Marsanne carves its niche in Australia

An absolutely delicious, fresh Tahbilk Nagambie Marsanne 2006 and a more serious 2005 vintage oak-fermented version from local producer Ravensworth really hit the spot over the Christmas break – the first for its uncomplicated freshness, the second for the fragrant and forceful way it expressed the variety.

Both provide an interesting variation on the usual Australian white-wine diet of chardonnay, riesling, semillon and sauvignon blanc.

Like shiraz, marsanne arrived here from France’s northern Rhone Valley last century. Unlike shiraz, marsanne is not widely grown outside of the Rhone, nor does it enjoy the same reputation as a premium wine grape.

Damned by faint praise might be a summary of what the critics say. Jancis Robinson, in ‘Vines, Grapes and Wine’ (Mitchell Beazley, London, 1986) writes, “The vigorous Marsanne vine produces substantial quantities of deep-coloured, almost brown-tinged wine high in extract and alcohol with a very definite smell, slight but not unpleasantly reminiscent of glue of the same sort of hue. It is simply too heavy to produce a wine capable of ageing unless it is picked very early as in some Australian examples.”

In ‘Rhone Renaissance’ (Mitchell Beazley, London, 1996) Remington Norman admits its potential — ‘… Fully mature, it has an attractive, complex bouquet, often reminiscent of acacia honey and jasmine or honeysuckle; young, it is marked by a flinty tang which disappears with maturation…’, but then sinks the boot in, ‘…It needs lowish yields and thoughtful vinification, otherwise it becomes neutral and, frankly, boring.”

In fairness, the same might be said of any wine grape for the fact is that as grape yields increase flavour tends to diminish.

Alister Purbrick of Tahbilk, on an anabranch of the Goulburn River near Nagambie, Victoria, says that the marsanne vine likes producing grapes. But vertical trellising and hard hedging keeps crops to a tasty level of around 17 tonnes to the hectare — a healthy commercial crop.

Alister believes that Tahbilk’s 49 hectare marsanne holding is the largest and oldest in the world. Though phylloxera, a vine louse, wiped out the original nineteenth century plantings of the variety, Eric Purbrick, Alister’s grandfather, established 6.5 hectares in 1927 and 5.5 hectares in 1935.

Though these two plantings proved to be a fruit salad of varieties, expert ampelographers later ascertained that marsanne constituted about eighty-five per cent of the two vineyards.

And that explains why, when neighbouring Mitchelton Winery established its vineyard from Tahbilk cuttings in 1969 it ended up with the same Joseph’s coat of varieties.

Remington Norman incorrectly reports in ‘Rhone Renaissance’ that some of Tahbilk’s 1860s marsanne vines are still productive. They are, in fact, long dead. However, the 1927 plantings may be the world’s oldest – phylloxera having wiped out most of France’s vineyards in the nineteenth century.

Rhone Valley wine makers Guigal and Chapoutier visited Australia in 1995, recalls Purbrick, and to their knowledge the oldest marsanne in the northern Rhone was planted in the 1930s.

However lukewarm the critics, Alister finds demand insatiable, measuring Tahbilk’s production in the tens of thousands of cases every year.

Growing interest in Rhône varieties in Australia has seen dozens of producers join Tahbilk and Mitchelton in offering marsanne, either as a straight variety or in various blends.

It’s a variety worth exploring. And there are no better starting points than Tahbilk Nagambie 2006 ($17) and Ravensworth Canberra District 2005 ($22).

WINE REVIEWS

Domain Day Mount Crawford Garganega 2006 $19.95
After a long stint at Orlando Wines, for several years as chief winemaker, Robin Day established his own vineyards at Mount Crawford in the elevated, cool southeastern extremity of the Barossa. Robin’s 30-year viticultural and winemaking experience shows in the superior quality of wines he makes from traditional varieties and the more exotic viognier, sangiovese, saperavi, lagrein, garganega and sagrantino. The latest garganega (an Italian white variety and the main contributor to Verona’s Soave) is just delicious. For a little fun serve it masked to your wine-buff friends and ask them to guess the variety. See domaindaywines.com

Pizzini King Valley Coronomento Nebbiolo 2002 $110
Nebbiolo, the grape of Barbaresco and Barolo in Italy’s Piemonte region is notoriously difficult to grow and make into wine. Even the Italians struggle with it, quite often achieving a magnificently scented wine whose tannins, unfortunately, grip the palate with the tenacity of a pit-bull. The very best are profound and have a kernel of sweet fruit that rises above the firm tannin frame. In Victoria’s King Valley, Fred Pizzini, gave the variety the best site in his vineyard and after twenty years he’s come up with Australia’s salute to Barolo, including the ‘tar and roses’ aroma and very powerful but elegant palate. See www.pizzini.com.au

Neagles Rock Clare Valley Riesling 2006 $18
Jane Wilson and Steve Wiblin left the world of corporate wine in the mid nineties, headed for South Australia’s Clare Valley and now make lovely regional wines that consistently fare well in Chateau Shanahan tastings. Recent hits included Mr Duncan Cabernet Shiraz 2005i and this juicy, fresh riesling, consumed over the festive break. It appealed to young and old palates alike with its approachable, soft and delicate citrus-like varietal flavours. Some riesling needs time to soften, but Neagles Rock hits the pleasure buttons now and would probably evolve nicely for another five or six years if well cellared. See www.neaglesrock.com.au

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

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