Stinky Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Don’t Blame the Mourvedre

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 06-28-2016

I’d been preparing for this for a month. And here I was, finally, at Château de Beaucastel, the great jewel of the Rhone valley, makers of the archetypal Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Situated in the middle of vineyards for as far as the eye can see, the domain itself was stunning. I paused to savor how far I’d come from the brutal training I’d gone through just weeks earlier

Flashback to a cold winter night, at the Chesapeake Bay home of Washington, DC wine royalty, Knight of Madeira, and famed anti-Brett crusader Jason Whiteside. On the table are thirteen open bottles—menacing, unrelenting wines that wanted to steal my soul. Each was a bruising example of near 100% mourvedre—one of the most important grapes of the Southern Rhone—but a grape that, in this taster’s opinion, is hard to love on its own. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the grape is “tamed,” if you like, in blends. And Château de Beaucastel—the undisputed mourvedre king–uses more mourvedre in their Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend than any other producer. And this becomes important.

The complexity mourvedre imparts to Château de Beaucastel wines is legendary—or to some, notorious—and has been, as I’ll get to in a minute, the subject of one of the greatest and most impactful wine debates in recent memories. But the wines before me on that cold winter night were not this one.

No, what Jason set before me was something else altogether. Something much more else.

Instead of savoring the complexity of a glorious Beaucastel, it was my task to slog through a palate-bruising, mind-melting gauntlet of mourvedre in pursuit of the grape’s true character.

Far, far from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, most of these wines were monastrells, the hotter, thicker, usually oakier Spanish or New World version of mourvedre, and in order for its true essence to reveal itself to me, I’d have to be stronger than any taster had ever been before.

I’m not trying to say I’m a hero, exactly, but if that’s what you’re thinking, I’m not going to argue.

Why was I sacrificing liver, and mind, examining these wines? In short, because of science. Jason had proposed a thesis that—if right—would force the rethinking of one of the most important wine debates in history, and, in many ways, demand that most of us rethink some of their basic assumptions about wine.

His thesis was that mourvedre lacked any sense of the gamey, animal flavors typically associated with it. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that, to use Jancis Robinson’s description of the grape, mourvedre is “pretty tough and notably potent with a very strong gamey, almost animal scent in youth which wine enthusiasts tend to love or loathe.”

Whether they like the flavor or not, people tend to blame mourvedre for stinking up Southern Rhone wines in the same way they blame the dog after farting.

Jason, on the other hand, claims that whenever somebody claims to find these flavors in mourvedre, it isn’t the grape. Rather, he argues that mourvedre “funk” is in fact more-or-less always the result of Brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast common to wines, common especially where winery sanitation is anything less than absolutely pristine.

But why is this important? Because if Jason is right, then many, many well-regarded bottles of wine that are described as having some terroir-typical “mouvedre gaminess” may, in fact, just be lousy with Brett. And, by the same turn, if it’s true there is nothing essentially funky about mourvedre, we’d be forced to rethink all instances of gaminess in wine.

As I suggested above, there’s a history here. In 1998, wine collector Charles Collins decided to settle an old debate on the presence of Brett in Beaucastel; many insisted that what Collins knew to be Brett was in fact “mourvedre funk,” or, even less scientifically, terroir character. So he had two Beaucastel wines, a 1989 and 1990, sent off to the lab. The rest was history. Collins found his Brett, settled the debate, and Beaucastel set about cleaning up their approach, producing, since the mid-1990’s—to this palate at least—absolutely delicious wines that are more or less Brett free. I know this because on my visit, I was lucky enough to get to compare recent vintages with some of those earlier “notorious” ones. There’s no comparison.

So is it possible that the “funky grape” myth could be the final pillar to fall?

To find out, Jason assembled the rogues gallery of thirteen mourvedre/monastrell bottles, thirteen in all, and we went in search of the animal within.

We began to notice characteristic flavors across the range: perhaps above all, a kind of mentholated flavor that reminded us of Luden’s cherry cough drop. In other words, there was something unique to the grape, we thought, such that we could pick it out over and against other varieties.

Was there something beyond just fruit in play? Sure. We detected an herbal charcater that leans sometimes towards medicinal, here and there, part and parcel of the Luden’s.

But where was the horse sweat, the medicine cabinet, the sandalwood, the Asian spice, the cupboard mouse?

Where , for Brett’s sake, was the dirty baby diapers!?

As scary as these wines were to my tastes, these and other characteristically Bretty flavors were M.I.A., not to be found. Not here, not tonight. No way.

But we go back to the same wines the next night. What do we find? More of the same. The Spanish versions were bad. The California versions were worse, adding to the mix more opacity and overt jamminess than a Greatfull Dead concert.

At one point, Jason, fuller than usual of his usual bluster, literally drops the mike–er, corkscrew–and announces victory.

He then proclaims, “It’s a weird thing to associate animal with a grape.”

At this point, I decide he’s become too proud of his discovery, that surely he’s gone too far.

So I retort, with some wisdom, I think, “But what about wool in chenin blanc?”

He glares at me. I recall the time I opened an otherwise delicious Vouvray, which was wafting plenty of sandalwood.

“Terroir,” I announced.

“It’s Brett,” he said.

“Brett in a white wine? Piffle!”

But he was right about the Bretty white thing, at least: in fact, Brett was first isolated, oddly enough, from German sparklers. The research states: “In the early 1950’s Schanderl (1950) and Schanderl & Draczynski (1952) of Geisenheim reported the first uncontested occurrence of Brettanomyces in bottled wine (van der Walt and van Kerken, 1958a); the isolation was from a German sparkling wine.”

Jason continued: “Wet wool is a British descriptor, worsted wool, in London where it rains constantly…. It’s that smell they are describing. Fabric is its own category. If you want to call it animal, you can, but it’s not animal stank. Not horse sweat and barnyard.”

I don’t know if I agree, but I know I’m losing the argument. That doesn’t stop me.

“But all yeasts are just pooping out. Why can’t some of that poop, in the context of mourvedre, smell like animal?”

“Because that’s why we use Saccharomyces… it poops out fruity smell.”

And I can’t deny that, at least, maybe he’s right. Maybe animal simply isn’t vinous, but results from those other things that circulate around the soup of each wine’s ecology.

But, whatever, my head full of high-octane flavor bombs, I’m willing to concede.

However, not without saying this: while not generally a huge fan, I nevertheless began to crave a little Brett, or something, something that at least might give some level of character to these fruit bombs. Or maybe I just want something with cooler fruit, something more French, which, I’m beginning to have to admit, I associate with Brett. And when he finally popped a Gigondas that we already knew was Bretty, I was happy to have it—not as an experimental control, but as a relief from the burden of having to have tasted nearly twenty bottles of molten fruit.

So after copious “science,” what did I learn? Well, at the very least, the next time I have a stinky Southern Rhone wine, I’ll be much less likely to blame the mourvedre. What I learned is, I think, I’d be better off blaming my dog instead.

Comments are closed.