Mourvèdre and its fans

Mourvèdre and its fans

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A couple of months ago on Facebook, a fellow wine writer known as Sierra Wine Guy posted, “Why does Mourvèdre get treated like a third wheel? Nobody puts Mourvèdre in the corner.”

What ensued was a lively discussion of Mourvèdre as a single-variety wine, including notable regions and producers, as well as the following comment, “A few reasons: hard to pronounce, Monastrell (Spanish) and Mataró (Italian) are better, not usually bottled as a varietal, and rarely sings ‘lead’ (who wants an MSG (Mourvèdre-Syrah-Grenache) blend?”

I was immediately taken aback and replied, “I love drinking Mourvèdre, and as a former French professor, I love saying it, too.”

This exchange inspired me to confirm that Mourvèdre is a grape variety worthy of the spotlight, not only in France and other European countries, but here in California. I subsequently discovered five small producers who joined me for a recent Zoom chat to profess their love for Mourvèdre and are not afraid to pronounce it (It is pronounced “moor-vehdr”).

— Crystal Basin Cellars, El Dorado County

During the aforementioned Facebook discussion, the founder, CEO, president, and self-proclaimed El Jefe (“the boss”) of Crystal Basin Cellars, Mike Owen, chimed in: “El Dorado rocks that particular casbah,” and his winery is indeed at the forefront of Mourvèdre production there.

Owen’s discovery of his Mourvèdre vineyard source in El Dorado County came while living in France. During what he described as a “wine bout,” his Belgian World War II veteran friend, Leslie, mentioned having a cousin, Michelle, who lived in “Placer Ville” in California and grew Mourvèdre.

Upon Owen’s return, Michelle took him on a tour. Since 2001, Crystal Basin has sourced their Mourvèdre from this vineyard and now makes about 530 cases.

Owen enjoys making Mourvèdre because it is a “teaching wine” to many who have never tried it. He describes his Mourvèdre to novices as the “Merlot of the Rhône,” a wine that lies between Grenache and Syrah on the taste spectrum.

His vineyard’s later starting and ending growing season and soils produce a less earthy, softer, and easily approachable rendition of Mourvèdre. With its juicy red fruit character, silky mouthfeel, and understated tannins, the 2016 Crystal Basin Cellars Reserve Mourvèdre is best enjoyed as a standalone sipper or paired with garlicky dishes like meatballs, creamy pasta, garlic chicken, and roasted vegetables.

— Fields Family Wines, Lodi

At the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, I shared an evening of conversation, dinner and Vermentino with Ryan Sherman of Fields Family Wines and later wrote about the experience. After four years, we were overdue to reconnect, this time over Mourvèdre.

Sherman is the veritable “Renaissance Man” of Fields Family, whose responsibilities include “winemaker, partner, social media content manager, janitor, sanitation expert, bottling coordinator, cellarmaster, harvest intern, and winery flunky.” His desire to make single-variety Mourvèdre came from a longtime love of the variety’s range of expression.

“With Mourvèdre, I love how you can have super crunchy, bright ethereal roses, and semi-carbonic prettiness, but also have this old, California working man wine that delivers character and complexity in the mid ranges, as well as a deep, dark, brooding, tannic, meaty, earthy, and gamey wine, depending on vineyard source and winemaking approach.”

With grapes sourced from Lodi’s Mokelumne River and Clements Hills AVAs, Sherman takes a minimalist approach to making Mourvèdre, unfiltered and unfined, with native yeasts and neutral barrels. His 2017 Bokides Vineyard Mourvèdre, 100 cases made, exhibits bright, ripe black cherry and cassis flavors with a persistent underpinning of earthiness and chalky tannins.

— Paix Sur Terre, Paso Robles

For winemaker and owner Ryan Pease of Paix Sur Terre, it was an unforgettable “wine moment” that propelled him towards making Mourvèdre.

“It was a bottle of Domaine Tempier I drank on the Rhône river in Arles in nearly the exact spot Van Gogh painted ‘A Starry Night,’ under the fireworks of Bastille Day, that planted the seed.”

Later while working for Linne Calodo in Paso Robles, he came to the realization that Mourvèdre was his calling. With this passion and conviction, Pease makes three single-vineyard Mourvèdres from Alta Colina, Denner, and Glenrose vineyards in Paso Robles.

The higher elevation and rocky soils of these vineyards yield outstanding stand-alone Mourvèdre vintage after vintage. While Pease confirms that Mourvèdre is still a “niche grape,” unfamiliar to many except Rhône wine geeks, it is often an attractive alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon lovers seeking a wine with “chewy tannins,” but with the earthiness of Pinot Noir.

The fact that half of Pease’s production is Mourvèdre and he sells out every year is a testament to his success. His 2018 The Other One, sourced from Glenrose Vineyard in the Adelaida District in Paso Robles, shows a layered interplay of ripe blackberry and dark chocolate with a dusty tannin finish. Pease’s favorite Mourvèdre meal pairing is Chef Christopher Lee’s pan-fried lamb chops (recipe below).

— Sol Rouge, Lake County

In the Red Hills AVA of Lake County, the higher-elevation foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, winemaker and vintner Bryan Kane owns 70 acres of vineyards from which he produces Bordeaux and Rhône varietal wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cinsault, Counoise, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and his Mourvèdre.

While Kane uses Mourvèdre in his Gypsy Rouge red blend, which also includes Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, and Counoise, he also makes around 50 cases of Mourvèdre for his wine club members.

When asked why Mourvèdre, he immediately responded, “Is this really a question?”

He said he has a longtime love of Mourvèdre as a rosé from Bandol and as Monastrell from Spain, due to its food-friendly acidity and full body that both complements and stands up to his favorite Mediterranean cuisine.

Describing Mourvèdre for someone who has not tasted it, Kane said, “This grape takes over your palate, leaving a gritty mouthfeel and elegant finish with prominent tannins. It is like a baby liking a sriracha popsicles. It’s weird at first, but you will keep drinking it to find out how it develops.”

Kane’s 2015 vintage of Sol Rouge Mourvèdre is an exemplary example of these qualities, a juxtaposition of acidity, meatiness, smoke, and spice, all of which complements his spicy Mediterranean lamb (recipe below).

— Twisted Oak, Calaveras County

Jeff Stai, who also calls himself El Jefe, like Mike Owen of Crystal Basin, said, “In my defense, I was El Jefe here for years before I was aware that Crystal Basin also had an El Jefe, and at least my name is Jeff.”

It is Stai’s twisted (pun intended) sense of humor coupled with his serious passion for “yummy” Mourvèdre that has made his roughly 260 cases of Mourvèdre an annual sellout. After using Mourvèdre in his Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre blend named *%#&@!), which over time evolved with Mourvèdre as the leading lady, Stai began sourcing fruit in 2005 from Dalton Vineyard in Calaveras County.

This was a game changer because the Mourvèdre from this location easily shined as a single-variety wine. He named the wine River of Skulls because of the vineyard’s proximity to El Río de las Calaveras (Calaveras River), and his son created the captivating label artwork to pay off a debt. Stai introduces Mourvèdre to beginning wine consumers as comparable to Pinot Noir, but “smokier and less funky.” He also laughingly remarked that if they have never tasted Pinot Noir, “we talk about barbecue instead.” His original recipe below for rib rub and smoked barbecue ribs pair magnificently with the 2015 vintage’s dark, haunting profile of black fruit and cinnamon.

Ryan Pease’s Pan-Fried Lamb Chops with Bread Crumbs and Dried Oregano by Chef Christopher Lee

2 eight-bone racks of lamb, frenched, cut into individual chops, with bones attached

½ cup fine, dried, white bread crumbs

2 Tbsp. dried oregano, crumbled with your fingers

2 Tbsp. chopped Italian parsley

2 tsp. sea salt

2 oz. olive oil

8 lemon wedges, seeds removed

Flatten chops with a meat pounder or other heavy, flat tool.

Mix bread crumbs, dried oregano, and parsley.

Season chops with 1 teaspoon sea salt and dredge in bread crumb mixture. Press the bread crumbs so they cling to the chops; some will fall off, and some will stick.

Dredge the chops again, and press the crumbs again.

Lay chops on a baking tray lined with parchment.

Heat a fry pan to medium-high, pour in oil, and add chops. Lower heat to medium. Fry until crisp on one side, about 5 minutes.

Check for browning, and when browned, turn chops over.

Fry on second side for 4–5 minutes, until bread crumbs are browned, and meat is beginning to ooze its juices.

Cook 1 minute longer and touch chops against a piece of absorbent paper or a clean towel to wick away fat.

Place chops on a warm platter and sprinkle with remaining sea salt.

Serve with lemon wedges.

Bryan Kane’s Spicy Mediterranean Lamb

2 racks of lamb (1½ pounds each)

¼ cup grated lemon zest

1/4 cup minced fresh oregano

6 garlic cloves, minced

1 Tbsp. olive oil

¼ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. pepper

Fresh oregano and lemon slices

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place lamb in a shallow roasting pan. In small bowl, combine the lemon zest, oregano, garlic, oil, salt and pepper. Rub over lamb.

Bake 30-40 minutes or until meat reaches desired doneness (for medium-rare, a thermometer should read 135 degrees; medium, 140 degrees; medium-well, 145 degrees). Let stand 5 minutes before cutting. Serve with fresh oregano and lemon slices.

Jeff Stai’s Twisted Rib Rub and Smoked BBQ Ribs

(The commentary is from Jeff Stai)

1½ cups brown sugar

¾ cup smoked Spanish paprika

½ cup garlic powder

½ cup celery seed

½ cup chili powder

4 tbsp onion powder

4 tbsp cinnamon

1 tbsp cayenne pepper (or less for less spicy)

Twisted Oak Winery’s *%#&@! MSG red blend for spray

Mix and store. This makes maybe 12 racks worth. Note that there is no salt, you still need to salt the meat. This is for what is commonly called St. Louis Ribs.

Remove the silver skin from the back of the ribs, if you are like me and think that is important.

Salt both sides with kosher salt at least an hour before cooking. Longer is better, overnight is good.

I apply the rub liberally on both sides right before cooking.

Spray or drizzle the wine on both sides after two hours and once every 30 minutes after that. This is not critical; the purpose of the spray is to counter the fatty richness of the meat. It also ends up making a nice crust.

Smoke the ribs at 250 degrees to 275 degrees for 4 to 6 hours, depending on size, until falling off the bone. Do not go too far and let it dry.

Notes: You’ll note that a lot of recipes call for a wrapping step. For whatever reason, my smoker does not seem to require that—it is a fine old Traeger smoker. I will typically use an apple or maple smoke, but I also like red oak. For the spray, I just use a plastic squeeze bottle with a narrow spout and drizzle it all over.

Elizabeth Smith is a freelance contributing writer to the Napa Valley Register and Napa Valley Life Magazine. Reach her at elizabeth@elizabethsmithconsulting.com or visit her website at elizabethsmithconsulting.com.

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