It isn't too late to add a resolution to the New Year's list, is it?
Not when it's all about gain with little or no pain, and in this instance that's apt to arise only if the cork in the bottle is unusually difficult to pull.
The New Year's resolution I'd like to propose goes like this: "In 2013 I vow to try an unfamiliar kind of wine." To help you fulfill this pledge, I have in mind an obscure varietal I'm confident you will find both intriguing and satisfying.
It's called mondeuse, pronounced mohn-DUHZ. It's a black French grape that despite its lack of renown is quite capable of producing a freshly flavored wine with reserved tannins, surprising spice and the kind of acidic spine that makes it a versatile companion at the dinner table.
While the grape and most of the wines made from it are French, my introduction to mondeuse came this fall in California. We were at the annual tasting of wines made from grapes grown on Mount Veeder, a subappellation of Napa Valley. Not surprisingly, most of the wines were solely or in large part made with cabernet sauvignon, Napa Valley's flagship grape variety.
An exception was at the table of Lagier Meredith Vineyard, a Mount Veeder winery that eschews cabernet sauvignon in favor of upstart syrah, with which it has developed an enthusiastic following, even at nearly $50 the bottle.
In addition to syrah, Lagier Meredith also makes around 40 cases of mondeuse per vintage, and to me it was the most surprising wine of the tasting. It was one lush wine, all fat and juicy marionberries showered generously with black pepper.
The wine, the Lagier Meredith Vineyard 2010 Mount Veeder Mondeuse ($42), also packed a substantial earthiness, yet its mountain tannins were so relaxed it was all charm and savor.
Lagier Meredith is the winery of the husband-and-wife team of Steve Lagier and Carole Meredith. He is a former winemaker for Robert Mondavi Winery. She is a former professor in the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis. They bought their rugged 84-acre parcel on Mount Veeder in 1986. They set to work putting in vines in 1994 and six years later released their first commercial wines.
From the outset, they've been syrah specialists, but in 2007 they planted half an acre of mondeuse, specifically mondeuse noire (there's also a mondeuse blanche, a green grape). They were drawn to the variety in large part because of its relationship to syrah. At UC Davis, Meredith became celebrated for her work using DNA methodology to pin down the hereditary history of such grape varieties as cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and syrah.
Nevertheless, mondeuse noire is something of a mystery to her. She knows it is closely related to mondeuse blanche, viognier, dureza and syrah, but the nature of the relationship remains vague.
She knows that the parents of syrah are mondeuse blanche and dureza. Thus, "mondeuse noire might be a sibling or grandparent of syrah," she adds. That possibility is what prompted her and her husband to plant a small plot of mondeuse noire.
She is the first to note that despite the close relationship between mondeuse noire and syrah, French wines made from each share few similarities. "But it's not possible to attribute the wine differences to grape variety alone when there are so many other factors," she says.
To eliminate other variables, Meredith and Lagier planted mondeuse noire right next to their syrah. "They are grown in the same place, farmed the same way, and the wine is made the same way, so any differences between the wines can be attributed to variety. We find our mondeuse wine to have a similar aromatic profile to our syrah (floral, spicy), but the mondeuse wine is deeper in color and more robust than our syrah. It's syrah on steroids."
Spurred by my exposure to mondeuse on Mount Veeder, I began to keep an eye out for it in Sacramento wine shops. I was surprised by how much they resembled the beefy yet easygoing interpretation from Lagier Meredith.
They're easy to find in part because in contrast to the usual French practice of naming wines by chateau and place, "mondeuse" is prominently featured on the label. That's because the area where mondeuse is perhaps most extensively cultivated Savoie near Lake Geneva in eastern France traditionally has marketed its wines by the name of the varietal. Mondeuse also is popular in the northern Rhone Valley.
One French take on the varietal is the Famille Peillot 2011 Bugey Mondeuse. "Bugey" refers to the district where the grapes were grown just to the west of Savoie. The wine packs 12 percent alcohol and sells for $20 at Beyond Napa Wine Merchants, the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and occasionally at Corti Brothers.
Another locally available example is the Domaine Jean Vullien et Fils 2010 Vin de Savoie St. Jean de la Porte Mondeuse, which on one hand is as light, lean and youthful as Beaujolais nouveau, yet on the other is robust and frisky. It sells for $16 at Taylor's Market.
Whether any of these wines help revive interest in mondeuse among California grape growers remains to be seen, but the variety has notable history here. In the 19th century it was grown in one of Napa Valley's more cherished vineyards, To Kalon, where H.W. Crabb harvested it for his well- received wine called Crabb's Black Burgundy, notes Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, who as recently as 2009 got the last pickings of mondeuse from another Napa Valley vineyard for a wine he put up under the Corti Brothers store label.
For years, mondeuse also was used by Beaulieu Vineyards in Napa Valley in its popular blended wine called Burgundy.
Since Crabb's days, the French mondeuse was thought to be the same variety as the Italian refosco. California agricultural officials still consider them synonyms for the same variety, though recent research has established that they are different.
It was known for producing "a pleasant red wine, but not an important red wine," Corti says of mondeuse. "It had its heyday, and then simply disappeared."
Maybe now some North State farmer will take out his list of New Year's resolutions and vow to look into mondeuse with the thought of planting some.
By the numbers: The Lagier Meredith mondeuse checks in at slightly more than 14 percent alcohol, but the French interpretations of the varietal are at around 12 percent.
Context: Given the leanness and fresh vibrancy of mondeuse generally, it's a wine best served with burgers, pizzas and pastas that aren't gussied up with a whole lot of rich ingredients.
Availability: Mondeuse wines generally can be found at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Taylor's Market, Corti Brothers and Beyond Napa. The Lagier Meredith can be ordered through its website, www.lagiermeredith.com.