Mourvèdre, the variety with the sun under its skin
By Yoann Palej - Photographs: Courtesy of the estates, posted on 11 April 2023
Provence, particularly Bandol, have made it their king of grape varieties, but Mourvèdre also sits on the throne of many prestigious southern wine regions like the Rhone Valley, Languedoc and Roussillon. We shed some light on a challenging, late-ripening variety which is difficult to harness and yet so unique when it reaches peak ripeness.
The vineyards of Cellier des Princes with Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the backdrop.
Mourvèdre is an elusive variety with the pedigree of a grape with mysterious origins. In all likelihood, it began life in Spain – Catalonia – and its name may have originated in a village in the province of Valencia called Murviedro or Mataro, near Barcelona. After the invasion of phylloxera, it became much-maligned and accused of every ill under the sun – including die-back, low productivity, demanding vineyard management techniques and inconsistent quality – and was long abandoned during the vineyard replanting process. Like its cousin Grenache, Mourvèdre has a southern temperament under its skin. It is challenging to tame, temperamental, fickle and yet so generous when you learn how to harness it, which is why it was able to carve out a prime position for itself so quickly across the vineyards of the Mediterranean rim. “It needs to have its feet in the water, and its head up to the sun”, explains one of the people we spoke to for our report. These criteria are why it performs at its best, enhanced by outstanding natural conditions in vineyard sites like Bandol where it has become the dominant grape variety, allowing the reputation of the wines to span borders and time. Though demanding and late-ripening, it takes advantage of its ability to soften any hard edges and deliver smooth, structured wines designed for laying-down. When it reaches peak ripeness, its quality scales the heights, making it probably one of the varieties that can best keep pace with climate change. But winegrowers need time and patience for it to fully express its rich characters and channel its inconsistencies. Outside Provence, it is mostly found in appellation areas in the southern Rhone Valley and Languedoc-Roussillon. And that’s where we went to investigate this unique grape variety that may well become a range staple in years to come.
Domaine de l'Olivette: a prophet in its own land
For two centuries now, the Dumoutier family has been at the helm of Domaine de l’Olivette. This 55-hectare haven of peace is where Mourvèdre, the Bandol appellation’s king of grape varieties, fully expresses its wealth of character, between the hills and the Mediterranean Sea, sheltered by a natural amphitheatre of woodlands. “The perfect climate and aspect of the meticulously planned vineyard plots here allow us to let it fully ripen”, explains Jean-Luc Dumoutier who has steered the estate to success since 2005. He left the company he was managing at the time to move to the very heart of the vineyards. His choice proved to be well-founded because on the hillsides of Le Castellet, he boasts ideal conditions for Mourvèdre to perform at its best and deliver its full aromatic spectrum: “Bandol red wines are often very structured, complex and powerful yet also fine with that little touch of spice that caresses the palate”, he adds. “As for the rosés, they have the ability to sit nicely alongside a gourmet meal, be appetising and combine finesse and elegance”. Across these terraced clay-limestone vineyards, the former company executive favours low yields of 30 hl/ha for the reds and 35 hl/ha for the rosés. “That is essential for producing quality fruit that shows aromatic concentration but without going over the top. Also, with Mourvèdre, you get such great naturally oxidant substance that it would be a shame not to benefit from it”. The resultant wines have the ability to withstand the test of time, provided they are sensitively handled. “The tannins can sometimes be disconcerting in their youth. So the fruit needs to be picked when perfectly ripe and not overripe [it is often harvested a month later than Grenache]. Obviously you also need to be patient during the maturation process for it to take on a whole new dimension and offer greater refinement”. For the ‘Absolue’ rosé label, made from 90% Mourvèdre, that means a 20-month maturation period. “That’s how I prefer it”, concludes Dumoutier, “when it likes to play hard to get and pushes the winegrower to the limit”.
Jean-Luc Dumoutier, the winegrower at Domaine de l'Olivette since 2005.
Domaine de l'Olivette between de hills and the Mediterranean Sea.
