It has been only quite recently that wine lovers around the world realised that there was such a close connection between the main grape of Bandol in Provence, the rather scorned Monastrell vine planted in such profusion on the Mediterranean coast of Spain and pockets of ancient vine stumps in both California and Australia traditionally called Mataro. They are one and the same grape variety, for long either despised or ignored.
Although nowadays it travels most commonly under its French name Mourvèdre, the vine’s origins are almost certainly Spanish, probably in the Levante, where today the great majority of all the plantings in the world are concentrated. (It may take its French name from the Spanish city of Murviedro.) It needs a hot, dry climate for it is very late ripening and susceptible to both mildews and low winter temperatures so in France it can thrive only in the country’s warmest corners. It was Provence’s most planted vine before phylloxera decimated France’s vineyards and it was then largely replaced by varieties that were easier to graft on to the available rootstocks. It has remained Bandol’s signature vine, however, producing small quantities of intensely coloured juice high in tannin from the vine’s small, sweet, black berries.
The wine produced by Mourvèdre vines in Bandol’s dry, garrigue-scented vineyards tends to be extremely deep purple in youth, pretty tough and notably potent with a very strong gamey, almost animal scent in youth which wine enthusiasts tend to love or loathe. This can be exacerbated by Mourvèdre’s tendency to reduction, a propensity to produce the rather off-putting odour of bad eggs if it is not exposed to enough oxygen during winemaking. This is not a fatal flaw; it can be remedied by aerating the wine, by copper fining or by simply dropping a copper coin in a glass, but it does mean that Bandol’s winemakers have learnt to take particular pains when vinifying Mourvèdre, which here may be blended with a bit of Grenache and Cinsaut. Mourvèdre in general needs time to soften its tannins and develop more interesting flavours (although in the hotter climate of southern Spain, Monastrell has the reputation of being relatively soft and early developing).
Since the late 1980s, awareness and appreciation of Mourvèdre increased worldwide so that it has been planted much more in both the southern Rhône and the Languedoc-Roussillon – occasionally in the Languedoc producing varietal wines made of nothing but Mourvèdre but mainly to add weight and structure to blends with, typically, Grenache, Syrah and sometimes the much lighter Cinsaut, often spelt Cinsault. Producers are often given the choice of stiffening the blend with Mourvèdre and/or Syrah. Accordingly, France’s total plantings of Mourvèdre increased eightfold in the last three decades of the 20th century and Mourvèdre is now an increasingly important ingredient in reds made around Châteauneuf-du-Pape, adding considerable flesh to the blend, typically representing 10% of a blend dominated by Grenache with a bit of Syrah too. The most famous supporters of Mourvèdre in the Rhône Valley are the Perrins of Ch de Beaucastel, who use an average of 30% in their regular Châteauneuf-du-Pape and even more in their prestige bottling Hommage à Jacques Perrin, both of which demand many years’ bottle age for the animal flavours to develop into more beguiling leather and tar.
This holy trinity of the southern Rhône, and the recognition that Mataro was identical to Mourvèdre, has now spawned an entirely new wine term, ‘GSM’, for blends of Grenache, Shiraz (the Australian name for Syrah) and Mourvèdre, whose warmth and depth of flavour has been so popular with consumers that some southern French producers have even been known to market their wines under this moniker.
Australia (and California) had long had old plantings of a vine regarded as rather rustic called Mataro. It had none of the glamour associated with the fancy French import Cabernet Sauvignon until in the early 1990s it began to be renamed Mourvèdre and blended with the produce of ancient Grenache vines and Shiraz to produce GSMs or, occasionally, as in Penfolds Bin 2 and RBJ’s Theologicum, blended with Shiraz alone. The pioneers of this now well-established style, in the late 1980s, were Rocky O’Callaghan at Rockford in the Barossa Valley and his neighbour Charles Melton, who even named his blend Nine Popes in a mistranslation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Demand for these wines grew so that the old plantings of Grenache and Mourvèdre in the dry heat of Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale were re-evaluated, growers stopped pulling these dry-farmed vine stumps out and started asking much more money for their produce.
Exactly the same thing happened in California. There were similar plots of hundred year-old Mataro vines, typically in such obscure spots on the wine map as the sandy soils of Contra Costa county due east of San Francisco. These had been planted by immigrants and their produce was pretty much spurned until the Mourvèdre connection was made. Instrumental in all this were the so-called Rhône Rangers (a hark back to the famous masked TV cowboy The Lone Ranger). Led by the likes of Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz and John Alban of Alban Vineyards in the Central Coast, and tired of an unrestricted diet of Cabernet and Chardonnay, producers were desperate for new flavours. The warm spiciness of Rhône reds was distinctly appealing, so Syrah vines went into the ground pretty rapidly, while old plantings of Mataro took on new allure. (There are old plots of Grenache in California but they are mainly in the Central Valley and it has been difficult to make much seriously exciting wine from them.)
In California, however, varietal, and relatively expensive, bottlings of Mourvèdre are not uncommon. Cline Cellars have long made waves, both with the produce of century-old Contra Costa vines and with newer plantings in southern Sonoma. Jade Mountain made its name with wines such as a pure Mourvèdre, while Ridge Vineyards defiantly call the century-old vines they use from Pagani Ranch in northern Sonoma by their traditional name of Mataro on their labels.
Following in the wake of the success of Syrah, Mourvèdre is now being grown in Washington state too, notably by McCrea and with the likes of K Vintners making their own particular version of GSM, ‘The Boy’. In South Africa there are some plantings of Mourvèdre in Malmesbury and varietal versions have appeared under the Spice Route and Fairview labels.
But by far the majority of the world’s plantings are still in Spain, where, as Monastrell, it is the country’s fourth most planted red wine variety. Even if the vine’s reputation within Spain is not especially glorious, and it was traditionally used for black syrups sold as Monastrell Dulce or Fondillón, more and more exporters are jumping on the bandwagon of this variety’s current global popularity. There are now hundreds of inexpensive bottlings from regions such as Jumilla, Yecla and Alicante, where the likes of Juan Gil, Casa de La Ermita, Casa Castillo and El Nido have already shown that truly fine wines can also be made from Monastrell. The Catalan firm of Torres also makes one of Spain’s most distinctive and distinguished wines from a blend of varieties in Conca de Barberá in which Monastrell is the chief ingredient.
Some distinguished Mourvèdres include Domaine Tempier, Cuvée Cabassou, Bandol; Ch de Pibarnon, Bandol; Casa Castillo Pie Franco, Jumilla; Torres Grans Muralles, Conca de Barberá; Hewitson, Old Garden Mourvedre, South Australia; Cline Cellars Small Berry Mourvèdre; and Bonny Doon, Old Telegram in California.