A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Gros Manseng - Jurançon, France

Last week we ventured for the first time into the exciting world of Southwest France.  Specifically, we took a look at the 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.

The first wine that I was able to try was the 2007 "Chant des Vignes" Jurançon Sec from Domaine Cauhapé made with 100% Gros Manseng grapes.  The bottle set me back about $25.  The Domaine was originally purchased in the early 1980's by Henri Ramonteu.  At the time it consisted of 4 hectares of overgrown land planted mostly to hybirds with a few 90 year old Gros Manseng vines sprinkled in.  Ramonteu kept the Manseng vines and pulled up everything else.  He eventually expanded the Domaine to include over 40 hectares of land, making him the largest producer in Jurançon.  The grapes for the Chants des Vignes are picked in early September before they are fully ripe.  In the glass, the wine was a medium gold color.  The nose was nicely aromatic with apricot stone fruit, orange peel and flowers.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of grapefruit peel, apricot, pink grapefruit, honeysuckle flower, honey and lemon with a bitter, pithy note on the finish.  The flavors were explosively dense and layered while still maintaining excellent balance.  I was initially worried this may be past its prime, but it was strongly kicking and was a pleasure to drink.

The second wine I tried was a late harvest wine made from a blend of Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng.  It's bottled by Chamarré, which it looks like is a kind of umbrella company that makes wines all over France.  Whatever the case is, this 2003 bottling set me back about $16.  I suspect that the blend is mostly Petit Manseng, but can't find any solid numbers to back that up.  In the glass, the wine was a deep gold color tending to amber.  The nose was nicely aromatic with rich tropical fruits like pineapple and shaved coconut with honey and pear aromas as well.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with medium acidity and medium sweetness.  The palate followed the nose pretty closely with pineapple, coconut, very ripe pear, honey and honeysuckle flower.  For the money, it was a very nice sweet wine, though it definitely lacked the complexity and denseness of botrytis-affected or ice wines.  The coconut was so strong it almost had a kind of tropical fruit candy kind of taste to it that I imagine you'll like or dislike in proportion to your tolerance for that kind of flavor.  This wine probably doesn't have a lot of time left in the bottle so if you have one hanging around in your cellar, now's the time to pull the cork on it because it probably won't get any better from here on out.

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