Marselan magic | Good wines, good music, good weather, good times

Events

You don’t see many tastings in Beijing with 30-plus wines featuring the same grape, but we did one for 50 consumers at The Merchants to celebrate Marselan, a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache Noir that’s seen as particularly promising in China.

The tasting was part of this year’s festivities for World Marselan Day, officially held on April 27 to mark the birthday of Paul Truel, who created this grape in southern France in 1961. And we swapped the usual lectures and the PowerPoint presentations for a DJ and a sprawling outdoor area where people could chill and enjoy a few glasses with friends.

Frankly, the consumer side of China’s wine trade often feels pretty lackluster compared to the craft beer, cocktail and spirits scenes. Anything that gets consumers interested / imbibing is welcomed, especially given so much Marselan is downright delicious.

Our ~30 wines mostly hailed from across China, with a handful from France and Bulgaria. (Marselan is commercially produced in over two dozen countries, from Brazil and Uruguay to Spain and Serbia to Russia and Israel.)

And our attendees were mostly enthusiast younger Chinese consumers ready to try and in some cases buy—and who did not balk at prices of USD50 per bottle and up. I took it as another sign of local brands, including for wine, gaining acceptance among such consumers.

Anyway, there were two tables of wines. I handled the one with Marselan from Ningxia, Shanxi, Beijing and Shandong while the guys from Huailai wine region, just outside Beijing, handled their wines plus those from Xinjiang and abroad.

While pouring wines for four hours, a few themes did emerge. One, some attendees did have Chinese wine experience and knew a few brands, like Grace Vineyard from Shanxi and Silver Heights from Ningxia. Two, many were interested in trying natural / biodynamic / minimal intervention / etc wine and, in turn, the Marselan blend by Petit Garden from Ningxia. And three, people wanted to taste the most expensive wine, in this case, by Desert Winery of Ningxia. Beyond that, most people were also happy to try something new, to try brands they hadn’t heard of before.

And beyond a one-page sheet about Marselan, we didn’t push the education side much, opting instead to just provide info when asked. And to keep refilling glasses as we all enjoyed some good music, good weather and good company.

Thanks to The Merchants, the Huailai wine region guys, the wineries who gave samples and the consumers who turned up for a fun day. See below for a list of wineries involved.

(Note: This was one of numerous Marselan events held in at least a dozen cities in China this year. I’ll post more about those other activities. You can also check out our series of Q&As on the World Marselan Day blog, including with Lionel Le Gal, Charlie Xie (Desert Winery), Deng Zhongxiang (Charme and Lansai), Evan Goldstein and Chris Ruffle (Treaty Port Winery).

Marselan Q&A | Shanghai-based Lionel Le Gal

Marselan Q&A

Shanghai-based Lionel Le Gal has held a World Marselan Day event every year since the project launch in 2018. I asked Le Gal, who is a Chinese wine expert, organizes tastings, writes for Global Gourmet and has joined harvests at Yunnan’s Xiaoling Estate and Lapu Valley winery, about his experiences.”

Boyce: What have been the themes of World Marselan Day events you have held over the years?

Le Gal: In 2018, I was in charge of a wine bar project, so I featured Marselan by the glass, as a discovery theme.

In 2019, we did a home BBQ party: this is how I discovered that Russia was a Marselan producer!

In 2020, just past the worst of the COVID-19 crisis, we managed to put together a tasting for the trade and consumers, with a lineup of 20 Chinese Marselans from four regions, with help from CLOVITIS, a winemaking consulting agency.

And for 2021, our event will feature a winery owner, who was a pioneer in planting Marselan in Bulgaria!

How have the trade and consumers reacted to this grape? Do people who attend already know something about it?

For the trade, it usually revolves around curiosity and wine knowledge, getting to know market trends and niche / exotic grapes. Consumers are also curious and keen to show off they know something about a unique grape.

Usually, attendees have already heard about Marselan and wish to do a deep dive, to know more about the styles, history and regions.

You have tried Marselan from across China. What regional differences do you find?

In Shandong, Marselan tends to have a light body, and a mineral, almost saline, character. Ningxia and Xinjiang Marselans are lush and opulent, due to long maturity from good strong sunshine. And in Hebei, the wines are concentrated, with high tannins and big aging potential.

