Even if bestowed with singular character and outstanding quality, many grape varieties nonetheless remain at the regional level rather than becoming international varieties; not that becoming one is the ultimate goal of any variety, as the ubiquity and halo effect that come along with the status do sometimes carry unintended consequences, notably backlashes such as the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) movement.
Country after country, and indeed region after region, regional varieties tend to share some if not all of the following similarities. First, their character and quality are beyond question. Second, they tend to be low-yielding and/or tricky to handle and/or susceptible to disease and fungus. Third, they tend to be demanding when it comes to climate and terroir, requiring the best plots in a given region, hence ending up in David vs Goliath battles, e.g. Aligoté vs Chardonnay in Bourgogne and Elbling vs Riesling in Mosel.
Purportedly named after its eponymous birthplace, Marsanne is an archetypally characterful regional variety. Its spiritual home is indubitably northern Rhône, whose stellar appellations such Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Saint-Péray make good use of Marsanne in sparkling, white, red and sweet wine, whether as single-varietals or in blends.
The eagle-eyed would notice that these are precisely the spiritual homes of the mighty Syrah. Indeed, Marsanne does require the best sites, which are more often than not occupied by Syrah in northern Rhône. Despite its inherent vigour, Marsanne is prone is diseases and no means easy to handle: if the weather is too cool, grapes fail to ripen fully; too warm, body overpowers any flavour.
Having said that, with newfound fashion and at the cost of its closely related Roussanne – which is more aromatic yet more difficult to handle – Marsanne has spread to southern Savoie, Rhône, Languedoc-Roussillon and even Switzerland, as well as various English-speaking countries in the New World. If not as single-varietals, Marsanne often appears as blends with Viognier, Roussanne Grenache Blanc and Chardonnay. Marsanne’s relationship with Roussanne as well as the duo’s status is uncannily similar to Rotgipfler and Zierfandler of Thermenregion, Austria.
Situated at the southeastern tip of the island continent, Victoria may not be the biggest wine-producing area of Australia, but it certainly is home to many of its most elegant wines. Of all its regions and sub-regions, Nagambie Lakes stands out as the doppelgänger of northern Rhône. Whereas the first Marsanne vines were planted here in the 1860s, coincidentally during the Victorian era, Tahbilk’s Marsanne vineyards date back to the 1920s. M. Chapoutier and E. Guigal remain the most renowned producers of Marsanne, but Tahbilk is arguably kind in the southern hemisphere.
Tahbilk Nagambie Lake Marsanne 2011
Translucent citrine with shimmering golden reflex, the refreshing nose offers lime peel, lemon, starfruit and fresh herbs. Braced by bright acidity and clean minerality, the lively palate delivers pomelo peel, grapefruit, guava and crushed seashell. Medium-bodied at 11.5%, the high-spirited entry continues through a tangy mid-palate, leading to a herbal finish.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages