How many old-vine, single-vineyard, 100% Mourvedre wines have you ever heard of coming out of North America? Before last month, my number stood at zero. Then my best friend Marc, a burgeoning wine lover himself (I’m working on it), got me this bottle for Christmas; it was one that he had tried at a party and couldn’t get out of his head, leading him to hunt it down and grab one for each of us. It was about the most intriguing Christmas gift that I got this year — obviously I do good work in picking friends.
While most California winemakers would shy away from grapes like Mourvedre in favour of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and other varietals more recognizable to the general public (and therefore more sellable), Kenneth Volk seems to immerse himself in them. While his company Kenneth Volk Vineyards also makes the classics, it produces a special series of “Heirloom Varietals” wines that examines and honours “underappreciated rarities” that don’t often get their day in the sun in the US. Mourvedre certainly qualifies — while I’ve seen it in a GSM (Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre) or two from my home continent, I’ve never seen it get the spotlight to itself domestically until now. This particular Mourvedre is from the Enz Vineyard located in the tiny Lime Kiln Valley AVA in central California: it can be found just southeast of San Jose, about 1/3 of the way south from San Francisco to LA. Interestingly (or crazily), Lime Kiln Valley finds itself immediately beside the San Andreas Fault, one of the more tectonically unstable places in the world (you want interesting soils as a winemaker? Plant in an earthquake zone!). Even cooler, this bottle comes from one of the oldest grapevine plantings in all of California: almost 90 years old, the Mourvedre vines in Enz Vineyard were planted in 1922. Think of all the wines that come out of California. Now think that, pre-dating almost all of them, before “California wine” meant anything to anyone, there was this lone patch of Mourvedre planted in this obscure valley close to the coast. Who would plant Mourvedre in California in 1922? Who knows? But that decision let me, almost a century later, crack open this mysterious and alluring bottle, because it had previously worked its magic on a great friend. Wine rocks.
I was quite curious to see how Californian Mourvedre would shape up against the wines made in the more traditional homes of this grape. Mourvedre’s mothership is almost certainly the Bandol region in Provence, France, where the varietal makes wines that are notoriously deep, dark, thick, meaty and tannic. I’m more familiar with the Spanish rendition of the grape, where Mourvedre is known as Monastrell and where it produces equally big but much more approachable and fruity wines, one of which is the Juan Gil Monastrell from Jumilla, Spain, which has garnered PnP’s admiration on multiple occasions (see here and here). This is a great illustration of how grape variety alone will not determine the flavour and profile of a wine; where it grows can be equally important to how it comes across. Where would California’s rendition of Mourvedre fit in the French/Spanish flavour spectrum for the grape? As it turns out, right in the middle.
The Kenneth Volk Mourvedre was a deep, brooding, blackish ruby colour, opaque in the glass almost all the way to the rim. It had almost a Port-like nose, starting with burnt sugar/caramel and moving to blueberry and blackberry fruit, all surrounded by lingering notes of smoke and allspice. One sip was all I needed to declare it a primetime “fireside” wine, the kind of wine you’d want to drink in the dead of winter while sitting in a big leather armchair with a good book by a roaring fire. It featured a lush, round body, surprisingly unobtrusive velvet tannins and prominent but pleasant alcohol — my WSET tuition officially paid off when I tasted the wine, figured it had to be close to 15% abv, didn’t believe the label when it said 14.2% and then found in the winemaker’s technical notes posted on Kenneth Volk’s website that the true alcohol level was 14.81% (wines in the US over 14% alcohol are allowed to state an alcohol level on their labels that’s +/- 1% of the actual alcohol…this is in theory because alcohol level can be difficult to calculate, and yet here Kenneth Volk manages to do so to within one hundredth of one percent. Go figure.). In terms of flavour, the KVV Mourvedre tasted black black black: everything about it was dark. Blackberry and blackcurrant fruit were accented by black liquorice, pepper and a sort of scorched earth/charred taste, like the burnt outer layer of a well-done steak. The fruit came out mostly on the initial attack, gradually giving way to a “fireplace” taste (burnt wood, ash, smoke…if you could eat a just-extinguished fire with the embers still glowing, it would taste like that) on the finish, but it wasn’t like the fruit faded away; it was more like all of the secondary notes layered themselves on top of it one by one, making the overall flavour amplify itself the longer the wine stayed in my mouth.
I had a great time drinking this bottle, partly because getting cool wine as a gift is awesome and partly because it was just so INTERESTING. I know the big-name grapes are safe, and you generally know what you get when you buy one, but every once in awhile, taking a chance on an underdog like Mourvedre or Barbera or Torrontes or Aglianico can be extremely rewarding; it ignites a sense of discovery that you just don’t get with another bottle of Cab. In that light, if you ever come across the Kenneth Volk Mourvedre, jump at the chance to bring it home. The alcohol level on the wine really shows through and makes it a more prominent and assertive bottle than it otherwise would be, but that just seems to suit the character of the wine. If someone knows where to get this in Calgary, post a comment and let me know. Good wine night, worth a score as old as the vines in Enz Vineyard…
$30 to $40 CDN