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Mourvèdre – Maltese and foreign

John Cauchi, pictured, has invested heavily to convert family fields at San Niklaw in Żejtun into vineyards. Seen here are four Mourvèdre wines from France, Australia, Malta and Spain.

John Cauchi, pictured, has invested heavily to convert family fields at San Niklaw in Żejtun into vineyards. Seen here are four Mourvèdre wines from France, Australia, Malta and Spain.

The Maltese wine scene has changed a lot in the past few decades. Apart from an explosion of imported wines from all over the world, which really took off when punitive import duty was removed on Malta’s EU entry in 2004, local wine production has experienced a revolution.

The 1980s saw the first Maltese wine produced from fresh grapes on a commercial scale, when these were imported in refrigerated lorries from Italy. In the early 1990s, quality wine started being made on a commercial scale from Malta-grown grapes. Since then, we’ve seen a gradual expansion of vine plantings and the introduction of EU wine denomination rules.

In recent years, a few enterprising small producers of quality wine have made a name for themselves. John Cauchi is one of them. The practising doctor put a lot of effort and money into converting his family fields at San Niklaw in Żejtun into vineyards. He has planted Vermentino, Sangiovese, Syrah and Mourvèdre vines, and invested in a modern winery. His Mourvèdre is a unique Maltese wine in that it is not only unusually a 100 per cent Mourvèdre grape wine, but also because it is produced from almost certainly the only Mourvèdre vineyard in Malta.

Mr Cauchi is also a member of Il-Qatra wine club, which has over 70 members and has been organising monthly combined wine blind-tasting and dining sessions for 14 years. The Mourvèdre grape, which may be called Mataro in Australia and California, originates in Spain, where it’s called Monastrell.

It’s the key to many reds from the south of Madrid, giving high alcohol and plentiful tannins but not much distinction. However, recently, growers have been timing their grape pickings better, improving fruit flavour.

In France it grows mostly in the south and won’t ripen north of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but in Bandol on the Mediterranean coast, it produces big, fine wines. It is said to be a finicky grape to get right, that needs the warmest south-facing sites, and that needs to be picked in a small time frame – when the grape finally has body and fruit but before becoming too ‘pruney’. In bottle, it’s claimed to have its idiosyncrasies, being often distinctly ‘farm-yardy’ and its fruit is said to be ‘blackberryish’ often with a herby hint. It’s thus easy to mistake a young Mourvèdre as faulty but the wine emerges into a rich, leathery maturity after five years or more.

It’s only recently that Mourvèdre has been taken seriously in California, and Chile is testing its first plantings. In Australia, many of the clones are of Spanish origin, and old bush vines produce dark, herby, rich and potentially very tannic wines. These are usually used in GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre) blends, but some 100 per cent Mourvèdre wines are produced in Barossa Valley. Our club tasted one (Dean Hewiston’s Old Garden Mourvèdre 2004, Barossa Valley) a few years ago and it was our members’ top preference.

In one of our recent sessions, 23 members blind-tasted four Mourvèdre wines, a Maltese, an Australian, a French and a Spanish one. Cauchi’s San Niklaw Estate’s Kappella San Nikola Mourvèdre 2009 (12 per cent alcohol) and Torbreck’s The Pict 2007, Barossa Valley (14.5 per cent) immediately stood out as the wines with bigger personality than the other two.

The Kappella had a hauntingly intense nose of leather and varnish with gentle tannins and good length. When I first tasted Cauchi’s Mourvèdre, about three years ago, the wine had a different nose and it was fruitier, possibly because it was a younger version, or possibly because the oak maturation period was lengthened. The Maltese wine scored a very creditable second preference behind the very expensive Australian.

David Powell’s Torbreck Vintners’ wine from Barossa Valley had a powerful berry nose with lovely full but fresh mouthfeel with good length. Established in the mid-1990s, Torbreck became one of the most raved-about Barossa wineries and one of the few, according to wine experts Philip Williamson and David Moore, that produces genuinely outstanding wines. They said all Torbreck reds have high-ish but balanced alcohol levels and a breadth and extract many other Barossa, Clare and McLaren Vale wines lack. Williamson and Moore rate Torbreck’s RunRig (Shiraz with a little Viognier) a world class wine with the sort of dimension and structure only top Côte-Rôties have.

Borie de Maurel’s Cuvée Maxime Minervois 2008 (14 per cent alcohol) and Artadi’s Laderas de El Seque Alicante 2010 (14 per cent) scored third and fourth preference respectively.

My impressions were that the southern French wine had a gentle, rather faint, but pleasant nose with a simple, pleasant palate, but had no depth or length. The Alicante contained a little Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon besides the predominant Monastrell, and had a fruity nose, a pleasant sweet but simple palate, and no length – it reminded me of a €20 Barossa valley GSM and a €40 Châteauneuf-du-Pape we’ve tasted in the past. This means a good showing for a less than €10 wine by one of Spain’s top producers.

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Albert Cilia-Vincenti is a founding committee member of Il-Qatra wine club.

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