Mourvèdre: From Spain, the Middle Ages, and Washington

A celebration of all things purple.

I've always loved mourvèdre, no matter whether the varietal is bottled as mourvèdre (moor-VED-reh), monastrell, or mataro. Often blended with syrah or grenache to balance these other grapes out, mourvèdre reminds me of all things purple—plums, tart berries, and violets, with a little Northwest forest mixed in for good measure. Mourvèdre wines burst with true fruit flavor, and if you like Aussie shiraz or West Coast syrah, this is one grape you need to meet. Mourvèdre possesses the perfect yin-yang of pretty fruit and earthy funk, and makes a wine more unquantifiable and exotic than berrylicious syrah. Where syrah's fruit comes across as red raspberries or blueberries, mourvèdre's boysenberry notes have more of a brambly edge. Its other aromas and flavors might be described as breakfast tea, or the wine equivalent of "hearty." Since the grape provides plenty of its own grit through fairly pronounced tannins, it doesn't require a lot of oak. Those natural tannins also make mourvèdre a wine extremely capable of aging. Even supermarket bargain buys are capable of a year or so of aging. When looking for the more affordable incarnations of mourvèdre, look for its alias—monastrell—in the Spanish section of your local wine store. Jumilla, Yecla, and Alicante are up-and-coming regions where monastrell is a dominant grape. The labels Carchelo Tinto and Luzon have great track records, and a bottle from either costs less than $10. These wines will be bold and spicy, but not too heavy. Mourvèdre allegedly hailed from the sun-caked regions of Spain, but in the Middle Ages it migrated to Provence. There, the grape experienced a die-off in the early part of the last century. However, over the past 50 years, mourvèdre has seen a resurgence in the south of France. Nowhere in the world has anyone coaxed such consistent beauty out of the grape as the Bandol region; look for producers like Bastide Blanche and Tempier. With inky stewed-plum, cassis, and earthy spice flavors that take forever to show any age, these wines are magnificent bargains at $35 when compared to New World syrahs. Mourvèdre came to the New World under yet another alias—mataro—that many Australian and California wineries still use. However, in Washington state, the grape's champion, Doug McCrea, refers to it by its French name. McCrea Cellars is committed to southern French varietals like syrah, grenache, and mourvèdre, and for the past four years Doug McCrea has bottled a single-varietal mourvèdre. The grapes come from the famous Ciel du Cheval vineyard on Red Mountain, and the vines originated as cuttings from Châteauneuf du Pape. McCrea's mourvèdres demonstrate how these hot-weather grapes thrive in our state's irrigated desert. The 2006 McCrea mourvèdre confronts the drinker with the aroma of violet pastilles and a hint of aniseed. The fruit is a wild-berry chorus, and its finish is much softer than that of its European cousins. McCrea's 2004 Sirocco uses 30 percent mourvèdre, along with grenache and syrah, for a local take on a classic southern French blend. This vintage of Sirocco really benefits from mourvèdre's purple fruit, which adds depth and tang to the wine. Sirocco shows that, in our climate, mourvèdre can make more than just big reds; it makes reds with va-va-voom.

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