Marsanne produces wines with distinctive melon and mineral flavors, rich mouthfeel, and a characteristic nuttiness with age. When blended, its relative restraint and minerality complement more aromatic varietals like Viognier. And in its ancestral home of Hermitage and in other cool climates, Marsanne can make some of the world's most ageable white wines. At Tablas Creek, we use most of our Marsanne in our Côtes de Tablas Blanc each year, with the Marsanne comprising about one-third of the blend.
Marsanne is believed to have originated in the town of Marsanne, near Montélimar in the northern Rhône Valley. The white wines of St-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, and St-Péray are made predominantly from Marsanne, often blended with Roussanne. As early as the seventeenth century the white wines from Hermitage were considered among the world's finest. Thomas Jefferson praised white Hermitage as "the first wine in the world without a single exception".
The grape arrived in Australia in the late 1860s, and has been grown successfully in the vineyards of Victoria ever since. Australia has proved an even more hospitable home for the varietal than its native France – 80% of the world’s Marsanne is grown in Australia. It arrived in California in the 1980s, and it has becoming an increasingly important component of white Rhône-style blends and is also bottled individually. Qupe Wine Cellars, whose vintner Bob Lindquist has been an early and persistent advocate for the grape, has been instrumental in promoting Marsanne. Qupe began making what has become probably the state's most respected single-varietal Marsanne in 1987. As of 2009, there were 107 acres of Marsanne planted in California, which represents about 3% of the California acreage dedicated to white Rhone varieties.
Marsanne in France
Plantings of Marsanne in the Northern Rhone have been growing over the last half-century as growers replace the more difficult -- and later ripening -- Roussanne with the easier Marsanne. The vineyards at JL Chave (which have been in the same family since the middle ages) were historically equal parts Roussanne and Marsanne, but have been gradually moved to their current composition of 85% Marsanne and just 15% Roussanne.
Marsanne's history is less distinguished in the southern Rhone, and it is not permitted in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is, however, one of the eight white grapes permitted in the Côtes du Rhône appellation. As such, Marsanne is a significant component (usually 30%) of the Coudoulet de Beaucastel white blend.
Marsanne in the Vineyard and Cellar
There are approximately three acres of Marsanne planted at Tablas Creek, representing about 7% of our white Rhône production. The climate in Paso Robles is slightly warmer than Marsanne’s native northern Rhône Valley, and the varietal here is an aggressive producer with no significant growing problems, though it is sensitive to water levels. Careful monitoring throughout the growing season is often necessary. Marsanne vines produce a relatively heavy crop of loosely clustered berries, and require a secondary fruit pruning (of green or unpollinated clusters) six to eight weeks after the flowering. This practice, coupled with conscientious leaf pulling, encourages uniform ripening. Marsanne ripens right in the middle of the picking season -– later than Viognier, earlier than Roussanne and about at the same time as Grenache Blanc -- and its berries are golden and medium-sized when ripe. It tends to ripen at fairly low sugars; in 2009 its average Brix level was 20.3, the lowest of any variety harvested, and our Marsanne is often around 12% alcohol after fermentation.
We showcase Marsanne's proclivity for displaying the mineral flavors of the soils in which it is grown by fermenting it in stainless steel tanks. In most years, it is blended with a richer, more heady and aromatic Viognier lot sometime 3-4 months after harvest and this resulting tank forms the base of our Cotes de Tablas Blanc from this vintage.
Flavors and Aromas
Marsanne is a light straw color, almost green, with moderate acidity and excellent mid-palate richness. Its mineral flavors and aromas, and its low alcohol, make it an ideal blending grape. The varietal has been historically blended with Roussanne, where it tones down the viscosity and acidity of Roussanne and provides a more complex flavor. Although did in early years add Marsanne to our Roussanne-based Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (most recently in 2001), the varietal is truly given a chance to shine in our Viognier-based Côtes de Tablas Blanc. We have been noting an increase in the intensity and complexity of our Marsanne lots, and hope to make a single-varietal rendition soon.