The Mourvèdre and Carignane grapes are not widely known by casual wine drinkers in North America, but the popularity of these Rhone-style red varietals is growing.
Mourvèdre has become a popular component in red blends such as “GSM,” with Grenache and Syrah. It is grown at a small but increasing number of wineries in Oregon and Washington.
Carignane was widely used in California jug and boxed wines in the 1970s and ’80s, but its acreage has decreased. Today, it is being finessed into a fine wine by skilled vintners. I don’t believe a single winery in the Pacific Northwest has planted this western Mediterranean grape.
California’s Cline Cellars has been producing these varietals for so long, they’re grown on “ancient vines” planted in the late 19th century by the immigrant ancestors of Fred Cline, founder and owner of the winery.
As a young man, Cline was tutored by his Italian grandfather, Valeriano Jacuzzi (of the spa family), in the principles of making wines. The academy was a family vineyard in the lower Sacramento River Delta near Oakley. Vines had been planted deep in dry, sandy soil where phylloxera could not get a hold.
Some years later, when Cline had graduated from the University of California-Davis, he and his new wife, Nancy, began a winery on his Oakley inheritance, restoring acre upon acre of the old vines — Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier as well as Mourvèdre and Carignane. They also planted a great deal of Zinfandel, a grape for which Cline has, perhaps, become best known.
The Clines moved their wine-production facility in 1993 to a 350-acre ranch at the south end of the Sonoma Valley’s Carneros region, where they planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah. They continue to harvest the old-vines Oakley grapes, offering these wines with their numerous other varietals at a tasting room in an 1853 farmhouse.
Cline’s winemaker is Charlie Tsegeletos, a name that I dare not try to pronounce. Like his boss a UC-Davis graduate, he has spent many years in the vineyards of Sonoma, coming to Cline from the Glen Ellen Winery in 2002.
“As we’re a family group,” said Tsegeletos, “we can make some fun and interesting wines.”
They do it organically, relying upon rooftop solar panels to provide most of the energy needed in the winery.
“We do a lot of things that we consider the best way to go about it,” Tsegeletos said. “We get the soil healthy through a combination of composting and spraying microbes and nutrients. These build up the soil, provide pathogens and keep pests in control. We mow and leave a cover crop to keep the carbon in the soil, and use fish emulsion for fertilizer. When we prune, we take the cuttings and spread them on the vineyard floor.
“We have owl boxes to keep the rodents down, and if the (harvest) timing is such that it looks like (hungry) birds are going to get us, we’ll pick the berries even if it’s a little early. We don’t use pesticides, only a little bit of sulfur for protection, and all of our wines are vegan.”
Cline takes seriously its commitment to sustainable agriculture. For many years, it has operated the Green String Institute, a 150-acre working farm that produces fruits and vegetables on the Sonoma Coast near Petaluma. No herbicides or pesticides are used by the group, whose goal is to teach children and adults — “people from all over the world,” Tsegeletos said — how to farm responsibly.
“We run a teaching organization, but there’s also a fruit and vegetable stand that goes with it,” Tsegeletos said. And many of the crops are shipped directly to the world-renowned Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.
The heat of the Delta is ideal for growing Mourvèdre and Carignane. “It gets ripe down there,” said Tsegeletos, “so there’s some weight to our Mourvèdre. It’s big-bodied and close to 15 percent alcohol, but well-balanced, with a lot of cherry character and chocolate notes. And it makes a rosé with a lovely plum character.”
According to tasting notes, this tannic wine is aged for 10 months in 30 percent new American oak, and is good with lamb, duck and steak tartare. Cline also makes a “small berry” Mourvèdre ($70) that picks up some eucalyptus flavor from a grove surrounding the vines, Tsegeletos said.
Carignane, said Tsegeletos, has more of a tobacco/herbal element than Mourvèdre. According to tasting notes on the bottle, it has “lush flavors of plum, chocolate and clove (that) mingle with hints of dark berries.” The wine is aged for eight months in 35 percent new French oak, and is nicely paired with pork belly or baked Brie.
The Oakley vineyards also produce Cline’s ancient-vines Zinfandel, which blends a small amount of Carignane. All three old-vines wines are very reasonably priced at $20 to $23.
Tours of Cline’s Carneros property take in the California Missions Museum. The building exhibits models of all 21 Franciscan missions in California, built for a world’s fair on San Francisco’s Treasure Island in 1939. The last of those missions was constructed in Sonoma in 1823.
— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .