With a Golden Glow

First published in Alquimie, 2014. Edited version published below.

Relatively unknown and often misunderstood, marsanne is a little different from other more established white grape varieties.

Perceptions aside, marsanne can produce world-class wines of remarkable depth and complexity.

These wines also demonstrate an inherent ability to age beautifully.

Hailing from the Vallée du Rhône in France where it has a long and much respected history, marsanne is an accomplished grape variety capable of tremendous versatility; it has in the past—and continues to be—used in many different wine styles.

Outside France, Australia has the largest planting of this tough grape variety.

Marsanne is the star of white Hermitage—as either a single variety or blended with a little roussanne. Crossing over the Rhône River and moving into Saint-Péray in the Ardèche, producers frequently utilise marsanne in their sparkling wines, as well as their table wines. The appellation of Saint-Joseph allows a maximum addition of 10 per cent marsanne to the regional syrah, whilst also making fine whites with solely marsanne grapes.

Marsanne has managed to avoid the undulating highs and lows endured by the many wines subject to the pressures of fashionable consumerism; it is not the new kid on the block, nor is it the latest hipster discovery.

Rather, this grape variety has always been present, unobtrusively entertaining and impressing its followers for generations.

This subdued longevity may stem from the fact producers working with marsanne are a quiet bunch. They are rural farmers and earthed vignerons from the Rhône region and their propagation and admiration of this variety shows no regard to social media hype or the use of hashtags, perhaps with the exception of the highly vocal and enthusiastic Michel Chapoutier.

The loyal consumers of marsanne are also, from my observations, a quiet bunch.

For Australian consumers, it is worth noting there have been a few compromised import batches in the past, most likely due to a lack of cork quality.

However, more recently an increased focus on quality assurance from producers is delivering more marsanne wines to Australian shores in the form they were intended.

Once you have seen the true potential of this grape, it is difficult not to be impressed.

Outside France, Australia has the largest planting of this tough grape variety. Marsanne was first settled in the wine region of the Goulburn Valley, specifically at Château Tahbilk (now known simply as ‘Tahbilk’), where it was duly fashioned into wines with crisp acidity and low alcohol.

These wines are quite deservedly famous for their value and consistent ageing potential.

The nearby Mitchelton Winery has also placed a distinct stamp on the variety, which is driven by freshness and preserved through acidity.

When compared to its sibling in the Northern Rhône, the Australian style of marsanne wine visibly strays from the traditional form.

Yet, the Australian variant has established a strong and loyal following despite this variance.

As a winemaker myself, I find that the mystique and allure of marsanne lies in the structured and full-bodied expressions.

The intense and rich wines of Hermitage, Saint-Péray and Saint-Joseph are anything but snappy and crisp whites.

These wines are bold, golden in hue, low in acid—while being conversely high in glycerol—and often reach 15 per cent alcohol whilst being balanced by a pronounced phenolic grip.

Despite this power, the wines are not flashy. But they do tend to be white wines suited to red wine drinkers.

On countless occasions, this style of marsanne has proven itself by muting the exclamation of red-biased tasters.

“I don’t drink white wine,” they protest, only to be convinced of its beauty after being cajoled into trying marsanne.

The difference between the marsanne wines produced in Central Victoria and those of the Northern Rhône may be partially responsible for our misunderstanding of the classic expression of marsanne in an Old World context.

Undoubtedly, Australia’s unique soils and climate play a large role when it comes to shaping the palate of those partial to Australian marsanne.

Marsanne is a grape variety that displays the full extent of its potential when grown on lean soils.

I often think of ideal cultivation as a fine balancing act requiring a delicate equilibrium between three main elements: glycerol; alcohol; and phenolics.

If a careful balance is not struck between these points, disappointment is close to guaranteed.

For example, when combined carelessly with low acid levels, these three components may result in a flabby wine lacking freshness.

When these elements are balanced in just the right manner, the resultant wine is transcendent.

As a winemaker myself, I find that the mystique and allure of marsanne lies in the structured and full-bodied expressions.

The desire to “capture acidity” is far from the minds of producers like Maison M. Chapoutier and Jean-Louis Chave in Hermitage.

These wine houses not only pick their grapes at the riper end of the scale—when acidity is already relatively low—they also proceed with malolactic conversion, which results in a further reduction in acidity.

Curiously for the French, this process helps to complete the balance in the wine.

In a country raised on the tighter high acid incarnations of the marsanne varietal, transition to the style of Northern Rhône can be a challenge for the Australian palate.

Consumers expecting marsanne to act as yet another cool and zesty summer refreshment could possibly be disappointed by a Rhône style.

Nevertheless, I would argue, marsanne should not be a casualty of the trend towards lean acid-driven whites; conformity would cost the style a more complex aspect of its identity.

If I was to impose a ‘drinking seasonality’ onto the marsanne wines we produce on Australian soil, I’d suggest autumn through spring as the time for optimum enjoyment—though a cool summer evening showcasing a hot BBQ laden with fresh seafood would also suffice.

The rich, tightly structured versions of marsanne, whilst chewy and moreish on their own, benefit from the addition of food.

I feel much the same way about excellent Barolo.

Certainly, the impression one gets from the Northern Rhône—particularly the Jean-Louis Chave household—is these wines should be shared over a meal.

There are few things more satisfying than the combination of roasted pork belly, fennel and a glass of marsanne. It is one of life’s true pleasures.

Like classical music and grand architecture, marsanne has nothing to prove; it is comfortable in its own skin.

It has triumphed just the way it is and has done so for decades. The humility and confidence of the marsanne grape make its wines all the more enticing to those keen to extend their vinous journey.

As I prefer the marsanne in my glass to have a little bit of age, the latest release Bird On A Wire Marsanne is from 2014.

It has begun to develop some honey, ripe pear and spices which will be sure to develop a richer golden hue in coming years – a wine with a golden glow.