The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
When they were doling out grape names, marsanne must have smiled at its good fortune. "Mar-SAHN" – a lovely word, and certainly more enticing than, say, "fokiano," "prc" or "bastardo." It's got a feminine ring, but that's a deception, because grapes, being hermaphrodites, have no gender. And yet the pronunciation shares a rounded softness with wines made from this smooth, subtle and fine white variety.
Marsanne gets less attention than it deserves. There's a reason. The grape mostly ends up stirred into blends, usually with zippier, herbal roussanne and oilier viognier, its classic sidekicks, and most such cuvées are produced in France, where geographical designations, not vines, tend to take precedence on labels. If you've ever had the pleasure of uncorking a fine and rare white Hermitage, Saint-Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage from the northern Rhône Valley – ideally with roast chicken, fleshy fish or even pasta carbonara – you've probably caught a whiff of marsanne.
Richly coloured, even when not subjected to oak-barrel aging, the grape is fleshy and moderate in acidity, with restrained fruit character and delicately floral aromatics. As it matures in bottle – and it can age gracefully for up to 10 years or so – it can assume notes of nuts and honey. Think of it as chardonnay without the ego or pop-star status.
Centuries old, the vine was likely born around the commune of the same name in southeast France in the heart of the Rhône Valley. That genetic source helps explain not only the variety's continuing identification with the region, along with viognier and roussanne, but also its relative global anonymity. The Rhône remains far more famous for reds, which constitute a vast majority of the valley's output. Outside France, white Rhône wines are sort of like tripe sausage – something most people seem content to ignore.
But producers elsewhere have been doing their bit to shine a light on marsanne. Credible examples have emerged most notably from Australia and California, where the grape enjoys marquee billing on labels, either on its own or in Rhône-inspired blends blends with viognier and roussanne. Tahbilk in Australia, perhaps the grape's greatest flag-bearer, first planted the vine in the 1860s, and its fine, basic marsanne is worth seeking out at about $18 to $20. D'Arenberg, also in Australia, makes a delectably herbal viognier-marsanne blend called The Hermit Crab, which coincidentally would not be out of place on a table with crab cakes. Out of California, prominent exponents include Qupé and Cline. To a smaller extent, the vine has sprouted up in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland and even Canada. Domestic growers of marsanne-heavy Hermitage blends include Cassini Cellars, Stag's Hollow, Terravista, Le Vieux Pin and Moon Curser from British Columbia and Kew Vineyards from Niagara.
"Marsanne" – the word is getting out.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.