It's a newish grape variety, a cross of cabernet sauvignon and grenache, developed 15 years ago for vineyard owners in the southern Côtes du Rhone by the French agronomic research institute. It so happens that the CNRA is based in Marseillan, a Mediterranean fishing village (not to be confused with the metroipolis of Marseille, on the coast 100 miles to the east). They called their new grape Marselan, and hoped it would supplant the prolific but undistinguished varieties of the southern Rhone and Languedoc regions.
Some of this, the "valiant small grower struggling against entrenched interests," is familiar territory. Four years ago this month, we reviewed a book titled Corkscrewed by the American journalist Robert Camuto. He highlights a vigneron named Christophe Reynouard whose particular passion is a variety locally known as chatus. Nobody wants anything to do with it, even though the same grape, a few hours drive across the Alps, is called nebbiolo and is the basis for the greatest of all Italian wines, Barolo.
Now, just down the hill from Reynouard's base of operations is another young couple, Jean-Luc and Marie-Lise Dorthe, whose family run estate, Domaine de Couron, is nestled in the tiny village of Saint Marcel d'Ardeche, whose feet are planted firmly in the past, in the tradition of a family vineyard. But they have taken the new variety to heart, planting several hectares as the vines mature and production increases.
The upshot of all this is that Jean-Luc and Marie-Lise Dorthe export most of their Marselan to the USA (though it's fewer than 10,000 bottles a year at this point), and the good news is that it's available in Seattle. At Leschi Market, for example, and at Red Cow in Madrona.
As Red Cow's beverage director Cameron Williams explains things, "It's the perfect bistro wine." Relatively light-bodied, easy-to-drink, it's not unlike a Beaujolais, but without the cloying sweetness of the gamay grape. Not a blend, remember; it's a stand-alone, 100 percent varietal wine...from a grape you've never heard of.