A new grape variety could be starting to make a name for itself. Marselan, named after Marseillan, the small town on France's Mediterranean coast where it was first grown, has been garnering attention for the past few years in the European market from producers and consumers alike. And now wines made from the grape are beginning to arrive in the United States.
In mid-June, prompted by an inquiry from Arizona-based wine importer Robert Hopkins, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau added Marselan to its list of grape varieties that can be used on the labels of imported wines. Along with wines from other small producers in the south of France, Hopkins now imports Axios, the first 100 percent Marselan legal for import and sale in the U.S. The wine is produced at Domaine de la Camarette in the Cotes du Ventoux appellation.
First bred in 1961 by researchers at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), Marselan is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. The INRA researchers hoped to get a grape variety with the heartiness, color and heat tolerance of Grenache, and the finesse of Cabernet. But Marselan failed to satisfy growers' desires for a naturally heavy-cropping variety, so they more or less ignored it for the next thirty years.
The first Marselan varietal wine was made in 2002 by a winery near Carcassone called Domaine Devereux. At least four other French wineries are also now making Marselan, one of them being a co-op facility. All of the French Marselan producers are located in the Languedoc region.
As for its flavor, "It's not what most Americans expect from Cab. Most people have experienced California Cab as being fruit, herb, and oak," said Mulan Chan, French wine buyer for San Francisco retailer K&L Wine Merchants. "But this has no wood. It's a medium rather than a full-bodied wine."
Is there a future for U.S.-grown Marselan? Perhaps. Steve Maniaci, general manager of Sunridge Nurseries in Bakersfield, Calif., currently the sole purveyor of Marselan in the United States, said that he has been selling the variety to growers for the past three years. "Winemakers are asking for those unknown varieties to put a unique twist on their wines," he said, adding that he's sold about 5,000 cuttings of the variety over the past two years, "mostly in the North Coast appellations."
To date, Wine Spectator has tasted three Marselans from France: the Château Camplazens Marselan Vin de Pays d'Oc 2005 (81 points, $17); the Domaine de Couron Marselan Vin de Pays des Coteaux de l'Ardèche 2006 (88, $9); and Domaine de la Mordorée Merlot-Marselan Vin de Pays du Gard Renaissance 2006 (not yet rated, $13)..