“Wine enters through the mouth,William Butler Yeats
Love, the eyes.
I raise the glass to my mouth,
I look at you,
I am not a wine writer. I’m a wine drinker. Quite good at it, too. The drinking part, that is. In fact, I’m drinking right now, as I write. But when reading other people’s words about wine, people who do it for a living, I get somewhat claustrophobic, or at least suffer spasms of inadequacy as I sift my way through all the descriptors and nuance. I rack my brain…have I ever really tasted plum and black olive overtones (undertones?), hints of coffee and leather that give way to a flinty and smooth mineral-rich finish? I’m pausing here a moment, a mouthful of my current glass swirling on the back and sides of my tongue – there’s a lot going on there, but I’m not confident enough to proclaim whatever’s going on there as ‘red fruits, coffee, spices, and licorice’ – an actual ‘wine writer’ description of this particular vintage. It helps if I close my eyes and concentrate, try to focus on the (changing) flavors that are evolving across the palate. Spicy notes, yes – but more the memory of spice, a room I’ve already left where someone was baking gingerbread earlier in the day, humming quietly to themselves; something that might lead to licorice were one to follow it down a twisty, whippy pathway, but…kind of a stretch. Coffee? I possibly had a cup before I left the gingerbread room. Not sure what I might’ve come up with myself, starting with a blank slate, no suggestions, and closed eyes.
I do know what I like, though, and lately I’ve been on a dog-strangling kick. Which is not as horrible as it sounds. L’étrangle-chien, or ‘dog strangler’, is a regional nickname for the Mourvèdre grape, on account of its relatively high tannins. Tannins are the bitter and astringent phenolic compounds found to greater and lesser degrees in all red wines, and some whites, which create the ‘dry’ sensation in your mouth. You can also find them in tea, coffee, cocoa, unripe fruits – their purpose in nature is to deter animals from eating a plant’s fruit or seeds before they’re ripe. So why would we want them in a wine?
A bit complicated, but basically they bind and precipitate proteins, which your saliva is lousy with, so a tannic (dry) wine will bind to your saliva, making it a little less slippery – think of that astringent, puckering sensation you get when you bite into an unripe plum or pear, or green banana. But in coffee, or chocolate (balanced by a lot of sugar and fat), and wine…it can be something desirable and addictive. They shouldn’t be overpowering, and if they are, something’s off with the bottle. They can add a velvety mouthfeel that actually helps offer up a wine’s other qualities, slowing the flow, letting them linger on the taste buds a little longer – hey, how’s it going, notice me!
And I never noticed or knew anything about Mourvèdre until about a year ago. Walking through a nearby vineyard, we came across signs posted in front of the various parcels (small, homogenous plots of different varietals) which listed the grape’s characteristics. We liked the name – Mourvèdre, it sounded gothic, a bit ominous, a villain’s moniker – and the potential wine flavor profile including “black cherry, cassis, and garrigue (scrubland); with age, leather, tobacco, animal notes, cinnamon, and cloves.” Wines with all that roiling around would be firmly in our baliwick. And in fact after a bit of research I discovered we actually had been enjoying them for decades – Mourvèdre is a common component in many (most) of the wines we’ve been developing tastes for over the years: Corbières, Fitou, Gigondas, Minervois, when I want to splash out for a heftier bottle, Bandol. And for a couple of months now, whenever I find myself in the wine shop (alarmingly frequently these days), I’m checking labels for cépages and buying anything with Mourvèdre in the mix, worth a shot. Because, again, when you know what you like…
All things dark and earthy – mushrooms, grass, forest floor, old books, gravel, leather. Fireside after a long day walking, lean forward to stir the embers, warmth. It’s a southern grape, needing rocky soils and sun, and more sun, and more water than most, so a good place to start would be Spain, where the variety itself probably originated. They call it ‘Monastrell’ there, and it’s that combination of sun and darkness mixed together – the power and warmth of the former, the depth and mystery of the latter – that make it (to my mind) such an awesome mouthful. In the US and Australia, you’ll find it under the name ‘Mataro’, often found as the ‘M’ in ‘GSM’ (Grenache/Shiraz(Syrah)/Mourvèdre) blends.