Beyond the regional differences, wine-making practices have a lot of influence on the wine style. Terroir is made of weather, soil and winemakers.

Do you think Marselan can become China’s signature grape, as some people hope? Do you see any other grapes with great potential?

Possibly, as long as some work is done on pricing in order to produce entry-level cuvée. China’s wine landscapes and climates are very diverse, so I can eventually foresee a specific grape by region, though this will take 20 to 30 years to come to completion.

Malbec, Syrah, Tempranillo and Pinot Noir are on trial at different corners of Chinese vineyards. I am looking forward to seeing some Grenache and also Italian grapes, too.

Say I’m a curious consumer on a limited budget. What are three Marselans can I try?

Excelsis Vineyard 2019 (Penglai, Shandong) 满酌香酒庄, 圣膺嘉酿, 蓬莱南王缹, 2019 (240 RMB)

Grace Vineyard, Tasya’s Reserve Marselan 2017 (Taiyuan, Shanxi) 怡园酒庄, 山西 (RMB 257)

Petite Garden, Be4 Marselan (Helan Mountain, Ningxia) 小圃酿造, B4 马瑟兰, 马瑟兰, 贺兰山东麓, 2017 (RMB 298)

But those are still quite highly priced for entry range!

(Check out more Marselan Q&As here.)

Marselan Selection: ‘China’s grape’ gets a major contest

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Belgium-based Concours Mondial, which runs some of the most influential wine and spirits competitions, is partnering with the Huailai region just beyond Beijing for an event focused on Marselan, which some call “China’s grape” due to the tasty wines it is producing across the nation two decades after being introduced. The announcement of Marselan Selection was made on April 2 in Chengdu ahead of Tang Jiu Hui, China’s biggest and most important alcohol trade fair.

Marselan Selection is slated for September 9 to 11 in Huailai, which the promoters spell Hwailai, and is the most recent niche Concours Mondial contest, with others focused on topics such as sake, rose and Mexican wine. Marselan is now made in more than two dozen countries.

Concours Mondial’s flagship wine contest was also slated to be held in China this year, in May in the Ningxia region, but was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.

The Chengdu launch party included speeches from Concours Mondial and China / Huailai wine reps, a tasting of over 20 wines and a delicious Sichuan-inspired tea break. It also featured a birthday cake to celebrate 20 years of Marselan in China–the first vines were planted a joint project between the governments of China and France. It is now privately owned and known as Domaine Franco-Chinois.

I’m still in catch up / recovery mode from a week spent in Chengdu for Tang Jiu Hui but will be posting more about Marselan and other wine adventures there.

(Note: The Marselan Selection Chengdu event organizers covered my expenses to attend and speak about my World Marselan Day project, but I am not involved in the contest beyond that.)

Desert Life | Marselan Q&A with Nianqi ‘Charlie’ Xie

Marselan Q&A

Ningxia Life Desert Winery is among the few operations in China focused on the Marselan grape. I asked managing director Xie Nianqi aka Charlie Xie about this winery in the Qingtongxia area of Ningxia in north-central China.

Boyce: Could you tell us a bit about Desert Winery?

Xie: Ningxia Life Desert Winery was established in 2017 in Qingtongxia, on the eastern side of the Helan Mountains. The first vineyard is 80 mu (5.3 hectares), with Marselan as the primary grape. We started cultivating a second vineyard measuring 255 mu (17 hectares) at the start of this year. Meanwhile, both a winemaking building and an affordable luxury hotel are under construction.

Our focus is cultivating, making wine with and marketing Marselan. Besides our barrel-aged Marselan, there will be a series of other wines, including the upcoming reserve Marselan.

What convinced you guys to focus on Marselan? Where did you source the vines?

After many investigations, we noticed the excellent performance of Marselan in Qingtongxia. Marselan is very suitable for the climate and soil here and has both disease and insect resistance. The sugar and phenols accumulate well in the grapes. And Marselan wine naturally offers diversity and complexity.

Marselan is also a new grape variety, with a huge growth space compared with other varieties. Our vines originated in southern France and are all virus-free. They were grafted in China.

What are the biggest challenges with Marselan, in terms of growing the grapes and selling the wines?

In terms of growing, the biggest problem is the lack of workers. Our grapes are picked by hand and there is a shortage of labor. The vines in Qingtongxia also need to be buried for the winter, a project that requires a huge amount of labor. Burying is the best way to help the grapes survive the winter.

