Apricots, almonds, and, above all, finesse. If I had to pick a single wine to show how great a Marsanne (in all senses of the word) can be, this would be it. The long, inviting, bitter notes on the finish are truly remarkable. Quantities are sadly small.
The Marsanne family, as their name attests, has a long and deep-rooted history in the northern Rhône, in particular around Mauves, the birthplace of the Saint-Joseph appellation. In 1920, current owner Jean-Claude’s grandfather, Jean-Pierre, became the first in the family to focus solely on vineyards—no easy task given the impossibly steep slopes of Mauves, where everything must be worked by hand and pickaxe. Jean-Pierre started with just a few small parcels, selling off his crop to prestigious négociants, and was quickly renowned throughout the region for the exceptional quality of his grapes. His untimely passing in 1950 forced his son, Jean, to quit school at age 16 to take over the domaine. He continued his father’s work in earnest, his vineyards often being recognized amongst the village’s best, not just for their exposition and soil, but also for the attention to detail young Jean paid to each vine. The grape sales financed some small land purchases in and around Mauves, and the domaine slowly grew to 3 hectares. In 1970, Jean made the leap to begin making and bottling the wines himself. Over time, a small, but loyal following developed, especially among France’s fine dining establishments, which valued the finesse and elegance of Marsanne’s cuvées. The domaine remained largely unknown on the international scene, overlooked by many journalists and clients who sought out bolder, more extracted styles. Since taking over from Jean in 1991, Jean-Claude has continued to add select new parcels, growing the domaine to 9.6 hectares. While still mostly focused on Syrah from the hallowed terroir of Mauves, he now farms a few small plots of Marsanne for his Saint-Joseph blanc, as well as some Viognier and Syrah in the Ardèche hills west of the village. He also inherited a superb plot of Crozes-Hermitage that once belonged to his grandmother. Kermit came across Jean Marsanne during his early adventures in France in the 1970s, and was struck by the wines’ aromatic complexity and Jean’s meticulous care for the vineyards. He even managed to import a few bottles in those early days. Kermit and the Marsannes lost touch and life went on, until decades later when Kermit spotted a familiar label while dining out in Paris. The bottle was ordered, uncorked, and an old collaboration was renewed. Jean-Claude holds tightly to the traditions of his family. These include farming the steepest parcels by hand, as was done by his grandfather; using indigenous yeasts for slow, natural fermentations, like his father taught him; and aging his wines extensively on fine lees, releasing each cuvée at its most expressive moment. The reunion with Marsanne is one of great pride on both sides.
On the wines of the northern Rhône, Kermit wrote in Adventures on the Wine Route, “The best combine a reminder of the sunny Mediterranean with the more self-conscious, intellectual appeal of the great Burgundies farther north, which is not a bad combination.” Like the wines of Provence, Burgundy, and Beaujolais, Kermit was introduced to this region by Richard Olney, an American ex-pat and friend of Alice Waters.
Though technically part of the same region as the southern Rhône and connected by the Rhône River, much differentiates the north from the south. The climate is continental and in general cooler than that Mediterranean climate of the south. The appellations are significantly smaller: Cornas has less than 300 acres planted to vine and Hermitage around 345. The area planted is minute when compared to Gigondas (3,000+ acres) and Châteauneuf-du-Pape (nearly 8,000 acres). Many of the great wines come from steep hillside vines—terraced during Roman times. It was clear to the Romans that great wine could be made here and DNA evidence now shows that Syrah is in fact indigenous to the Rhône.
The terroir is predominantly granite and lastly, blends of the wines are mostly single grape varieties. Only four grape varieties are permitted in AOC blends: Syrah, Viogner, Marsanne, and Roussanne (as compared to the 19 permitted varieties allowed in Châteauneuf). The red wines are nearly all Syrah and Condrieu and Château Grillet must be 100% Viogner. The whites of Hermitage, Saint Joseph, Saint Péray, and Crozes-Hermitages may only be blends of Marsanne and Roussanne.
For the wines that I buy I insist that the winemaker leave them whole, intact. I go into the cellars now and select specific barrels or cuvées, and I request that they be bottled without stripping them with filters or other devices. This means that many of our wines will arrive with a smudge of sediment and will throw a more important deposit as time goes by, It also means the wine will taste better.
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