The grapes are dark clusters of small, tightly packed, thick-skinned berries that seem to soak up the flavors and scents of the earth they grow in, the wind that shakes the vines. As I said, I’m drinking, trying anything with Mourvèdre in the mix these days, and there are all kinds of variations – some lighter, some heavier, some better, some not, but the underlying character holds true for any Mourvèdre, straight up or in a blend.
There’s a wine term, ‘robe’, that refers to the dominant color of a vintage, permeating it, enveloping, like a terry-plush hotel perk. Hold it up to the light, swirl the glass, spill it on the table cloth, watch it bleed. In the case of Mourvèdre, it’s a dark, dark, almost black-velvet-purple, garnets at midnight, blueberry jam on a late night baguette. It’s lovely to look at, imagining ink to write the night away.
On the nose there’s promise of fruit, walking past midmorning bramble bushes, a bit of nighttime damp still lingering, and leaves, and undergrowth. Further down the path there’s a grove of cedar trees, and sun-warmed granite, wild thyme. On and on – dust motes rising in a shaft of sunlight in a barn, in a good way. There’s warmth and quiet, and somewhere out of sight deep breathing beasts. Wooden beams creaking in the wind, the raw bristly odor of rope, and charcoal, the comforting funk of pitch, and saddle leather, and straw. It’s odd, but – and I’ll stand by this – a little horse on the morning breeze, mingled with road dust and the suggestion of new mown hay is not a bad thing at all.
On the tongue, a promise delivered, lush and fulsome fruit, blackberries and chin dripping plums, plucked from a lover’s hands and crushed against roof of mouth with tongue to flood the palate. A memory of sweetness, and sun, and day’s end. Spicy notes, yes, the astringency of cloves (those tannins), some black pepper, smoke, and allspice. It’s got a bit of silty pond water, (in a good way). Not the taste of silt, or pond, but the memory of being twelve, and skinny-dipping in the moonlight, dancing on moss and pine needles to shake yourself dry, of not being able to find one of your socks, and worrying, and laughing, and running, and running, and running. Of looking back and missing all that and realizing how far you haven’t come.
It’s tempting to say Mourvèdre makes for a rough wine, but it’s also used in Chateauneuf du Pape, one of the rather more refined bottlings out there. There’s an elegance in its wildness, dreams of swashbuckling, you’ve been let in on a secret, keep your cool.
A lot of arduous research went into finding this all out. Many bottles opened, none went to waste. In addition to the hearts of darkness described above, there was also a lovely, floral, citrus and summer grass Bandol rosé (I know a lot of people are aware of this, but some aren’t – you can make a dark red wine and a rosé, even a white, all from the same grape). All Bandols, by AOC must contain a minimum of 50% Mourvèdre, reds and rosés alike. And they are all delicious.
We drank them with grilled lamb and roast eggplant, spicy sausages and ratatouille, pizza loaded with forest mushrooms, well-ripened chèvre (goats’ milk cheese) and brebis (sheeps’ milk). I saved a little bit every night to finish off with a sliver of very dark chocolate.
Life is good.
“A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.“Louis Pasteur, French Biologist and Chemist (1822 – 1895)
All the hard work:
Bleu Rivage Bandol Rosé 2019
50% Mourvèdre, 25% Grenache, 25% Cinsault
Château Val d’Arenc Bandol 2017
90% Mourvèdre, 10% Grenache
Château Roustan Costieres de Nimes 2019
40% Syrah, 30% Grenache, 30% Mourvèdre
Domaine Reynaud Grignan-Les-Adhémar 2018
Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre
Les Jamelles Mourvèdre 2018
El Borde Valle Venta Del Pino Monastrell
100% Monastrell (Mourvèdre)
Gérard Bertrand Heresie Corbières 2018
Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre