Marselan: orphan grape variety in the Okanagan
Photo: Marselan grapes
There may be just one opportunity to taste an Okanagan red wine
from a French variety called Marselan.
A 2013 Marselan was produced by Montakarn Estate Winery near
Oliver. The winery released it last year and still has some available. There is
no 2014 nor 2015 and the odds against a 2016 Marselan are very long.
The story that explains this is both interesting and
Marselan is a cross of
Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, developed in 1961 by plant breeder Paul Truel
at a research station near Montpellier in the south of France.
objective was to create a productive variety with large berries. The outcome
was different, according to the entry in Wine
Grapes, the definitive tome by Jancis Robinson and colleagues. “Marselan
turned out to have small berries and was initially neglected because it did not
offer the high yields prized then,” the authors write. It only entered the
official register of varieties in 1990 when the variety’s quality and good
disease resistance was recognized. By 2009, about 6,000 acres were being grown
in France, mostly in the Languedoc and the southern Rhone.
variety also has a toehold in Spain, Argentina, Brazil and even China. A
nursery in California also sells the vines. The Okanagan’s two-acre block of
Marselan is in a vineyard on Black Sage Road owned and operated by Pierre
was born in Alsace in 1949 in a family that has had vineyards for about 300
years. He has an agriculture degree with a minor in silviculture. He emigrated
to Canada in 1976 and, as he puts it, “wasted” 13 years in northern Quebec
before learning about the Okanagan. He moved west in 1989, grew apples for two
years and then leased a vineyard in East Kelowna for seven years.
that lease expired, he leased an apple orchard in Okanagan Falls while looking
for an opportunity to get back to growing grapes. In 1993, he bought a 25-acre
parcel on Black Sage Road, just south of Black Hills Estate Winery. He began
planting it three years later.
most of the vines from Guillaume Nurseries, a major French nursery. He planted
Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and three Muscat
was also influenced by his friendship with Günter Lang, the founder of Lang
Vineyards at Naramata, to plant Maréchal Foch. The variety produces well on the
comparatively heavy Naramata Bench. Hebting found out it was a different story
when the variety was planted on the Black Sage Bench. Foch does not thrive on
dry, sandy soil. Hebting describes his site as having beach sand to a depth of 142
“So I pulled out the Foch and I said why don’t we plant a
variety that nobody has here,” Hebting says. “So I planted Grenache. Big
mistake! I put 2,000 Grenache vines in the soil; we had a hard winter and I
So he consulted Guillaume which recommended Marselan. “I
ordered 2,000 Marselan vines and we planted them in 2008 or 2009,” Hebting says.
“After one year, we had a hard winter and we lost quite a few. We lost about
500 of them.”
Guillaume could not replace them because it had lost its
export license to ship to Canada. Hebting took cuttings from his vines to fill
in the two-acre block, which has survived since then.
Then he discovered that
Marselan was not on the list of grapes approved for producing VQA vines.
Chaberton Estate Winery, for which Hebting grows grapes, blended the 2012
Marselan into a red blend. When Chaberton discovered the variety was not
eligible for VQA, it had to refuse the bounteous five tons of Marselan that
Hebting produced in 2013.
The variety was added to the VQA list in 2014. But in 2013,
Hebting scrambled to find a home for his grapes. Steve Latchford, the winemaker at Therapy
Vineyards, took a ton of fruit for a special project he was working on. “I was
just looking for something different,” Latchford says. “It is very Grenache in
style. I picked it at 26, 27 Brix. It was pretty ripe but the acidity was
Gary Misson, the owner of Montakarn, also purchased some of
the fruit. While some of his wines go through the VQA process, it is not
difficult for him to sell a non-VQA wine from his wine shop.
He did not get any Marselan in 2014 when Chaberton resumed
taking all of Hebting’s grapes. Chaberton does not appear to have plans to
release a single varietal Marselan.
Misson would like to find another source of Marselan but no
other grower has shown any interest in planting the variety. “The problem with the variety is that you have to
have a very long warm site,” Misson says. “In 2013 we did not pick the Marselan
until mid November. It was the 13th, I believe, and 2013 was a very
That is not all holding Marselan back. Hebting has learned
that the variety, if not managed well, will overproduce significantly,
resulting in weakened vines unable to survive Okanagan winters. Hebting find he
needs to remove about half of the potential crop before veraison (when the
grapes turn colour in July).
“If I let the Marselan produce …” Hebting sighs. “In my vineyard,
we produce about three and a half tons an acre average. That Marselan would
easily produce 10 to 12 tons. It is a very labour-intensive vine.”
He is not surprised that no one has asked for cuttings from
his Marselan vines. But he is a little disappointed. “The year I gave some grapes
to Gary Mission, I made some wine too. I still have about 3,000 litres sitting
in barrels from that year. It is absolutely amazing. It is the top of the top
variety, better than Syrah.”
Here is what I wrote about Montakarn in John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide in 2014:
Misson, after several years of making kit wines, made his first dry table wine
in 1984 with Concord grapes growing on a trellis at his house. “It was not very
palatable,” he says. “It was too foxy. I gave the wine to a Romanian friend who
distilled it. He said it was the best moonshine he had ever made.”
of that experience, winemaking joined photography as serious hobbies for Gary.
Born in Campbell River in 1957, he spent 25 years sailing on tug boats and
other coastal vessels. He still has a shaggy seaman’s beard even though he
tired of the sea years ago and earned a diploma in agricultural engineering in
2003. Between classes, he vacationed in Thailand and met his wife, Monty, short
for Montakarn, which explains the winery’s name. In 2003, they bought a
four-hectare (10-acre) orchard near Oliver. “I was finishing school,” Gary
remembers. “I didn’t want to go back to the boats and tow logs and stuff.”
several years of growing peaches and apricots, his wine interest kicked in. “I
have been making wine for myself since I was 20,” he says. In 2009, he planted
about three hectares (seven acres) of Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and
Chardonnay. Despite vine damage from the bitterly cold 2009 winter, Gary
pressed ahead to make wines with consultants Philip Soo and then Daniel
Bontorin. The winery’s initial release was close to 1,000 cases.
has been pouring his wines at industry events for at least a year. I first
tasted the Marselan last spring at the British Columbia Wine Institute’s
“Bloom” tasting in Vancouver. For reasons that had nothing to do with the wine,
I never got around to researching the back story.
done so now after discovering that this wine, along with other wines from the
portfolio, remain in the market. Here are my notes.
Montakarn Tippy Toe Oaked
2013 ($22). This is a
Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc/Viognier blend.
This is a richly textured wine with just the right amount of oak. The
aromas and the flavours are full of tangerine and guava with a buttery note.
Montakarn Tippy Toe Unoaked
This is 72% Chardonnay, 18% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Viognier. It is an unusual
blend that succeeds. It has a fruity aroma and flavours of peach, apple and
citrus. The Viognier contributes to a spice in this crisp and refreshing white.
Share 2013 ($23). This is a blend of 67% Malbec, 21% Syrah and 12%
Cabernet Franc. The wine begins with aromas of black cherry, going on to
flavours of black cherry, chocolate and spice. The wine has long silky tannins
and a lingering finish. 92.
Montakarn Bella Nola
This is a blend of 82% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, 4% Syrah and 3% Malbec. The
wine begins with aromas of cassis and vanilla. On the palate, there are
flavours of black currant, vanilla and spice. 88-90.
This is 82% Marselan, 16% Syrah and 2% Cabernet Franc. The wine begins with
aromas of black currant and blackberry, with a hint of cherry. On the palate,
the cherry flavours dominate with a note of chocolate on the finish. The
tannins are ripe but firm. 90.