For sales, China’s alcohol market is still dominated by [the spirit] baijiu, and the wine share is very low. Baijiu culture is prevalent, so wine culture promotion and sales are difficult.

With the improvements in China due to the national opening up policy and of people’s living standards, more and more consumers choose affordable wines. Our barrel-aged Marselan is a high-end product, so the biggest problem is that we need to quickly enhance its reputation and popularity.

Qingtongxia is among the stronger regions for Marselan in China. What distinguishes the Marselan here?

Like other top wine-producing areas around the world, the core advantage of Qingtongxia is the natural conditions. Qingtongxia has a continental arid or semi-arid climate, has an average altitude of more than 1000 meters, and is covered with calcareous soil and pebbles, giving the earth good water permeability. The sunshine time is up to 3000 hours per year and, with a large temperature difference between day and night, the grapes can slowly grow and mature.

If someone asks, “What is Desert Winery Marselan like?”, what would you say? And what is your favorite food with your wine?

Our wine is deep dark red and has a rich aroma, with blueberry and violet characteristics. You can also smell a bit of clove and cinnamon. The wine is full-bodied with firm structure. The tannins are delicate, balanced and elegant.

For food pairings, I would recommend Sichuan cuisine, braised lamb, steak and barbecue.

(Read more Marselan Q&A here.)

Marselan Selection: A New Concours Mondial Contest

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Belgium-based Concours Mondial, which runs some of the most influential wine and spirits competitions, is partnering with the Huailai region just beyond Beijing for an event focused on Marselan, which some call “China’s grape” due to the tasty wines it is producing across the nation two decades after being introduced. The announcement of Marselan Selection was made on April 2 in Chengdu ahead of Tang Jiu Hui, China’s biggest and most important alcohol trade fair

Marselan Selection is slated for September 9 to 11 in Huailai, which the promoters spell Hwailai, and is the most recent niche Concours Mondial contest, with others focused on topics such as sake, rose and Mexican wine. Marselan is now made in more than two dozen countries.

Concours Mondial’s flagship wine contest was also slated to be held in China this year, in May in the Ningxia region, but was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.

The Chengdu launch party included speeches from Concours Mondial and China / Huailai wine reps, a birthday cake to celebrate 20 years of Marselan in China, a tasting of over 20 wines and a delicious Sichuan-inspired tea break. I’ll post more about all that soon.

(Note: The organizers covered my expenses to attend and speak on World Marselan Day in 2018, but I am not involved in the contest beyond that.)

Marselan Q&A | Winemaker Deng Zhongxiang

Marselan Q&A

 
Trained in France and a consultant for a half-dozen wineries in Ningxia, Deng Zhongxiang has tried his hand at grapes ranging from Cabernet to Pinot Noir to—surprise, surprise—Malbec. He also makes Marselan for wineries like Charme, Lansai and Rong Yuan Mei, so I asked him a few questions about his experience.

Boyce: Could you tell us about your first experience with Marselan?
 
Deng: Actually, that wine was from Pu Shang in Ningxia. It had amazing aromas of pure blueberry and violet. So delicate. Very impressive.
 
How does Marselan fit into Ningxia’s climate and terrain?
 
This variety has good disease resistance, thick skin and deep color. It’s very suitable for the strong sunshine of Ningxia and reaches ideal maturity.
 
There is debate about whether Marselan is for single varietal or for blending. What’s your take?
 
It depends on what style or type of wine you are going to make. Marselan is beautiful in color, excellent in aroma and soft in taste, but lacking in structure and hierarchy. If you just want to make fruity wine, a single variety will achieve that goal. But if you want more advanced wine, the key is how to supplement the structure and increase the sense of complexity.
 
What is the consumer response to Marselan?
 
Chinese consumers love it! People in China don’t like too much tannin and acidity, they like a soft wine.
 
What foods do you like to pair with Marselan?
 
For its delicate taste, I prefer fine meats such as mutton, but roast chicken or roast duck is no problem.

(Check out more Marselan Q&A here.)

