Domaine Marsanne's Unflinching Crozes-Hermitage

Jean-Claude Marsanne and daughter Clémence. Their winemaking style hasn't changed since the 1970s but public tastes have become more welcoming to their approach. (photo: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant)

Domaine Marsanne's Unflinching Crozes-Hermitage 

As much as I enjoy finding new provocative producers who are shaking things up, sometimes I find it helpful to remember that the career of a winemaker or an family winery is a long arc that spans decades. Trends are fickle. I have a growing respect for winemakers who are ok falling out of popularity from time to time because they believe in what they are doing. This is easier said than done. For a small family winery to survive from the 'big flavor' era of Robert Parker all the way to the rise of natural wine without flinching is impressive, but that is the story of Domaine Jean-Claude Marsanne.
I was not familiar with Domaine Marsanne until now. Kermit Lynch was impressed their meticulous vineyard work and imported a small amount of the wines in the early 1970s, but for much of the past 40 years they had trouble finding a foothold, as other importers and consumers found their wines to be too rustic and old-fashioned. They have always been made with native yeasts, minimal sulfur, and didn't ever go in for the big, extracted style that was in demand. Recently, though, Kermit rediscovered them on a Paris wine list and is now importing them to the US.
These days, many, including myself, will see these as the ruggedly distinguished Northern Rhone wines that they are. It really lit up my brain with the mix of finesse and feral qualities, a reminder of the way Syrah in this region can become something lifted, layered, dense, and profound.
The real trick that this Marsanne Crozes-Hermitage pulls off? When I taste this wine all I'm thinking is, 'damn this is good!' followed by 'how do they do that?' The answer is not magic — just perseverance, with decades of nose-to-the-grindstone vineyard work and unadorned winemaking.


Domaine Marsanne shares its name with a white grape variety grown in the Rhone, pointing to the family's long history in the region. In the 1920s Jean-Claude's grandfather took to the just-emerging Saint-Joseph appellation with a pickaxe and his bare hands: a requirement for working the challenging, steep vineyards of Mauves. He was able to acquire some of the best exposures and soils there before the region gained notoriety.
It wasn't until 1970 that his son Jean began bottling his own wines instead of selling off the grapes, but he inherited his father's fastidious approach to working the vines that had helped their family build a respected following. Jean-Claude took over in 1991 and inherited the meticulous farming as well as his father's winemaking approach: native yeasts, long, slow fermentations, and a small sulfur addition after malolactic fermentation is complete. He stuck with this method even when it was out of step with the times, and now there's a new generation that has come around to appreciate his approach.
This century of hard work, out of the spotlight, has  created a warming, satiating wine of remarkable presence. It speaks to the less flashy side of winemaking: keeping a low profile and finding meaning in careful stewardship of the land. Somehow they let trends and accolades come and go.
From his grandmother, Jean-Claude inherited the exceptional parcel of Crozes-Hermitage, planted in 1967, where this wine comes from. The next to inherit their proud tradition and prime vineyards will be Jean-Claude's daughter, Clémence. I don't know if she is as humble as her forebears, but she certainly doesn't need to be — these are superior Northern Rhone wines that have earned their moment.


Image of Jean-Claude Marsanne Crozes Hermitage Rouge 2018
Jean-Claude Marsanne Crozes Hermitage Rouge 2018
From a parcel planted in 1967 on granite, this is an older clone of Syrah that was more common in the 1920s. Instead of the black olive notes typical to Syrah, this wine shows off a delicious mixture of bacon fat and blackberries. There is a lifted cranberry note on the finish, with spice and fine mineral detail that makes this more finessed than any Crozes-Hermitage I've come across. Make no mistake, this is still dense Rhone Syrah, but concentrated layers of iron, garrigue, feral notes, and minerals could deceive you into thinking it's a lighter wine at first. It quickly reveals remarkable depth and fruit that is dark, mysterious, and ultimately irresistible. Grapes are destemmed so tannins are present but well-integrated. It has the structure to age for a decade or more, but the wine is in terrific shape to drink now. It's hearty and nuanced, a perfect cold-weather red that hits your head and your heart in equal measures. JK
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