Mataro 1997 Santa Cruz Mountains, California

Wine 8
Toasty, savoury cinnamon-laced nose with an attractive roasted coffee edge. There’s a bit of spiciness too. The palate is spicy and balanced, with good acid and a savoury character. Good length, too, to this sweetly spiced wine. Very good/excellent I reckon this is the Tempier. Domaine Tempier Cabassaou 1994 Bandol

Wine 9
Initially slightly muted nose opens up to reveal slightly alcoholic, brambly fruit with a liquorice and vanilla edge. Attractive ripe, herby palate with chalky tannins and a dry finish. Very new world and quite alcoholic. Very good. The Jade Mountain? Bonny Doon Old Telegram 1998, California

Wines tasted at La Vigneronne, shown by Liz Berry MW, 20 September 2001
Contact details: La Vigneronne, 105 Brompton Road, London SW7 3LE Phone: 020 7589 6113 E-mail: sales@lavigneronne.co.uk

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