Wednesday, March 23, 2016

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 complicated.

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.

The 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.

The 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 Hebting.

Hebting 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.
When 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.

He imported most of the vines from Guillaume Nurseries, a major French nursery. He planted Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and three Muscat varieties.

He 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 feet.

“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 lost 90%.”

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 good.”

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 hot year.” 

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:

Gary 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.”

In spite 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.”

After 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.

Gary 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.

I have 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. 89.

Montakarn Tippy Toe Unoaked 2014 ($20). 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. 90.

Montakarn Angel 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 2013 ($22). 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.

Montakarn Marselan 2013 ($28). 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.

1 comment:

Bob Rossi said...

Several times I've been to the part of France where Marselan was started, but I'm not sure I've ever tried it unless it was a small part some wine I tried (assuming AOC rules even allow that). So if I ever get a chance to try an Okangan Marselan, I'll jump at the opportunity.