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Meet Mourvèdre: A Big, Bold Grape That’s Not Afraid of a Little Heat

Try Mourvèdre from these independent California winemakers.

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Mourvèdre bottles to try.
Mourvèdre bottles to try.
Alex Ulreich

It’s the early 1970s, and across the U.S., a culinary revolution is taking place thanks to figures like Julia Child, Richard Olney, and M.F.K. Fisher, whose cookbooks and essay writing delivered French gastronomic sophistication to a population hungry for better cuisine.

If there was one region that inspired these American food writers, it was Provence, France. Conducive to excellent seafood, the sunny Mediterranean climate also offered some of the best terroir for grapes and olives alike. It captured these writers’ hearts—along with the hearts of two other individuals who were seminal in shaping the palates of West Coast Americans in particular: the pioneering wine importer Kermit Lynch and nouvelle cuisine restaurateur, Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters.

Domaine Tempier quite literally put Bandol on the map, and made it Mourvèdre’s home base.

The winemaking family at Domaine Tempieran estate in the small appellation of Bandolplayed a pivotal role in both Lynch and Waters’ love affair with Provence. During the early 20th century, Domaine Tempier owner Lucien Peyraud worked to revitalize Mourvèdre, a thick-skinned, late-ripening red grape originally from Spain (where it’s called Monastrell), which suffered greatly from a common pest called phylloxera that demolished much of French grapevines in the mid-19th century. And it's thanks to Peyraud’s efforts a century later, to elevate the grape beyond a simple vin de table into elegant, age-worthy wines, that the appellation of Bandol was established.

Through historical research, Peyraud learned that, pre-phylloxera, Bandol had mostly grown Mourvèdre. Peyraud spearheaded the grape's replanting around the area so that, over time, the appellation laws increased the percent of Mourvèdre required of Bandol wine. In this way, Domaine Tempier quite literally put Bandol on the map, and made it Mourvèdre’s home base. Nowadays, wines produced in Bandol must include at least 50 percent Mourvèdre, mixed with different ratios of, usually, Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan, and Syrah.

Mourvèdre grows primarily in the hot, sunny climates of Provence and the southern part of the Rhône Valley, where it is used in the Châteauneuf du Pape wine. Today, the wines of the Rhône and Bandol still reign in terms of outstanding, age-worthy Mourvèdre, but in recent years, independent and upstart winemakers in California have made great strides with the grape. Though their styles vary slightly, these California winemakers approach Mourvèdre with much in common: an appreciation for older vines, which produce more complex flavor; a generally European, minimalist style of winemaking that’s aiming for low alcohol, high acidity; and a love for the grape’s earthiness and rusticity.

"Mourvèdre loves heat, loves drought," says Hardy Wallace, one-fourth of the Dirty & Rowdy winemaking team out of Santa Rosa. "It is not a cool-climate grape." Which means that, in California, where this year’s grape harvests have suffered greatly due to the serious drought, Mourvèdre has persevered.

Wallace fell in love with Mourvèdre while learning to produce wine in California's Sierra Foothills. He and his wife, Kate Graham, eventually partnered with another couple, Matt and Amy Richardson, and the quartet set out to make wine according to their own philosophy: "Find the greatest vineyards, pick at the right time, do as little as possible, have a little faith in native fermentation," recalls Wallace. For him, the goal was to make Mourvèdre in a lighter stylealmost like a Gamay wine, from Beaujolais. recent years, independent and upstart winemakers in California have made great strides with the grape.

In an urban winery in Berkeley, the husband-and-wife team Jared and Tracey Brandt at Donkey & Goat is making Mourvèdre in the style of the Rhône Valley, which they learned during a year working for the renowned natural winemaker Eric Texier.

"Mourvèdre is a big, bold grape, the ones from Bandol are really big and wonderfully rustic," explains Jared. "The traditional way to make Mourvèdre is 100 percent de-stemmed and crushed, to break up all the berries." He and Tracey approach the grape in a more gentle way, only de-stemming part of the harvest, and using just their feet to crushwhich results in a more natural decomposition of the grape, occurring during the fermentation process.

Donkey & Goat first sourced Mourvèdre in 2005 from Northern California's El Dorado appellation, which Jared calls "an undiscovered gold mine of grapes." Jared adds that one of the biggest differences between Mourvèdre in France, and in California, is vine age: "The average vine age here is ten years," he says, whereas in France, "they were sometime so old no one knew when they were planted, maybe 100 years ago."

