On a recent afternoon in Paso Robles, Justin Smith, owner and winemaker, of Saxum Vineyards, stopped his truck alongside a sun-soaked flank of the James Berry Vineyard, the property founded by his parents that put this region on the global wine map.
“See the white tips?” he asks as he points toward a row of grapevines. “That’s Mourvèdre. But see the bronze tips? That’s Graciano.”
Those tips were one of the initial indications to Smith that the cuttings he bought in 2011 may not be Mourvèdre. The new vines grew much more vigorously, the fruit ripened earlier and when the grapes were harvested, the differences were even more striking. While Mourvèdre tends to show an earthy, animal character and can lose its acid quickly on the vine, these grapes were darker in color, brighter in fruit expression and full of acidity.
“It definitely didn’t seem like Mourvèdre, but we loved it, whatever it was, so we planted a lot,” says Smith. Last August, he sent cuttings to UC-Davis for genetic identification, which confirmed that it was indeed Graciano. Today, Smith grows over two and a half acres of it, with more planned for the future.
Like dozens of vineyard owners across the Central Coast, Smith purchased the “Monastrell clone” of Mourvèdre from Sunridge Nurseries a few years ago. Catalogued at UC-Davis Foundation Plant Services (FPS) as “Mourvèdre clone #571” until last week when the listing was changed to “Graciano Clone #8,” the vines were first identified and imported by Plansel, a Portuguese company.
Renowned wine writer/researcher Hans Jörg Böhm owns Plansel, and he said that Graciano was considered synonymous with Monastrell in Catalonia when it was brought to California in 2004. The grape is grown in many parts of Spain, but it’s best known as a blending complement to the Tempranillo wines of Rioja. No new plantings of Graciano have occurred in Spain for years.
But due to the mix-up, there are now more than 200 acres of Graciano planted across California, according to Andrew Jones of Sunridge.
“It was a huge success once we started selling it in the United States as a Mourvèdre alternative,” says Jones. “Growers really liked the flavor profile, color and growing aptitudes. We did think something was odd early on, but we just associated it to being a clonal variation similar to Zinfandel vs. Primitivo.”
The clone became 99% of the nursery’s Mourvèdre vine sales in a short period of time, says Jones. He explained that one grower planted it next to another type of Graciano, which looked quite different. Sunridge plans to send a letter to the growers who purchased the vines to let them know that they’re growing Graciano, not Mourvèdre.
There’s concern that the mix-up could lead to lawsuits, especially for wineries that bank on Mourvèdre. But there doesn’t seem to be many angry vintners, not even in Ryan Pease, whose Paix Sur Terre label is based on Mourvèdre. He’s labeled one wine as Monastrell since 2015, but he will call it Graciano going forward.
“I do remember when I fermented my first ‘Monastrell,’ ” he says. “During punch downs, I was thinking to myself, ‘There is no way this is Mourvèdre, but either way, it’s really good stuff.’ Graciano is very well suited to our climate, and it seems to be a pretty good mistake.”
Pease also plans to plant more of the variety.
How did this initial goof occur? Justin Smith of Saxum ran through a number of possibilities. One is grammatical: the Spanish word for Mourvèdre is “Monastrell,” while the French word for Graciano is “Morrastel.”
Smith says it’s likely that the cause lies more in Old World practices, where multiple varieties are interplanted. Some villages have different names for the same grapes and, more problematic, the same name for different grapes.
Austin Hope, president of Hope Family Wines, like Smith and Pease, is going for it with Graciano. He’s now planting nearly four acres in his estate vineyard and another four acres elsewhere.
“It’s intense, and if you read about it online, it’s pretty interesting,” says Hope. “It’s a big Rioja grape, making all those Gran Reservas.”
He has no concerns about selling it, as it gives him another story to tell in the tasting room. He wonders how the federal government will react when the news comes out. And what other vintners will decide to do? Embrace the variety? Mix it into blends?
“That will be the million-dollar question,” says Hope. “How will people play this out?”