Château Pech-Latt: a burning desire
Lagrasse, in the heart of the Corbières appellation in Languedoc. This is the home of Pech-Latt, which in Occitan means ‘on the top of a wide hill’, a nod to the vast swathes of rolling land that unfurl around the estate. Its location is 150 metres above sea level, in the midst of a natural amphitheatre ringed by hills and moorland, at the foot of Mount Alaric. Here, in the undulating terrain with its limestone and red marl soils, Marc-Simon Boyer took over management of the estate in 2021. “I was attracted to the outstanding vineyard sites and by the earth-friendly pledge made because Pech-Latt is one of the region’s organic trailblazers – it has been certified since 1991!” Of the 160 hectares, just over 10 are set aside for Mourvèdre and its growth is exponential. “We want to showcase it because it makes a major contribution to blends with its acidity and ability to structure the wines, but its qualities need to be channelled”, explains the estate manager. A case in point is the Mourvèdre-dominant, sulphite-free label ‘L’Ile Ardente’, literally ‘fiery island’. The replanting programme for the variety is gathering pace, with two hectares planted last year and a further one this year. “There is absolutely no doubt that the varietal has enhancing qualities, but it needs to be closely watched, right from bud-burst”, he adds. “It is also prone to Esca, which causes high levels of die-back which is why we have decided to lift the canopy in the future. Pruning is also important – the clusters need to be protected by leaving some good leaves. It is a grape variety that needs great exposure to sunshine and soils near water for it to reach peak ripeness”. Once all these criteria have been met on stable soils, Mourvèdre then performs in terms of acidity, velvety characters and liquoricy aromas. “What can be disconcerting is its development”, continues Boyer. “You don’t necessarily know what it will be like after a few years’ ageing”. That’s the untameable side, like a child reaching adolescence whose personality is all-set to change dramatically. “But that’s also what makes it so appealing”, concludes Boyer.
Harvesting at Château Pech-Latt.
Marc-Simon Boyer joined Pech-Latt as manager in 2021.
Le Cellier des Princes: a little place on the throne
As you pass through Courthézon, it is impossible to miss the huge cellar door facilities at the side of the legendary National 7 highway. The only producers’ group in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cellier des Princes was established in 1925 and is an institution in the Vaucluse department. With 600 hectares under vine, over one hundred member growers and approximately 2 million bottles labelled as appellations or growths, the co-operative does not go unnoticed. That is particularly true since it launched a full-fledged strategic revolution in 2005, choosing to drastically reduce the volume of bulk sales to create its own brand. Thierry Ferley joined the winery fifteen years ago, just as this change of direction was in its early stages: “The momentum is good and a fair number of new growers have joined across the appellations, like Vacqueyras, Cairanne, Rasteau and Gigondas”. As the winemaker, he supervises the technical procedures, from harvesting to bottling, so when asked about Mourvèdre, he isn’t short of things to say. “In an era of climate change, its late bud-burst is definitely a bonus and it really does tend to bring a different tone to the wines in blends. More importantly, if it is properly handled at the start of the winemaking process, it brings down the sugar level and alcohol content and adds more acidity”. From a vineyard perspective, though, there is a downside: “It’s a grape variety that likes heat but suffers from drought, so you have to be careful not to plant it on soils that are too prone to drought”, he adds. On the pebble-strewn soils that are the hallmark of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which act as sponges and regulate water supplies, or on deeper sandy soils, Mourvèdre performs well. “You have to remember to prune it quite short, though, as it does not deal with high yields well”, continues Ferley. Accounting for just 4% of the co-operative’s acreage, Mourvèdre is not a widespread grape variety, but it does have its followers, particularly in Rasteau. “Its reductive side is very complementary to Grenache which is oxidative and it allows it to age well”. One example is the Domaine Le Mourre label, originally a single varietal Grenache where the co-operative winegrower decided to add 10 to 15% Mourvèdre to smooth out the aromatics towards garrigue, pepper and black fruits.
Thierry Ferley, the winemaker at Cellier des Princes.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s famous pebble-strewn soils.
