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.)

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 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.

Marselan Q&A | Chris Ruffle of Treaty Port

Marselan Q&A

Chris Ruffle started winery Treaty Port aka The Scottish Castle, nestled in Qiushan Valley near Yantai city in Shandong province, over 15 years ago — he wrote a book about his experience — and planted his first Marselan grape in 2007.

When you started Treaty Port, Marselan didn’t quite have the cache it does now.

I planted the vineyard in two parts–100 mu [6.5 hectares] in 2005 and 200 mu [13 hectares] in 2007. Marselan was in the second planting, which turned out to be better plots, being further up the hill where they catch the breeze and which helps to ward off mildew.

We initially planted 37 mu [2.5 hectares] of Marselan. Unfortunately, the Marselan took the brunt of the government’s new motorway, so the area fell to 15 mu [1 hectare]. This has gradually been brought back to 19 mu, after the government returned plots they did not actually use.

What made you decide to pursue this grape? Are you happy with the decision?

The benefit of Marselan from my point of view is the loose structure of the bunches, which make them less susceptible to mildew. This means you can allow them to hang longer, and it is often the last grape we pick. We have picked on November 5th in the last couple of seasons.

Marselan was the first wine we bottled, from the 2009 harvest. I called it The Commissioner after an old photo I found in the Scottish Records office of Sir James Stewart Lockhart, commissioner of nearby Weihai, which was at that time a British colony, having a drink with the 76th descendant of Confucius.

Since then, we have produced one reserve Marselan, the 2014 vintage, of which there are now just 3,457 bottles left. (rmb380 per bottle via Otherwise, the Marselan goes into our house blend, Castle Red, of which I think the 2018 vintage is our best (rmb180 per bottle).

The fact that we have only made two varietal reserves, admittedly hampered by motorway construction, indicates Marselan is no wonder grape. But it is robust, and I have found it easier to get ripe than the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon.

I understand you shared your Marselan with the neighbors at Longdai, the Lafite winery, and they ultimately used the grape in their flagship wine.

My suggestion to plant Marselan, to supplement their normal Bordeaux blends, is about the only piece of advice which Lafite accepted from me. (I am British, after all.) In my vineyard, Petit Verdot has perhaps been the most consistent grape, and we use it widely in blends for its excellent colour. It is also the main component of the Prince, along with Arinarnoa.

China’s wine industry is so diverse in terms of climate and terrain that we find lots of expressions of Marselan wine. What typifies the Marselan of Treaty Port / Qiushan Valley?

I attached a label which gives tasting notes. This wine has a mineral note, reflecting the granite soil more than some other of our varietals, I think.

[The tasting note reads: ‘This dry-season wine has a deep red colour with purple hue. It has an enticing bouquet of dark berries along with spice, chocolate and roast coffee. On the palate, the wine is rich and well-balanced, with complex layers of flavour and elegant tannins.”]

You are twisting open a bottle of Marselan. What’s your favorite Chinese and your favorite Western dish to pair with it?

It is certainly a wine that goes well with meat. Short ribs or hongshao rou are good reasons to twist the cap — no old-fashioned corks for us.

[Here are some photos from my visit to Treaty Port.]