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 treatyport.com). 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.]