It's a question that I've struggled with since day one and my notebooks are littered with entries on grapes like Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Roussanne and Marsanne which fall right into the grey zone for me between common grapes and unusual ones. I've obviously decided to throw caution to the wind today and write about the Marsanne grape, and there are a few things that helped to tip the scales in this particular case. The first thing is that the two wines I'm taking a look at are pure varietal wines made from 100% Marsanne grapes. Marsanne is generally used as a blending grape not only in its original home in the northern Rhone Valley but also in many of the new world areas where it has established itself to a limited extent. It is usually partnered with Roussane and Viognier in the white wines of the northern Rhone, though up to 15% Marsanne is allowed in the red wines of the Hermitage region. Some varietal wines are made from Marsanne in the Rhone Valley, but they can be difficult to find since most wines are labeled by appellation and not by grape there, and not all producers indicate the varietal breakdown on the back label.
The second thing is that neither of the wines that I'll be writing about are actually from the Rhone Valley, or France for that matter. France has about 1200 hectares planted to Marsanne (very close, incidentally, to the 1100 that Italy has planted to Cortese), and the overwhelming majority of the plantings are in the Rhone Valley (the rest are scattered in limited quantites among Savoie, Languedoc and Provence). Marsanne is actually the most widely planted white grape in the Hermitage region and takes up a significant amount of land in the nearby regions of Crozes-Hermitage, St. Joseph and St. Péray. Today's wines, though, come from the new world areas of Australia and California whose vinous reputations are definitely built on the backs of other grapes. Before getting to those wines, though, I'd like to take a closer look at the Marsanne grape itself.
As mentioned above, in its native Rhone Valley, Marsanne is typically blended with Roussanne and Viognier for white wine production. Given the similarity in their names, I wondered whether Roussanne and Marsanne were somehow related, but apart from a few off-hand references to the grapes as "siblings," I can't find anything definitive on the matter. I took a look at the DNA profiles on file at the VIVC database and there's an awful lot of overlap between not only Marsanne and Roussanne, but also with Viognier. The grapes all have at least one match at each of the six loci shown which would seem to suggest some kind of relationship, but it's difficult to say exactly what the relationship might be without more data.
Marsanne is a relatively high yielding vine which has caused many growers to devote more acreage to it than to its companion Roussanne, which yields less generously and more erratically, in the northern Rhone Valley. It is prized for its rich body and heady perfume but can suffer from a lack of acidity if grown carelessly or in excessively warm areas. Outside of France (but still within Europe) Marsanne can be found in limited quantities in Switzerland, where it is sometimes known as Ermitage, and northeastern Spain, where it is known as Marsana. The explosion of interest in Rhone varieties in the 1980s led to limited plantings of the grape in California as well, but it is probably in Australia where Marsanne finds its truest expression outside of the Rhone Valley. Though there are less than 250 hectares devoted to it in Australia, some of the vines there are thought to be among the oldest Marsanne vines on earth.
Curtis Liquors for about $15. In the glass this wine was a medium greenish-gold color. The nose was fairly intense with ripe apple, honeysuckle flower, ripe pear and nutty vanilla with a biscuitty, pastry-like aroma as well. This wine had obviously spent some time in oak and was wearing it pretty loudly. On the palate the wine was full bodied with fairly high acidity. There were flavors of lemon, apple and pear fruit along with some honeysuckle, creamy vanilla and pie crust. Again, the oak was apparent, but it was much more thoroughly integrated into the flavor of the wine than into its aroma. Despite the wine's heft on the palate and Marsanne's propensity towards flabbiness, this wine was very deft and balanced with a lovely vein of acidity that really held it together. At $15, this wine is an absolute steal that I could see developing even more in the bottle for another decade or so.
MBJ Wine Group, who provided me with this sample bottle gratis and with whom I do have something of a professional relationship.* Ambyth Estate is a biodynamic producer that focuses on Rhone varieties and is committed to "natural winemaking" practices, meaning minimal intervention and, in this case, no added sulfites. In the glass the wine was a fairly deep lemon gold color with a bit of haze to it. The nose was moderately intense with delicate aromas of honey, honeysuckle, peach and ripe red apples on their way towards cider. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity. The flavors were also delicate and subtle with ripe apple and apricot fruits along with a touch of honeysuckle and apple cider. The wine presented an interesting mixture of delicacy and perhaps light oxidation. It's a lithe, nimble wine that is a very different animal than the big, oaky example from Australia above.
*I am essentially an editorial consultant with them, for which I do receive slight compensation. I have not received any compensation for this review, however, and any opinions I express about this wine are my own honest feelings and do not necessarily represent the thoughts or opinions of MBJ Wine Group.