Terre d'Expression: Occitan expertise
Like many co-operative wineries in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Terre d’Expression stems from the merger of several wineries. So much so that it now combines approximately 1,400 to 1,500 hectares of vineyards spread across 33 localities, from the Val de Dagne to the Lézignan-Corbières area. The group champions its local roots through its communications – in the region’s language – and the Occitan cross as its logo. Quentin Fischer, who had been the group’s viticulturist since 2015 before becoming director two years ago, is very familiar with Mourvèdre, even though the winery only has limited acreage of the varietal. “Most of the acreage is in the villages nearer the sea, like Férals and Fabrezan because the sea breeze – or marin – is essential for kicking off the ripening process. It is a variety that is often pushed to the limit, where the trunks undergo stress even before the fruit ripens”. A series of severe droughts and its late-ripening characteristic tend to put pressure on the vines longer than with other grape varieties and it shows. “We have quite a lot of die-back issues at the winery, which is why we often wonder about replanting it. Is it wise?” questions the winery’s director. “We also take into consideration the torrential downpours which make it challenging for winegrowers who have to extend hang-time”. Despite this, the aromatic contribution of spices, black pepper, liquorice and cacao, along with its ability to prolong ageability, never fail to impress. “Grenache adds roundness, Carignan a certain powerfulness and Mourvèdre meshes well with the smoothness and spices of Syrah. Also, its more gamey development, driven by truffle and forest floor notes, work wonders in tastings of mature vintages”. This is a grape variety with a future in the region.
Quentin Fischer (centre) in vineyards belonging to co-operative winegrowers at Terre d’Expression.
Château La Canourgue: Noble and generous
This is the story of a fiefdom promoted to a County by Pope Benedict XIV. Château La Canourgue, which is named after the many underground channels hewn from the rock by the Romans to harness water, has belonged to the Margan family for five generations. The estate is pioneering – it was the first to farm organically in the Luberon forty years ago. On the property there is just one tiny hectare of Mourvèdre out of the forty hectares of mostly Syrah vines – but it is anything but trivial. “It is an excellent complement to add length and structure to our red wines, provided it is picked when perfectly ripe”, explains Jean-Pierre Margan, whose daughter, Nathalie, took up the torch fifteen years ago. “For the rosés, it delivers excellent juice, colour and great acidity”. The Mourvèdre vineyards are divided between a forty year-old block along the valley floor and another younger parcel (6-7 years old) over the Luberon hillsides, which suffers from drought more. “It really is a grape variety that needs to see the sea, but it doesn’t need abundant water supplies. More importantly, it needs a regular supply of water and that’s where it can become challenging, with heat waves increasingly frequent and lengthy”, he adds. Fortunately, the clay-limestone tends to offset this with deep soils, developing autumn heat that ensures ripe tannins and the ideal accumulation of sugars. “Mourvèdre lends complexity and silky tannins and there is absolutely no doubt that time spent in wood does it no harm, quite the opposite”, claims Margan, who praises the longevity and racy character of wines made from this noble grape variety.
Jean-Pierre Margan has passed over the reins of the estate to his daughter Nathalie.
Domaine du Gros Pata: of hillsides and wood
On the road to Villedieu, in Vaison-la-Romaine, Sabine Garagnon is firmly in the saddle. The owner of Domaine du Gros Pata – named after an ancient Provencal currency – is extremely enthusiastic when it comes to talking about the local vineyards. “I made my first wines at the age of 16 so I’m pretty familiar with the local terroir”, she explains with Lucas, her son, by her side. “We have two types of soils here – sandy, that we tend to use for the rosés, and clay-limestone that is better suited to the reds, where Mourvèdre shows at its best”. The variety thrives on the upper fertile hillsides (250-300 metres above sea level) where it gets full-on sunshine and light without suffering from drought. “Hot days and cool nights give it a real cushion for reaching peak ripeness”, she adds. “It still needs careful attention, though, because it can be prone to powdery and downy mildew. On the flipside, it is not sensitive to grey rot due to the thickness of its skin”. In the wines themselves, Mourvèdre adds a complementary building block to the Garagnon’s craft: “In ‘Nos Racines’, an AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Vaison la Romaine label, it plumps out the tannins, adding structure and substantial freshness and length, along with its trademark spices. It is a grape variety that has this gift of enhancing the other grape varieties – often Grenache and Syrah – particularly when it comes into contact with some wood”.
Sabine Garagnon, the winegrower, with her son Lucas, the future of the estate.
The vineyards at Domaine du Gros Pata in Vaison-la-Romaine.
