Marsanne & Roussanne
Often found in blends together, the cousin varieties Marsanne & Roussanne are almost synonymous with one another, yet their fruit yield very different qualities to complement one another.
- One of the world’s rarest varietals
- Only found in France, Switzerland, America, and Australia
- Synonyms: Marsana, Ermitage, Ermitage Blanc, Grosse Roussette, Hermitage.
- Synonyms: Bergeron, Fromental.
- Found in France, Italy, America, and other small plantings around the world
Named after a commune near Montélimar in the Drôme region of northern Rhône, Marsanne has been established in the region since birth. With evidence connecting it with Roussanne in a cousin like fashion, yet almost as though it is a parent of Roussanne.
Being of a reddish-gold skin colour, Roussanne is named after the French word ‘Roux’ meaning “Russet”, even though it is a white wine varietal. Originating in northern Rhône Valley similar to that of Marsanne, it is also where the majority of the vines have remained.
Most famous for its use in the white wines of Hermitage, Marsanne has not ventured much further afield. Even within France, it is only really found in the Rhône Valley and Savoie wine regions, where it is utilised in several blends with Roussanne.
Australia claims to have the oldest and largest single planting of the varietal in the world, and has embraced the unique grape wholeheartedly. The king of Marsanne being Tahbilk in Victoria, where the grape first arrived in the country in the 1860s, and still has plantings from 1927.
The only other two countries that have tried their hand in growing and producing Marsanne is America and Switzerland, with the Swiss Alps not dissimilar to the French terroir of Savoie.
With its birthplace in Northern Rhone, Roussanne is planted across the valley as well as further afield in Provence and Languedoc, unlike the rare Marsanne grapes. It is also one of the 6 white wine grapes permitted to be grown in the Châteauneuf du Pape AOC in South Rhone, allowed to be blended not only with other whites but with reds as well.
America has an interesting history with Roussanne, as many thought it to have established vines for several decades until a DNA test in 1998 proved it to be plantings of Viognier and not Roussanne. This highlighted the similarities around the rich and oily texture of the grapes with spiced, apricot flavours, also heading to the fact that both these grapes blend well with Marsanne.
More flavourful in cool and dry climates, the heavy body of the wine doesn’t crush the flavours as much as it does in hotter climates. Marsanne vines are vigorous and highly productive so yields must be kept in check with its preferred terroir being that of rocky hillside soils. Any soil filled with limestone, clay, granite, and chalk can suit this grape, and can be found across the Northern parts of the Rhone Valley along with a cool climate with intermittent rain aiding the grapes in summer. Being small in size the fruit grows in bunches that are spacious and not compacted to allow for air to circulate each grape. While this allows quality nourishment, the grapes can turn quickly and lose their acidity not long after being ripe so often winemakers opt to harvest just before they become ripe to capture maximum amounts of acidity.
Preferring a warm and sunny climate to ripen to its full potential, Roussanne is much more susceptible to mildew and rot if not in the right kind of climate. Unlike Marsanne, these grapes grow in tight bunches, preventing airflow that otherwise could aid in rot prevention. Yet similar to its cousin varietal, these berries can turn quickly after ripening and once harvested they could oxidise quickly and suddenly if not cared for in the vatting room. The yearn for warmer climates finds Roussanne being planted in the South of France where the sun is out for longer and there is slightly more shelter from the cool winds of the North.
Together, Roussanne blended with Marsanne is the dynamic wine all Rhone valley drinkers know of. With Marsanne bringing fat, rich, oily textures, as well as a sweetness to the wine, while Roussanne brings the higher acidity, with elegant and aromatic complexities. Together they hold the monopoly of white wines in Saint-Joseph and Saint-Péray in the Rhone Valley.
Marsanne is the key to adding depth and rich textures to a wine, the blend needing the grape to produce a rich, deep colour and bring through the flavours and scents of roasted nuts, pears, white peaches, honeydew melon, spice and flowers. The late-ripening varietal, Roussanne, produces powerful whites presenting intense aromas featuring fresh flowers, peaches, herbs, pears, spice, roasted nuts, and hints of pepper.
A very versatile wine, Marsanne suits leafy salads, shellfish and white fish when in its youth, and roasted poultry, oily fish, creamy pasta and lightly spiced curries when aged to its full, rich potential.
Similarly, Roussanne is a perfect accompaniment with seafood dishes, especially shellfish, cod, lobster, crab, and of course the most important fish dish of Southern France, bouillabaisse. Not to shy away from poultry and other light meats, a nice roast chicken, pork, or veal with creamy sauces and spicy flavours are always enjoyable.