It seems only fitting that one of the world's top authorities on grape-type identification would find success with a grape most wine lovers have never heard of.
The Mondeuse grape is rare in California (with only a few hundred acres planted, max), and a star nowhere (though it is embraced in the Savoie region of France). That fact played into the mindset of Carole Meredith and her winemaker husband, Steve Lagier, owners of Lagier Meredith, when they planted it on their property high atop Mount Veeder in Napa Valley.
Meredith is one of the world's experts on grape-type identification, a sort of forensic detective for wine grapes. Ten years ago, she cracked one of California's longest-running and most puzzling mysteries: the fascinating origin of the Zinfandel grape. The former professor of enology and viticulture at the University of California at Davis has also proven through DNA testing that Pinot Blanc in California is in fact the Melon grape, and that Cabernet Sauvignon is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.
Meredith and Lagier planted Mondeuse in their mountaintop vineyard as an experiment in 2007; it offered a new challenge and, it turns out, a nice companion to their hearty Syrah. "We knew it was closely related, genetically, to Syrah," said Meredith, "and yet the Mondeuse wines we had tasted from the Savoie region of France were light-colored, light-bodied and very different from Syrah from the Northern Rhône."
The difference between the French Mondeuse wines and the French Syrah wines couldn't necessarily be attributed just to the grape variety, however. Terroir, vineyard practices and winemaking techniques are all factors, she said. So they took a chance on Mondeuse, planting it right next to their Syrah and treating it the same—same site, same farming, same winemaking. And for the second vintage running, the Lagier Meredith Mondeuse is a distinctive, complex wine that many will find compelling.
Naturally, there were surprises.
"When we made the first wine from our Mondeuse vines in 2009, it wasn't at all what we were expecting," said Meredith. "Instead of being a lighter colored and lighter bodied wine, it was just the opposite: very dark, full-bodied and grippy, but with pepper and floral aromas reminiscent of our Syrah. A metaphor we have used in describing the two wines is that while our Syrah was going to finishing school, our Mondeuse was working out at the gym, developing some muscle."
Less surprising is that Mondeuse has been challenging to grow.
It is not particularly vigorous vegetatively (it doesn't produce very long shoots), said Meredith, "but it wants to produce a huge amount of fruit, and we have had to fight this tendency every year."
The vines produce lots of large clusters, and thinning begins before bloom. "We spend at least twice as much time per vine keeping the Mondeuse crop level balanced as we do in our Syrah," she said. By harvest, two-thirds of the clusters have been removed, and even the surviving clusters are trimmed to a smaller size.
I've liked both the 2009 and 2010 (both $42). With 2010, the Mondeuse shared the Syrah's structure, but the berry profile tilted more toward tar, while the Syrah showed more muscle, density and a strong white pepper and crushed rock character.
Lagier is a minimalist winemaker, intent on making the wine as simply as possible so that it expresses the site. Oak, for instance, is never a factor. The Syrah wines have proven to be enduring long agers. The last time I tasted an entire vertical there were standouts, and none had expired.
Because Mondeuse is so difficult to grow, Meredith's advice to those who might consider it: Don't.
"We wouldn't recommend that anyone plant Mondeuse if they're looking for an easy grape to grow. And if they are determined to plant it, it better be on a mountain site like ours with shallow soil and depleted nutrients. Mondeuse on a valley floor site with deep fertile soil would be a real monster."