A 11-year project by the Cellar Master of Waverley Hills in the Tulbagh Wine Valley, Johan Delport, came to fruition recently with the first marselan grapes ever being harvested for winemaking in South Africa!
Marselan is a red variety that was bred in 1961 in France through a crossing of its two very well-known parents, cabernet sauvignon and grenache noir.
Delport started with this project in 2009 by importing the first marselan plant from France. After a regulation 1 year quarantine period, Vititec, the vine nursery in Paarl, started with the multiplication process of the plant. After years of multiplying and setting up small experimental vineyards, the first commercially viable number of marselan vines were planted at Waverley Hills in 2016, under strict certified organic practices. After 4 years the first grapes were harvested and the first marselan wine will be released in 2021.
But a bit more about the story behind marselan. It was first bred in 1961 by Paul Truel near the French town of Marseillan in an effort to produce high-yielding vines with large berries of moderate quality. As marselan could only produce small berries, the variety was shelved and considered not likely to be commercially viable. However, viticultural trends in the late 20th century began to value lower yielding varieties with good disease resistance to hazards like powdery mildew and this encouraged the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) to revisit marselan. The vine was submitted for approval for commercial release and was entered in the official register of grape varieties in 1990.
Incidentally, the name marselan is taken from the French coastal town of Marseillan located between Béziers and Montpellier in Southern France.
Marselan tends to produce large clusters of small berries that are mid-late ripening. It has strong disease resistance to botrytis bunch rot and powdery mildew, as well as to coulure and mites.
In France the vine is grown mostly in the Languedoc region, with some plantings in California, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Tunisia and now also South Africa. It has also become very popular in China. The grape usually produces a medium-bodied red wine.
Along with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, marselan is one of the grapes planted in the Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard, a collaboration project between the Chinese and French government intended to generate interest in winemaking (from grapes) in China by demonstrating French grapes and winemaking techniques.
As of 2009, there are 1 356 hectares of marselan planted in France, mostly in the Languedoc and southern Rhône Valley. It is mainly used in blends though some varietal examples have been produced in the Languedoc with the first single varietal marselan being produced in 2002 in Carcasonne.
Marselan was bred to combine the finesse and quality of cabernet Sauvignon to the colour potential, heat tolerance and high yielding capabilities of grenache. According to Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, marselan tends to produce deeply coloured and highly aromatic wines with supple tannins and the potential to age.