Uncovering the Truth About a Much Misunderstood Grape: Marsanne
Chances are that names such as Roussanne and Marsanne are not part of your wine lexicon. But if you’ve had the experience of tasting these wines from top producers, be it single varietal or blends, you already know how what a special place they have in the world of white wine. If you haven’t tried them, do so. I guarantee that it will open your eyes and palates to a new white alternative to full bodied Chardonnay or Viognier.
Not unexpected, these two”sibling” grapes are often spoken in the same breath. Yet they are very different. Marsanne tends to be a more predictable grape than Roussanne in terms of yields and vinification but at the same time, often being accused of less aromatics, complexity and even a little “flabby” with thin acidity when poorly produced. However, when managed with finesse and detail attention to lower yields, these wines can be utterly mind blowing! I’ll get back to that at the end of the article.
Like Roussanne, Marsanne’s home is the Northern Rhone, and may go by alternative names such as Ermitage Blanc. It’s tends to be a full bodied, moderate-high alcohol wine and as mentioned above, is quite often blended with grapes such as Roussanne, Syrah, Viognier and Grenache Blanc. It aromatic and flavor profile combine notes of tropical white fruit and an odd waxy texture of honied orange, pear, tangerine, ripe lemon and exotic fruits such as guava, papaya, honeysuckle and dragon fruit with rich honey, almond, spice, wildflowers and at times, hints of gun flint and crushed rock. The result, when made well, is an unctuously stunning wine yet never losing its sense of fresh energy. As you’ll soon discover, it’s a superb match with food.
While Northern Rhone is the designated home of Marsanne, you’ll find it grown is the Languedoc-Roussillon of France, Australia and the US (California). While the grape is often blended with Roussanne in the St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage (and occasionally in Hermitage), it’s also permitted to constitute up to 20% of the blend in red Hermitage (Syrah). Vintners state that this “fixes” the color of the Syrah in the wine while infusing some floral elements. Interestingly enough, Marsanne produces some wonderful still and sparkling wine in the region of St. Peray. Marsanne also has some representation in the Southern Rhone, allowed in the Cotes du Rhone blanc (white) but not so in the renown Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The latter is a blend of five grapes that includes, interestingly enough, Roussanne.
Marsanne, predisposed somewhat to oxidation, can be aged in oak, but must be managed carefully to circumvent the issue of over oxidation and disruption of its natural tasting and aromatic profile.
Now for the fun………….pairing with food. With Marsanne showcasing its full, smooth, tropical honeyed texture, it’ not surprising that dishes accented with butter, cream or rich reduction sauces are a perfect “mate” for the wine as are creamy soups of cheese, potato or pumpkin. Try the wine with creamy sauced pastas. Lending a cream sauce some exotic spice, such as curry and coconut, are all the more interesting and lively, and a wonderful balance to the richer wine. If you can be patient, pairing an aged Marsanne can be a real treat, the wine acquiring more nutty tones, lending itself to pairing with rich dishes accented with macadamia or hazelnuts. Rich meats with fat such as duck and rich seafood such as lobster and scallops are outstanding marriages as is sashimi where the saltiness of the food works well with the richness of the wine. As Marsanne can be moderate to even “rich” in alcohol levels, ranging the mid range 13% upwards to 14+%, keep your distance from overly spiced or hot dishes such as southwest or Szechuan. The combination, not surprisingly, can traumatize your palate.
Finally, don’t overlook pairing these wines, especially those aged, with fruit and nut based desserts and cheeses. Remember that Marsanne has a wonderful display of tropical fruits that would simply delight the nose and palate when paired fruit based tarts. Cheese such as Havarti, Brillat-Savarin, the mild Emmenthaler, aged Asiago and aged white Cheddar are stellar.
I mentioned at the beginning of the article how phenomenal Marsanne can be in the hands of top producers and one of the best is the iconic and fanatically obsessive Michele Chapoutier. His detailed attention to biodynamic farming, yields and winemaking is beyond painstaking, reflecting his boundless energy for life. At the more affordable level, his St. Joseph Les Granits Blanc & Deschants Blanc and Hermitage Chante Alouette are all outstanding and worthy of cellaring for the next 10-15 years. And if you want to enter the “twilight zone” of unworldly wines, get your hand on the exuberant and exotic Ermitage Cuvee de l’Oree, Ermitage l’Ermite blanc, and Ermitage le Meal Blanc. All of these run, on average, from $150 to 300+ but are an experience of a lifetime! As they’re not produced in high quantity (400-800 cases per vintage) you may have to scour around a bit to find them, depending upon the vintage.
And if you can get your hands on it, pick up a bottle or two of his ridiculously gorgeous sweet dessert wine, the Hermitage Vin de Paille. Sadly, there are only a few hundred cases produced AND the 2010 was his final vintage of this wine. Additional Marsanne producers to look for are E. Guigal, Delas Frerer and Chave.