Fer Servadou grape as it is grown in the Gaillac and Marcillac regions. Today we'll turn our attention to one of the interesting white varieties of Southwest France, Gros Manseng, and one of its most well known homes, Jurançon.
Gros Manseng is a member of what's known as the Manseng family of grapes. The Manseng family is similar to the Pinot family or the Traminer family. The family starts out with a single member: in the Pinot family it was Pinot Noir while in the Traminer family it was Traminer itself (also known as Savagnin). The Manseng family's initial member was Manseng Noir, a little used (but still grown in small quantities) grape of Southwest France that is very tannic and deep in color. This single initial member is very genetically unstable and prone to spontaneous and frequent mutation in the field. Many different mutations with different berry colors or other characteristics are then selectively propagated by the grower and you end up a bunch of grapes that are genetically very similar, but which have very different phenotypical characteristics. Thus, from Pinot Noir we get Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier while from Traminer we get Red Traminer and Gewürztraminer.
The two most well known mutations in the Manseng family are Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng. The two grapes are nearly identical except that the Gros Manseng has larger individual berries and larger berry clusters than the Petit Manseng. Gros Manseng is the more widely grown of the two grapes, covering about 2,000 hectares in Southwest France to Petit Manseng's 600, but Petit Manseng is considered to be the higher quality cultivar. The plantings of Gros Manseng are so high precisely because the vines have larger berries and larger berry clusters, which means that per vine, you can get more juice from a Gros Manseng plant than you can from a Petit Manseng plant. Both grapes have fairly thick skins which means that they must be carefully handled in the winery to ensure that excessive tannins are not extracted during the pressing process.
The rule of thumb with the two vines is that dry table wines tend to be made from the Gros Manseng plants while sweet dessert wines are made from the Petit Manseng. Like every rule, this one has its exceptions, but it's a trend that you can reliably bank on most of the time. In the Jurançon, located about 30 km from the Spanish border, the production of dry white table wines from any member of the Manseng family is a relatively recent phenomenon. The region was granted AOC status in 1936, but only for sweet wines since dry Jurançon (known as Jurançon Sec) didn't really exist at the time. It was only in the 1960's and 70's when consumers began to turn away from sweet wines to dry table wines that winemakers in the Jurançon began to make the change. Some producers still feel that dry Jurançon wine is a bit of an abomination, but others were happy to see the change come. Sweet wine production is very time and labor intensive and is much more subject to nature's whims for its production. Dry wines are more reliable and since they don't take as long to make and mature, the merchants can turn them around faster and get some extra capital to make sure the lights stay on. Despite the naysayers, Jurançon Sec was given AOC status in 1975.