Marselan: Is This Grape The Future of Chinese Wine?

By Émilie Steckenborn |

Around much of the world, Cabernet Sauvignon reigns unchallenged as the king of grapes. Currently, China is no exception; most quality wines in China are either single varietal or a Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Yet, as a relatively new quality wine producer, China is still experimenting with varietals and regions  And, Marselan, an unusual hybrid developed by Paul Truel in southern France is beginning to contend for the China’s future flagship grape. 

Because of openness to trade, increase in capital, and a taste for bold red wines, the Chinese wine industry has developed rather quickly over the last few decades. Early adopter wine culture resulted in a rise of imported wines, reaching 2.6 Billion USD in 2017. The growing trend of wine consumption conversely triggered domestic wine production.

The initial efforts at winemaking yielded a rather weak product. Regions like Yantai in Shandong—originally thought be optimal for vineyards—disappointed. However, the second wave delivered promising results from previously untapped areas like Helan Mountain in Ningxia and Yunnan province.

Trial and error is essential in the wine industry. It takes years before the true potential of a wine region shows its quality. It takes a minimum of three years before the grapes you’ve planted can even be made into wine! 

So, the first choice of plantings tend to be driven by market demand and international recognition. Factor in Bordeaux’s strong influence in China and you have a market dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon at present. Yet word in the industry is that another grape is the future.

In a previous Bottled in China podcast, Julien Boulard, a China-based wine educator and wine judge, told me that he considers Marselan a contender.

“Marselan is the new hot variety in China right now,” says Boulard. The grape is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. Originally from Marseillon, France and rarely found internationally, it’s found a home in China producing beautifully elegant yet powerful expressions.

“Honestly, who wants to try Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon?” asks Boulard, “but what about Chinese Marselan? I think there’s something here, an opportunity.”  \

Boulard’s beliefs are shared by many. Compared to Cab Sauv, Marselan tends to have a greater spectrum of variation. China’s largest wine region, Yantai-Penglai, tends to produce light bodied Marselan’s. However, Hebei, located north-west of Beijing, makes fuller in bodied and tannic wines. We also found that in China, many examples of Cabernet are often over “oaked”. Dominating aromas of toast, charred wood, cedar hide and the fruit result in homogenous characters in wine. On the other hand, Marselan’s more elegant profile means that winemakers are generally more aware of the need to control the length of oak and tend to be more cautious about over oaking.  

As China embarks on a learning curve to understand the grape’s true potential, some producers are already showcasing consistent quality. Today, there’s about 80 producers across China making Marselan. Some trade favorites include Domaine Franco-Chinois, Grace Vineyard and Lili Tong’s Excelsis (Sheng Ying Jia).

“Chinese wine needs a trademark” says Lili Tong, owner and winemaker of Excelsis (Sheng Ying Jia). She seized the opportunity to purchase 6 acres of Marselan plantings in Shandong after a large Chinese company was forced to return its land to its rightful owners. 

Tong believes that Marselan is the first step in establishing Chinese wines on the international stage. “It can’t be one person, one winery or one region but it can be one grape.” 

The concept is evocative of of Chile’s Carmenere or Argentina’s Malbec, where a specific varietal solidified the wine region success. 

 It will take years to fully gain consumer’s acceptance and recognition. However, Jim Boyce from Grape Wall of China already took one large step. He created “World Marselan Day,” a celebration of the varietal at bars and restaurant on April 27 annually.

However, more is required. Marselan will need to garner awards and international recognition. The grape needs its own Judgment of Paris. These nods will inspire consumers to broaden their horizons  beyond Cabernet. 

As with all things in the wine industry, only time will tell if Marselan will be China’s future flagship grape. But the future looks bright so far.

Photo by Vbecart [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Emilie has cultivated her palate through gaining her Diploma and Certified Educator from WSET, Certified Sommelier from CMS, HEG Certificate from Cordon Bleu, and is currently a Master of Wine Candidate. As Head of Education Asia & MEIA, she develops programs for front line staff across China, where her team trains thousands of drink enthusiasts across Asia. She currently serves as China Eastern Airlines Official Wine Consultant for First and Business Class.

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