Cellier des Demoiselles: the 4th musketeer
Just like in Alexandre Dumas’ novel, in the Corbières, there are not three but four musketeers – Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and… Mourvèdre. At the Cellier des Demoiselles co-operative winery established in 1914, the last member of the line-up is not the most ubiquitous – there are only 20 hectares out of a total 400. “It is a grape variety with a slightly controversial past because it is challenging to work with and is often inconsistent”, admits winery director Anaël Payrou. “So it is not very widely grown here, although our member growers are showing renewed interest in it”. This echoes the quality ‘updraft’ felt by individual winegrowers, keen to develop a kind of independence. “We are very proud to be a co-operative but we also like the individual showcase that incentivises growers to constantly aim higher and deliver the finest possible fruit”, adds Payrou. “Mourvèdre adds a high-end touch to the wines during the blending phase and I think that’s what growers, and therefore consumers, like”. La Bicyclette, one of the Cellier des Demoiselles’ three organic offerings, is in fact the perfect illustration of this. “In the high-elevation Corbières sites, Mourvèdre imparts freshness and spices, lovely tannins and a menthol-like, liquoricy finish that is very successful”. Generally speaking, the wine calls for some good hearty, full-flavoured food and it is very popular with meats in a sauce or game.
Mikael Delenne in his vineyards in Fontjoncouse.
Some of Cellier des Demoiselles’ vines.
La famille des vins de Beauvignac: the ideal complement
At La Famille des Vins de Beauvignac – with its 2,400 ha and 500 winegrowers – the ‘father figure’ is Joël Julien, the winery’s director for the past 14 years. “For member winegrowers, Mourvèdre is a complementary grape variety and an opportunity to diversify, but it is not essential to our economic viability”. Out of the 160,000 hectolitres of wine produced annually by the co-operative – which is the largest winery in the Thau region – just 2,000 to 2,500 hl of them are appellation-designated wines where Mourvèdre gets a look-in. “There is no denying that it is a slightly technical grape variety, that is not easy to use and does not thrive in conditions with too much vigour and high yields. That’s why we don’t plant any on the plains”, adds the director. If you take a more long-term view, however, it does serve a purpose. “It is a Mediterranean grape variety that copes very well with the heat and generally speaking with climate change”, continues Julien. “It is late-ripening, like Piquepoul, which we are very familiar with here, and that means that it is a long way off ripening when the heat in August is at its peak. So, despite vintages being earlier and drier, it handles the situation perfectly!” Provided, that is, it grows on poor, deep soils that can meet its obvious needs for water. “It has a very low photosynthesis potential and to avoid shedding its leaves too early, it needs water”, he points out. In this way, it can fully express its tannin structure, spicy characters and aromatic persistence when it is used as a complement to Syrah and/or Grenache.
The director of the Famille des Vins de Beauvignac, Joël Julien.
Château de La Bégude: a rosé for pomp and ceremony
Standing at the foot of the Sainte-Victoire – the unusual, 15km-long limestone massif which Paul Cézanne took as his muse – Château de la Bégude has genuine allure. Its 32 hectares of organically farmed vineyards grow on clay-limestone soils that are fairly unique due to the red marl typical of the village of Rousset. “In some ways, it feels like being in the Far West of Provence”, quips Didier Lefebvre, who took over management of the estate from his father Jacques a few years ago. Mourvèdre is a complementary but not secondary grape variety, with approximately 3 ha under vine, equating to 9% of the varietal range. “It is pivotal to our rosé Château label”, admits Lefebvre who hasn’t used Mourvèdre in his red blends for several vintages. “It imparts acidity, roundness, fat and this ability to structure the final blend. When you want to make bold wines, real food-friendly rosés, it is essential”. The hot location and local limestone soils offer greater ease in terms of vineyard management. “It does not require too much water and performs well in drought conditions”, points out Lefebvre. “It also has the advantage of not being too prone to diseases like powdery and downy mildew because it grows upwards and is fairly tall, which protects it from the damp. It also prevents pests from snacking on it”. The clusters are fairly long, tight and richly endowed. “We don’t have any issues with yields but we do channel it so that we produce around 35 hl/ha”, concludes Lefebvre.
Didier Lefebvre and his father Jacques are the custodians of Château de la Bégude.
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