Marsanne, the most widely planted white grape of the northern Rhone Valley, has a long history-- not in single varietal bottlings, but rather as a blending grape. In Hermitage, Marsanne is blended with Roussane to produce the white wine of the appellation; in our opinion, white Hermitage is one of the most overlooked great wines of the world. Incidentally, along with Roussane, up to 15% of Marsanne can be added to the red wines of Hermitage under AOC regulations. For a stellar example of white Hermitage, try Chave's Hermitage Blanc.
Apart from these origins in the Rhone, Marsanne plantings have expanded in Australia, so much that now 80% of the world's Marsanne is grown there. The grape was first planted in Australia in 1860, and while most of these original vines are gone, the wines in the vineyard of Chateau Tahbilk, in Victoria, are among the oldest in the world, dating to 1927.
A number of challenges in viticulture stand in the way of single varietal Marsanne exploding in popularity. The grape is highly sensitive to extreme temperatures: when the climate is too warm, Marsanne is short on acidity, limiting its ability to age well; when climate is too cool, the wines tend to be neutral and uninteresting. One strategy employed by winemakers is to harvest Marsanne just before it hits full ripeness, in order to retain some acidity.
When Marsanne is bottled on its own, expect a light straw colored wine that is rich in body, with hints of spice, melon and pear. Noteworthy new world producers of the grape include the aforementioned Chateau Tahbilk as well as Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, California. But, ultimately, for the best expression of this grape, even blended, stay in the northern Rhone.
Pair Marsanne and its related blends with shellfish and seafood.