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With a Golden Glow
Edition Four

With a Golden Glow

The Story

  • Author Caroline Mooney
  • Location Alquimie HQ

As the winemaker for Bird on a Wire, Caroline Mooney shares her expertise on marsanne—a humble grape variety capable of creating transcendent wines. 

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. On the Drôme side of the valley—in Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage—it is commonly incorporated into red wines (at a ratio of up to 15 per cent) as a compliment to syrah, providing further richness. The elusive and beguiling vin de paille (literally translating to ‘straw wine’) is another permutation of marsanne that offers an unctuous sweetness and the perfect foil for foie gras. Aside from these wines, marsanne is also known to be the star of white hermitage—as either a single variety or blended with a little roussanne. Crossing over the Rhône and moving into Saint-Péray in the Ardèche, producers frequently utilise marsanne in their sparkling wines, as well as their table wines. Furthermore, 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 that the producers working with marsanne are a quiet bunch. They are rural and earthed vignerons from the Rhône and their propagation and admiration of this variety shows no regard to social media mention 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 that there have been a few compromised import batches in the past, most likely due to a lack of cork quality. However, in more recent times, an increased focus on the tail end of the production process—particularly quality assurance—is delivering more 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. However, 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 its 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. They represent white wine suited to red wine drinkers. On countless occasions, the strength held within this style 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. 

Tahbilk ‘1927 Vines’ Marsanne, Nagambie Lakes, Victoria 2004, 11 % abv 100 % Marsanne
This wine is such a large departure from traditional marsanne. Akin to a comparison between Bordeaux sémillon and Hunter Valley sémillon, this version of Australian marsanne is a much leaner style of wine. It’s formed a life of its own. The texture in this wine is not what I would usually expect from marsanne skins: it’s more like texture from acidity. The nose is different from equivalent French marsannes: this wine has a lanolin, wet wool and lime quality that we usually associate with riesling. I’m wondering if this lean character is synonymous with low alcohol? It is lovely and refreshing but I’m not sure that it is typically marsanne. [CM]

David Reynaud ‘Aux Bêtises d’Eloïse et Léa’ Crozes-Hermitage, Northern Rhône 2012, 13.5 % abv, 70 % Marsanne and 30 % Roussanne
Glycerol and alcohol slip, honeyed apricots but not as much depth. It is a good example but it seemingly confirms a theory regarding Crozes-Hermitage wines: it appears regional winemakers struggle to make wines comprising marsanne alone—they are inclined to incorporate a bit of roussanne. Sites from this area experience quite a warm environment and ripeness tends to run away before the other parts of the fruit have developed enough to fill out the mid-palate. The wine displays an element of viognier, also apricot character. It is very lovely but quite simple. [CM]

M. Chapoutier ‘Les Granits’ Blanc, Saint-Joseph, Northern Rhône 2008, 13.5 % abv, 100 % Marsanne
Pushing six years of bottle age, this wine has now reached its optimum drinking window. On first sniff, the fruit is honey glazed with apricot kernel and lemon curd notes coming through. Very much defined by its vintage, the acidity is reasonably high for a marsanne and quite angular on the finish. There is a lovely interaction between glycerol and skins bitterness on the palate: this leaves the palate fresh. This is a dense wine but a classic expression of the grape. [cm]

M. Chapoutier ‘Le Méal’ Blanc, Hermitage, Northern Rhône 2011, 14 % abv, 100 % Marsanne
This wine has loads of glycerol spice. I questioned whether the phenolic content was high enough to balance that swamp of glycerol. Aromas of white flower and leatherwood honey with great depth: as it opened up, I felt like the phenolics were coming up a bit—sitting in the glycerol. On the finish there was a lovely quinine bitterness that helped to pull all the broadness in and give the wine good length. It is flamboyant and unique and will age well over the next three to seven years. [CM] 

The endeavour to plant marsanne in the correct soil is just as important as that associated with any of the first-tier noble varieties. The right soils provide the best opportunity for the complex interplay between glycerol, phenolics and alcohol to arise. Concordantly, when the subsequent wines age, they are able to build great depth despite the absence of acidity.

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 wine that is flabby and lacking freshness. In juxtaposition, when these elements are balanced in just the right manner, the resultant wine is transcendent.

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. In a twist of fate, this process helps to complete the balance in the wine. As a country that has been 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; departure from the established expectation is difficult.

Consumers expecting marsanne to act as yet another cool and zesty summer refreshment could possibly be disappointed. Nevertheless, the marsanne wine style should not be a casualty of the trend towards lean acid-driven whites; conformity would cost the style its identity. If I was to impose a ‘drinking seasonality’ onto the marsanne wines that 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 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 that 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. A

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