Never Tasted Monastrell?

Monastrell is one of those grape varieties that most wine drinkers will have tasted at some time although often without realising it.  That’s because it’s frequently hidden behind regional names; many producers of Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf du Pape and other Rhône village reds include it in blends alongside Grenache and Syrah.  The same is true in the south of France – it’s used widely in the Languedoc and Provence and especially Bandol.  But none of these producers will use the name Monastrell; to the French, the variety is called Mourvèdre.  It’s also common in Australia, forming the ‘M’ of popular GSM blends (the same trio as used in the Rhône) and there’s quite a few acres planted in California, too, but here, as in Australia, it has yet another name – this time Mataro.

To find a wine actually labelled Monastrell, you need to turn to Spain and the hills overlooking the Mediterranean coast in particular.  It thrives in areas such as Alicante, Valencia, Yecla and Jumilla where the abundance of sun and heat ensure that this thick-skinned variety can ripen fully – sometimes yielding wines more like port than red wine.  Happily, much of the Yecla and Jumilla DOs are at high altitude providing cooler nights so that the grapes retain good levels of acidity and, as a result, the wines are better balanced with (slightly) more moderate alcohol levels.

We opened a bottle from the producer Volalto from the Jumilla region recently (Wine Society, good value at £12.50).  Made from grapes harvested from vineyards around 900m (almost 3000ft) above sea level, this was delightfully fresh and clean, hiding its 14.5% alcohol well and showing plenty of black and dried fruit flavours, particularly figs, also some attractive earthiness and subtle hints of spicy oak.

Monastrell (with its many aliases) is not a particularly fashionable grape variety but, when well made, can produce rich, full-bodied wines that are generally very food friendly.

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Big but Balanced

I’ve been blogging for weeks about our record-breaking summer and the wines we have enjoyed to accompany lighter meals, often eaten outdoors on our lovely terrace.  Suddenly all has changed.  Autumn has arrived in a hurry and so we have turned to richer, more robust food, better suited to the cooler season.  Daube de Boeuf has long been one of our favourites – a flavoursome beef casserole with the meat marinaded in a mixture of red wine, herbs and a twist of orange rind before long, slow cooking.

The wine to drink with it?  Red, of course! 

Alain Jaume’s Vacqueyras (Majestic, £15.99) is a chunky blend of mainly Grenache and Syrah (Shiraz) that has been sitting on our wine rack for many months, just waiting for the right dish to pair it with.  It is, indeed, a big, mouth-filling wine – the label says 15% but I’d never have guessed that high as it is so well balanced.  It does need food, however, to show at its best and our Daube was ideal.  The first impression is of intense black fruits, herbs and a certain smokiness but, as the wine opens in the glass, attractive dried fruit flavours kick in alongside.  Our bottle, from the 2019 vintage, was still quite tannic – decanting in advance certainly helped – but, with hindsight, I should probably have left it unopened for another couple of years at least.

Vacqueyras is one of the villages of the southern Rhône valley, just a short drive from Châteauneuf du Pape and producing wines in a generally similar style to its more famous neighbour (although, as it is less well-known, they are often rather better value for money). 

Summers can be very hot in this part of France and heat-loving grapes like Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre thrive, giving very full-bodied reds with, it seems, ever-increasing levels of alcohol.  The challenge for producers now and (even more) in the future is to harness this and make wines that, as with the bottle recommended here, are big, rich and lush yet still properly balanced and with no unpleasant ‘burn’ on the finish.