Always the Bridesmaid

Paul Blow

Of the three best-known white grapes of France’s northern Rhône Valley—Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne—Marsanne is easily the least celebrated. In the last few years, floral-and-honey-scented Viognier has barreled ahead as a viable alternative to Chardonnay. Rhône aficionados love Roussanne for its flamboyant flavors of tropical fruits and exotic spices.

Put head to head against its flowery brethren, Marsanne can seem oily and fairly heavy and high-alcohol for a white wine. But this is a grape for those who love structure. It has enough acid to keep it firm, the weight to satisfy our desire for substance, and a mineral texture to keep it interesting. When all those things are in place, who needs flowery aromatics?

Structure is our sense of a wine’s shape both in space and in time. Technically, it’s the interplay of fruit, alcohol, acid, and tannin. In a wine, we sense those things together, creating the sensation of a shape in the mouth as well as a sort of narrative—the progression of flavors on the tongue.

Jeff Cohn, the owner-winemaker of JC Cellars in Oakland, California, is a Marsanne convert. He told me that, after traveling to France two years ago, “this majestic grape was no longer my inspiration, but my obsession.”

Returning from a recent trip to France, Cohn is just as smitten (“I feel like I’ve come from a revival meeting”). “Viognier is so fruity and obvious, Roussanne is pretty and full of finesse,” says Cohn, “but Marsanne is a grape of real sophistication. Tasting it forces you to ask the question: What is this wine showing me? And the answer is, of course, the vineyard. Few grapes are as transparent as Marsanne—the levels of stony flavor and mineral texture are just insane.”

Even though it’s not famous by name, Marsanne comprises some of the most expensive and sought-after white wines of the Rhône’s famous Hermitage appellation. The J.L. Chave Hermitage Blanc is considered top of the heap and is extravagantly expensive, but other great Hermitage Marsannes abound, such as E. Guigal’s Hermitage Blanc, M. Chapoutier’s Chante-Alouette, Marquise de la Tourette from Delas Frères, and Paul Jaboulet’s Chevalier de Sterimberg (two-thirds Marsanne, one-third Roussanne). You might also look for whites from the Saint-Péray and Saint-Joseph appellations; these will be predominantly Marsanne, with perhaps just 5 to 6 percent Roussanne. Guigal and Alain Graillot are reliable producers. (Roussanne is sometimes blended in—either intentionally or incidentally—in small amounts, because the Roussanne vines simply grow amongst the Marsanne.)

Although less popular in the United States than in the Rhône, some very fine Marsannes are made here. As of 2005, only 69 acres of Marsanne were planted in California, with Viognier and Roussanne having 2,200 and 180, respectively. My favorite domestic Marsanne is made by Qupé from California’s Central Coast. Marsanne ages beautifully, and Qupé’s 8- to 12-year-old bottles taste like liquid almonds with orange zest and spice. But in the meantime, Qupé’s 2004 and 2005 are drinking quite well. Also from the Central Coast, Beckmen Vineyards produces a particularly fine Marsanne, a mineral wine with intriguing notes of ginger. And of course there’s Jeff Cohn’s, which he makes from grapes sourced from the Preston vineyard in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley. His first vintage is 2005, and it smells enticingly of nuts, pears, and honey. It’s a bit oaky, but given some time that oak will be absorbed into a wine that deserves the passion with which Cohn is promoting it.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.