It's time to speak of Mourvèdre, the red grape variety that may well qualify as California's most underused, despite ample evidence it is marvelously simpatico with California terroir. Mourvèdre originates in Spain and flourishes in France. But it's been in California soils for more than a century and a half, hiding in plain sight for decades after Prohibition, working its way into anonymous, generic blends and in the homemade table wines of countless Italian, Spanish and Portuguese immigrants for generations — until the American Rhône movement kicked into gear in the early '80s, and young winemakers rediscovered Rhône varieties and shone a spotlight on it anew.
Back then, Mourvèdre was found in the unlikeliest of places, in old, mixed black vineyards from Ukiah to Fiddletown, in warm isolated enclaves of Mt. Veeder in the Napa Valley, and in the delta sands off the San Joaquin River near Antioch and Oakley, north of San Francisco, a region that is easily the homeliest vineyard country in California. Plantings statewide have slowly but steadily climbed ever since.
In flavor, Mourvèdre is generally undemonstrative, a variety better suited for background vocals rather than lead, and as such it has taken on a complementary role in the market's ubiquitous red blends, the "M" in your "GSM" blends, stalwart in support of its more effusive partners, Grenache and Syrah. And yet on its own, Mourvèdre is proving to be very well suited to the ever warmer, drier conditions in California wine country, a late ripener whose flavors are slow to mature but reach their peak just as sugars do. Who knows? We may find in coming decades that global warming meets its match in Mourvèdre.
The reason? Even when these wines get really, really ripe, they still come off as balanced — powerful, but also lifted, possessing an ungainly equilibrium. Bonny Doon's "Old Telegram" and Domaine de la Terre Rouge's Sierra Foothills Mourvèdre fit the bill there. But what's remarkable is the newer style of Mourvèdre that's emerging in California, light, low-alcohol, thoroughly refreshing vins de soif, a term the French use to describe a wine that's thoroughly thirst-quenching.
2014 Vesper San Pasqual Valley Rancho Guejito Mourvèdre: This wine is made with young vine fruit from an Escondido vineyard not far from the San Diego Zoo. At 11.5% ABV, this is the lightest of the wines tasted, a wine so frisky it's nearly impossible to sip: No, it must be glugged. Sunny and brisk, with a bright berry scent and salted plum flavors, a happy-making red you can chill. About $24, available at Milkfarm in Echo Park, and at Silverlake Wine.
2014 Dirty and Rowdy California Familiar Mourvèdre: This may as well be Mourvèdre 101, a wine sourced from five vineyards statewide (Dirty and Rowdy made no fewer than seven Mourvèdre wines). It's youthful, pretty and refreshing, smells like a strawberry essence, of jam without the jam, flavors of fresh berry with a leafy, tea-like savor on the finish. 12.7% ABV. About $30, at the Wine House, Wine Country and the Wine Exchange.
2014 Paix Sur Terre The Other One Paso Robles Adelaida District Glenrose Vineyard Mourvèdre: The headiest of these three wines, this new winery based in Paso Robles specializes in Mourvèdre from single vineyards there. This one, from Glenrose on the west side, achieves a heady intensity, at once generous and balanced, with flavors like oolong tea steeped in strawberry jam, a very pure red-fruited intensity of flavor girded by firm tannins. And at 15.2% ABV, it's not for lightweights. About $52, at Silverlake Wine and in Orange County at the San Clemente Wine Company.