As one of Australia’s unsung white heroes, here is a potted history of marsanne in Australia. The reality is that globally so few bottles containing this erstwhile grape declare it loud and proud. It’s enough to give a grape a self-esteem issue. In its homeland along the Rhône River, Marsanne often forms a savoury-edged partnership with Roussanne and Viognier. Look for wines labelled under the guise of Hermitage or white Crozes-Hermitage.
Enter the New World and clearer labelling and surprisingly, it is still is not as commonplace as it deserves.
A bit of history of marsanne in Australia
Marsanne is no stranger to Australia where it has had a long story. Needless to say, it’s all relative compared to its Rhonish history. There are numerous producers of this fine white grape in Australia. However, the majority of these producers only have small holdings. As such, this variety is all too often consigned as a odd man out and sold through cellar door or hand sold to the on-trade. When looking at the white wine grape varieties by vineyard area in Australia, marsanne has 163 hectares. It does not feature in the latest top ten according to the Australian Bureau of statistics (2015).
Not just solo though
Over the past two decades, winemakers in Australia are showing interest in producing fragrant, curvaceous blends with marsanne, roussane and viognier. In particular, enter McLaren Vale’s d’Arenberg and the Barossa Valley’s Turkey Flat. Turkey Flat also tried a dessert version with grapes dried in the sun. D’Arenberg planted marsanne in the late 1990’s. They had the view to produce a straight varietal wine to join their straight roussanne and Viognier wines. While they have partially achieved this goal with their The Money Spider Roussanne and The Last Ditch Viognier, there are no plans afoot to now produce a straight marsanne.
Keeping this in mind though, Tahbilk’s range tells a rich story steeped in the pioneering spirit of Australian winemaking. And the Purbrick family. Nowhere else in Australia, to my knowledge, has the breadth of choice of marsanne on offer.
Click here to read more of Tahbilk’s marsanne story.
Tahbilk are marsanne masters!
The first marsanne vines were planted in the Tahbilk vineyards in Nagambie Lakes in the 1860’s. Those vines were sourced directly from the Rhone and some from St Huberts in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. Ironically, the parent vines for these vines have since perished as St Hubert’s fortunes declined around 1920’s. St Hubert’s range now includes a roussanne, but marsanne has not be re-established in their range.
According to Tahbilk, it is likely that the marsanne was used for sherry style wine production along with Verdelho and the luscious Pedro Ximenez. At the time, a large portion of all wines produced in Australia were fortified. Indeed many wizened old vines still in production today, including some of the world’s oldest grenache, are the remnants of this era.
These original marsanne vines planted on Tahbilk were lost to Phylloxera by the turn of the next century. It was during the winery’s resurrection in the late 1920’s after the Purbrick family purchased the property, that marsanne was replanted. These are the source vines for the wines under the iconic ‘1927 Vines Marsanne.’ Wines under this label will age well, with the grapes picked early to retain a higher natural acid.
Having no marsanne in the vineyard for stock, Tahbilk sourced new stock from the Rutherglen Research Station which closed in the 1970’s. Although records do not show the lineage for these particular vines, the Purbrick family think that there is a possibility that these were from the original Tahbilk plantings.
That 1953 vintage….
The Purbrick family have used their vines wisely. They currently have the largest single holding dedicated to marsanne in the world and Tahbilk have named it one of the world’s rarest grape varieties. The family have quite an enviable museum release scheme. The oldest marsanne that they have in the museum is 1953. This vintage was poured at the House of Commons luncheon to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
How to drink your marsanne …
Marsanne at any age seems to be a harmonious match with food. Like an aged Semillon, the added age gives extra facets of depth and complexity which suit a wider range of food. Only very recently though, have I heard it pop up in conversation with anyone outside of the trade. It is a relatively unknown grape varietal in Australia, seemingly only known to the diehard Rhone lovers. However, it has been gaining recognition again thanks to the sizeable reach of some of Australia’s larger family wineries, including the eclectic collection from d’Arenberg’s Osborn family.
In its youth, it can reach the heights of prettiness bringing with it the honeysuckle freshness of summer. According to d’Arenberg’s Chester Osborn, the marsanne from their vineyards ‘is quite different to Tabilk’s as it yields low on the grey cracking clay and shows pungent green mango, green papaya and pistachio character.’
As it gains a graceful decade, the marsannes from the Nagambie Lakes region, like those from the Northern Rhone seem to only just hitting their stride. The wines still retain fruit and floral detail in amongst honeyed depths. That acid backbone stays strong with some softness gained from maturity. The current museum release from Tahbilk is no exception to that rule. It is a winner.
Want the tasting notes for these wines?
click here for the tasting notes on the Tahbilk Marsannes
click here to see the tasting note for Turkey Flat Barossa White.