Mourvedre (Monastrell in its native Spain, Mataro in Australia and California) is a black-skinned variety that has been grown in vineyards all around the western Mediterranean for centuries. Thought to have originated in Spain, it is now grown extensively throughout the Iberian Peninsula, southern France, California and South Australia.
Mourvedre likes warm, dry climates and has small, thick-skinned berries – the textbook combination for making wines with intense color and high tannin levels. In fact, it is the variety's mouth-drying tannins that earned it the French nickname Etrangle-Chien (the dog strangler).
(© Christophe Grilhe)
Mourvedre's meaty, herby aromas are very distinctive, as are its strong tannins. These qualities make it a potent ingredient for blending, most often with vibrant, rich Grenache and structured, spicy Syrah (see Grenache – Mourvedre – Syrah). Other classic southern French varieties such as Carignan and Cinsaut are also frequent blending partners for Mourvedre, more because of tradition and convenience (they grow in similar places and ripen almost simultaneously) than flavor or aroma.
Single-variety Mourvedre or Monastrell wines are not particularly common, but as the curiosity of the average wine consumer increases, so more and more producers are experimenting with making wines from 100 percent Mourvedre.
The variety was hit very hard by the phylloxera epidemic of the 1880s, to the extent that it was largely eradicated from some vineyard areas. Its notable strongholds during this time were around Bandol, which has sandy soils that phylloxera cannot survive in (it prefers heavier soil types, particularly clays). Today, Mourvedre vines still line the coastal hillsides of Bandol, and the variety constitutes at least one half of the region's tannic, meaty red wines and its gently spicy rosés – some of the finest in the world.
In Spain, modern viticultural fashions have shifted the focus towards Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, though Monastrell is regaining some of its former importance. At one time it was the second most planted red wine variety in Spain (behind Garnacha). Spanish Monastrell wines tend to be rich, dark affairs, frequently showing flavors of blackberry and black cherry.
In Australia and California, Mourvedre is often called Mataro, although the prestige associated with its French name has encouraged many producers to abandon the term Mataro. Australian and Californian examples of the variety are typically richer and more fruit-driven than those produced around the Mediterranean.
Growing Mourvedre is not recommended for vignerons without a great deal of patience. The vines take several years before they begin to produce fruit of any quality – sometimes five years can pass before a Mourvedre vine yields its first harvest. The variety is also a late ripener, one of the very last to be picked. In the coastal hills of Provence (particularly around Bandol), Mourvedre is deliberately planted on warmer, south-facing slopes to speed up the ripening process, while Syrah and Grenache are planted on cooler, north-facing slopes.
Synonyms include: Monastrell, Mataro, Esparte, Etrangle-Chien.
Food matches include:
Europe: Rabo de toro (ox tail); gigot à la ficelle (wood-fired leg of lamb on a string)
Americas: Pastel de papas (Chilean beef casserole)
Australasia/Oceania: Milk-fed veal with baba ghanoush
Africa/Middle East: Khoudar mahshi bil forn (lamb-stuffed baked vegetables)