Humans and beavers are the only two mammals that alter their environment to suit their needs. Humans are the only ones that do it, on a large or small scale, out of curiosity AND necessity. Marselan, a hybrid-crossing of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, is one of those environmental tweaks that hasn't had much impact on the world, but it looks like it may actually be catching on. Hybrid grape varieties are genetic oddities created to result in a grape with specific characteristics. Playing with Mother Nature in this usually just results in an identity crisis of the Hermaphroditic sort.
An Unlikely Union
Marselan was created in 1961 in France. You might be wondering why such a variety doesn't fit into the realm of genetically engineered grains that Europeans so famously calumniate (is dwarf wheat really so different from a man-made crossing of two grape varieties? Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon are not native to the same regions, and so would never have reproduced with each other on their own). Not that Marselan is so warmly embraced by French growers, though there is no suspicion surrounding it in comparison to other more genetically modified plants. Grape varieties naturally procreate through cross-breeding: a strapping and multi-faceted grape like Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the union of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc in what I hope was a particularly torrid affair. Marselan is a botanical researcher's attempt to combine the breadth and heat-tolerance of Grenache with the lithe but muscular and well-structured qualities of Cabernet Sauvignon. Oh, and they wanted the vine to yield heavily at harvest...my favorite thing. As never fails to be the case, things didn't go as planned.
The Main Character
I've now had four wines made of Marselan (one of which was a blend), which is a relatively wide sample in the scheme of Marselan. They each have a few characteristics in common: Marselan is a medium-bodied wine that lacks the sense of an endoskeleton that Cabernet almost always has (unless it's been heavily manipulated), it's fruit is not so cherry-oriented as Grenache commonly is, and the vine does not yield any heavier than either parent variety. Or looking at it with a less Socratic eye, it has Cabernet Sauvignon's fruit expression with Grenache's easy, open feel. In other words, almost the exact opposite of the initial goal. You can try for it yourself, because it has been imported into the U.S. for a couple of years now, and it makes good wine.
A New Red for Your Glass
Since Marselan didn't turn out the way growers had wanted, nothing really happened with the vine commercially. Marselan has been grown in the Languedoc ever since it was first crossed, and over the course of four decades, some estates made single-variety Marselan with leftover fruit, but these weren't made for commercial release. In 2002, Domaine Devereux made the first one I'd ever seen (a gift from a friend from France), and it was pretty good. Château Camplazens 2006 Marselan is widely available and delicious, if a little too polished (it strikes me as having an 'international' character, and is therefore less distinctive), but the Domaine de Couron 2006 Marselan is first rate, with brilliant black fruit and a pure, unfettered expression. The one I found most interesting, however, was a blended wine from Domaine de la Mordorée, the great southern Rhône Valley producer: 2007 Re:NAISSANCE, which was fifty-fifty Merlot and Marselan. The soft-core luxury of Merlot gave the Marselan a velvety richness that prompted me to buy another bottle. I would've bought a case of this one, but I was in Paris, and schlepping that across the Atlantic wasn't my idea of fun. Yeah, the Mordorée was good...but not that good.
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