La Clarine Farm, whose winery opened in 2008 in the El Dorado appellation, also produces a varietal Mourvèdre. Winemaker Hank Beckmeyer started his own winery after years of working for larger, more conventional Northern California producers. Beckmeyer describes his Mourvèdre wine as "maybe more feminine for whatever reason," echoing the gentler approach of Donkey & Goat. Tasted side by side, these three producers’ Mourvèdre bottlings showcase how diverse winemaking approaches can result in completely different renditions of the grape. Yet, they are all profoundly elegant, and to some extent rustic, in a charming way. For all of these producers, despite some minor stylistic differences, the goal is to let the Mourvèdre grape shine through as much as possible, and reflect the terroir.

During winter months in particular, the dark fruits and medium to high tannins of Mourvèdre wine make it ideal for warming the body and soul. Whether it’s Bandol or Cali Mourvèdre, most bottles will show better after sitting open for at least 20 to 40 minutes depending on age. Pair a great Mourvèdre with lamb, duck, or steak, and you’ll feel like a true gourmand worthy of dining with Julia Child and her companions in Provence.

Mourvèdre Bottles to Try

Producer: Dirty & Rowdy
Wine: Evangelho Vineyard, Old Vines Mourvèdre, 2014
From: Santa Rosa, California
Retail: $42

At 125 years, these are probably the oldest Mourvèdre vines in the country. They are also own-rooted, meaning they are on their original rootstock rather than grafted onto an imported rootsomething less common in California, where the threat of phylloxera has led many vineyard owners to graft their vines onto pest-resistant stock. Thanks to the sandy soils at the Evangelho vineyard, located in the Sonoma appellation, phylloxera was staved offthe insect can’t penetrate the sand. The Mourvèdre vines in Evangelho are actually planted as a field blend, interspersed with other varieties, but they are so special that Dirty & Rowdy selectively hand picks them. The grapes are not de-stemmed, and neutral oak barrels are used to ferment and age the wine. The nose is alluringly rustic, loaded with dried strawberries, and the wine displays soft fruit, with an earthy, mystical quality, although it requires at least half an hour in a decanter to open up. This is a special, very limited production bottle (if you can’t find it, try any of the exciting Mourvèdres coming from this team). Serve it with duck for ultimate gustatory pleasure.

All photos by Alex Ulreich.

Producer: La Clarine Farm
Wine: Mourvèdre "Cedarville," 2014
From: El Dorado, California
Retail: $27

On the fruitier side, and so easy to glug, this wine should be part of your regular weeknight rotation. The grapes are not destemmed, crushed only by foot, and fermented using ambient yeasts in outdoor open-top plastic fermenters. The result is a cheerful wine that’s aromatic, full of brambleberry and spice. It displays an earthy palate, some zip and funk, and a bright mineral finish with minimal tannins. It’s a gorgeous, light purple color. To be drunk now, fresh.

Producer: Donkey and Goat
Wine: The Prospector, 2013
From: Berkeley, California
Retail: $33

Unlike the other two California producers mentioned here, Donkey & Goat uses oak to ferment and age this Mourvèdre wine; however, they use neutral oak, which has already been used before and therefore imparts minimal flavor. The wine’s excellent concentration of fruit is juxtaposed by brilliant acidity, making it an ideal pairing for poultry or pork, or soft stinky cheeses.

Producer: Terrebrune
Wine: Bandol, 2011
From: Provence, France
Retail: $39

Although this wine is about 85 percent Mourvèdre (the rest is Grenache and Cinsault), it’s surprisingly fresh and easy to drink, and a good price as well, compared to other Bandol wines. Terrebrune is a domaine that arose during the 1960s, and its founder, Georges Delille, received guidance from Domaine Tempier's Lucien Peyraud. Like most Bandol wines, this one is best after five to 10 years in the bottle, so look for an older vintage or cellar this one. Organic vineyards, hand harvesting, and an unfined and unfiltered product all account for the quality in this bottle.

Producer: Domaine Tempier
Wine: Bandol, 2013
From: Provence, France
Retail: $46

To taste the wine that originally seduced Kermit Lynch and other oenophiles and gourmands to the charms of Provence, you must get your hands on a bottle of Tempier. From 40-year-old vines, the blend is about 75 percent Mourvèdre, with Grenache, Cinsault, and a touch of Carignan as supporting characters. Although all Bandol wines benefit from at least five years of aging, the younger Tempier wines are already drinking well, right now. Decanting is a good idea (these are tannic wines), as is whipping up a recipe from Child’s The Art of Cooking or even Richard Olney’s cookbook highlighting the culinary aspect of Domaine Tempier, to enjoy alongside the wine. After all, in French culture, wine isn’t just an accessory, it’s a lifestyle.