Marselan Q&A | Evan Goldstein of Master the World

Marselan Q&A

“I fell in love with Marselan, one of my favorite grapes, in Brazil,” wrote Evan Goldstein in Wines of South America: The Essential Guide. I wanted to know more and asked Goldstein, the Chief Wine Officer of Master the World, head of Full Circle Wine Solutions and a Master Sommelier, a few questions. This is the second post in the series Marselan Q&A.

Could you tell us the what, when and where of the Brazilian Marselan that held such appeal?

I learned of Marselan on my first trip to Brazil in 2010 – yes, really, 11 years ago. Until then, and in spite of the variety’s naissance and existence in France, it was not on my radar.

I had a few examples when visiting wineries in the Serra Gaucha – most notably at Perini — in Vale Trentino, more specifically in Farroupilha, at 2,600 feet, which is also the source of the best and close to 50 percent of the country’s Muscat.

Their take as well as that of Flavio Pizzato literally exemplified what the creation of the cross was supposed to be all about—the flesh and juiciness of Grenache with the complexity and architecture of Cabernet Sauvignon.

(In his book, Goldstein wrote thbat, “Marselan has the creamy, fleshy texture of Grenache along with the peacock’s-tail complexity of Cabernet Sauvignon, which also imparts a trace of tannin to the mix. It has a little of everything: tasty red-cherry fruit, a somewhat flashy mouthfeel, and soft but discernible tannins.)

You’ve tasted Marselan from elsewhere in South America. What regional differences do you find?

I think that a combination, now, of vine age and experience has Brazil out front. That said, on my last trip to Uruguay I was struck by how many pure 100 percent Marselan there were in addition to the implementations in blends.

While I think the most successful examples of Marselan were then to date in cuvees, most notably in Familia Deicas’ Prelúdio, there are more on the horizon. I had a lovely very polished example at Garzón winery in Maldonado and the bottling by Viña Traversa is also more in line with what I had in Brazil. I heard there are rumblings about planting some in Bolivia as well.

There’s debate as to whether Marselan is for single varietal wines or for blending. What’s your take on this?

I think it has been shown to be delicious both ways. The pure examples at Perini, Pizzato, Casa Valduga and Garzon all demonstrate its inherent ability to be a standalone. But it’s capability of adding succulence and structure means it can be an essential blending grape as in Deicas’ Perdludio.

And from what I understand, this has been a primary role for the grape in China to date. Rumor has it that it is being planted in California’s North Coast now but I am still trying to discover where and why. And there is also, of course, how it is utilized in Bordeaux in a few years [now that is has been officially approved as a grape for that region].

When you open a bottle of Marselan, what foods come to mind as possible pairings?

I think that since it’s so new to most people, think about what you would have with a slightly leaner version of a Rhone wine Merlot and you’ll be in the right orientation.

If you could only open one Marselan, from among all those you tasted, which would you pick and why?

Hmm—one of the Brazilian wines. Perhaps Perini’s for its sheer approachability and deliciousness, leaning into its Grenache parentage. But Pizzato’s Marselan demonstrates aspirations of what the grape can be. Tough question.

Grape + Grain | First Marselan Beer Launched in Beijing

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The Marselan grape is gaining traction worldwide and now it has crossed to the beer world. A Maovember fundraising event last November doubled as the launch of a beer made with Marselan grapes, as Beijing-based craft brewers Jing-A popped the caps on a concoction that included fruit from Grace Vineyard in Shanxi with their wild yeast ale.

The event was headed by Jing-A brewers Kristian Li and Alex Acker plus winemakers Lee Yeanyean of Grace Vineyard and Tong Lili of Manzhouxiang, who both poured Marselans. Jim Boyce of the Grape Wall of China website brought five Marselan wines from across China, including Treaty Port in Shandong, which provided bottles specifically for the event. Some beer lovers got their first taste ever of quality local wines via these Marselan products.

Here’s the tasting note by Jing-A: “A special Marselan grape variant of our series of lambic-inspired wild ales! Brewed with a fresh, vine-to-tank harvest of crushed Marselan grapes from Grace Vineyard Shanxi, fermented with a mixed culture of Brett, Pedio, and Lacto, and then conditioned on oak for 6 weeks. Pleasing tartness is complemented by ripe stone fruit and wine notes, leading to a sparkling dry finish.”

Some of the Marselan beer has been put into used Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon barrels for up to a year of further aging, which means more interesting taste tests ahead!