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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Petit Manseng - Jurançon, France and Northern Virginia, USA

Fringe Wine has been on a bit of a break over the past week or so, partly as a result of a personal vacation and partly as a result of attending the most recent Taste Camp event in northern Virginia.  While I wasn't intimately familiar with the wines of Virginia before making the trip, I did know enough to know that there were a few specialties of the region that I definitely wanted to check out.  The two that were highest on my list were the Norton grape (which I'll write about later this week) and the Petit Manseng grape.  While Norton was a little harder to come by than I had anticipated, I was able to find several different Petit Manseng based wines that I'd like to take a look at in today's post.

As mentioned in my previous post on Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng is a member of the Manseng family of grapes.  The Manseng family is similar to the Pinot family or the Traminer family in that all of its members are mutations of a single ancestral berry.  In the Pinot family, that single grape was Pinot Noir while in the Manseng family, that grape was Mangseng Noir, a little used but still grown red grape from southwestern France.  Manseng Noir is genetically very unstable, much like Pinot Noir, and is very prone to spontaneous mutations in the field.  Over the years, growers have isolated and cultivated some of these mutations and the mutations of those mutations until they ended up with something that is genetically very similar to the parent plant (and which often cannot be differentiated from it using standard genetic parentage tests), but which is very different somatically, which is a fancy way of saying that it looks and behaves differently in the field.

Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng are the two most widely grown and best known members of the Manseng family.  The two grapes are differentiated from one another based on the size of the grape clusters as well as the size of the individual berries.  If you know even a little French you can probably guess that Petit Manseng has the smaller clusters and berries.  Petit Manseng is considered the higher quality cultivar of the two, but plantings in France of Petit Manseng stand only at about 600 hectares to more than 2,000 for Gros Manseng.  Gros Manseng is a much more prolific yielder than Petit Manseng, which is why it is more widely grown in southwestern France.

Petit Manseng plays second fiddle not only in its native southwestern France, but also in its new world home, Virginia, where it lives in the shadow of Virginia's adopted signature white grape Viognier.  Winemakers in Virginia have fully embraced Viognier and most of the dozens of wineries we tasted wines from throughout the course of Taste Camp had at least one Viognier that they wanted to show us, while only one winery (Tarara Vineyards) poured us a Petit Manseng.  My wife and I went off-track after Taste Camp had ended to track down a few other Petit Mansengs, and my tasting notes for all four of the wines I was able to find are below.

Petit Manseng is well suited to the climate in Virginia.  It is a very high acid grape that demands a long, warm growing season in order to get ripe enough to keep some of that acidity in check.  This presentation from Virginia Tech shows that Petit Manseng grown in 2005 had a total acidity of 8.08 (pH 3.28) while Chardonnay grown in the same area in the same year had a total acidity of 4.85 (pH 3.81).  Virginia's growing season is generally warm and sunny enough to allow Petit Manseng to reach good ripeness levels, and even when it isn't, Petit Manseng's thick skins and loose berry clusters allow the grapes to hang on the vine for a little bit longer without risk of disease if they need just a bit more time to cross the finish line.  The major problem with having Petit Manseng get ripe enough to tame its acidity is that it is also extraordinarily high in sugar when ripe.  The winemaker at Tarara told us that in 2010, if he had fermented his Petit Manseng grapes to full dryness, the finished wine may have been over 17% alcohol.

It's no wonder then that most of the examples from France are made as dessert wines rather than dry table wines.  I was able to track down a half bottle of the 2007 Domaine Bellegarde "Cuvée Thibault" which is a 100% Petit Manseng wine made in the Jurançon region of southwestern France.  I picked this half bottle up for $18 from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet in Belmont.  In the glass this wine was a fairly deep lemon-gold color with hints of bronze (wines made from Petit Manseng tend to be deeply colored since the skins are so thick).  The nose was moderately aromatic with honey, pineapple, ripe grapefruit, beeswax, brown sugar and baked apples.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with high acidity.  It was very sweet with flavors of honey, pineapple, burnt sugar, ripe grapefruit, orange marmalade, green apple and baked apple. The flavors were bright and racy and overall the wine was very nicely balanced with the acidity holding up the sugar quite well.  It's a nice, reasonably affordable dessert wine that is hard to dislike.

Of the Virginia Petit Mansengs that I bought, the Glen Manor "Raepheus" was perhaps the closest in style to the French wine above.  Glen Manor wasn't represented at Taste Camp other than by a bottle that the fine folks over at Swirl, Sip, Snark brought to the BYOB wine dinner on day two of the event.  I was so impressed by that bottle that I made it a point to get out to Glen Manor to sample more of their wines once Taste Camp ended.  2010 was an extraordinarily hot year in Virginia (and everywhere else on the east coast) and the Petit Manseng grapes got very ripe across the state.  This wine is marketed as a late harvest wine, but the winery's website says that the grapes were actually harvested September 5, 2010 (their 2011 Sauvignon Blanc vines were harvest August 25 and September 3, 2011, to give you some perspective).  Raepheus is only sold in half bottles and goes for $25 directly from the winery.  In the glass this wine was a fairly deep lemon gold.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of pineapple, honey, ripe grapefruit and beeswax.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with acidity on the higher side of medium.  The wine was very sweet and just a touch hot as the alcohol level for this wine was close to 15%.  There were flavors of honey, pineapple, lemon marmalade, ruby grapefruit and citrus peel.  It was very nice, but not quite as complex as the Bellegarde wine, which isn't too surprising considering that it's three years younger and could definitely benefit from some time in the bottle.  They only made 75 cases of this wine, so pick them up while you still can.

On the second night of Taste Camp the good people at North Gate Vineyards hosted a BYOB wine dinner where all of the Taste Camp attendees brought several bottles of wine to share with the group.  There were over 80 bottles of wine opened at the event, but one of the wines that really stuck with me was the 2011 Glen Manor Petit Manseng.  Many winemakers told us throughout the weekend that 2011 was a terrible year with more than one telling us that it was the worst year they've ever seen in Virginia.  It was rainy and cool towards the end of the growing season and many of the vines weren't able to get as ripe as the growers might have liked (and those that did were waterlogged and diluted from the month-long rain at harvest).  These problems must have been much more serious for the red grapes than for the white ones because I thoroughly enjoyed most of the white wines that we tried from the 2011 vintage, including this bottle which was definitely one of my favorite wines of the weekend.  In the glass this was a fairly deep lemon gold color with some greenish tints.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of grapefruit, honey, melon, pear, pineapple, beeswax and citrus peel.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity.  It was medium-sweet with flavors of honey, pink grapefruit, honeysuckle flower, lemon curd, green apple, beeswax, pineapple and mint leaves with a touch of stony minerality on the finish.  The wine was explosively flavored and incredibly dense and layered.  The alcohol was still a bit high (I didn't write it down but I think it was close to 14%) and it stuck out just a bit, but overall I thought this was a phenomenal wine not only in terms of balance but in terms of flavor as well.  The price for this bottle at the winery was $20 and it was worth every penny of it.

Since we were in the neighborhood, we decided to stop in at Chester Gap Cellars which is just a few miles from Glen Manor.  The guys at Swirl, Sip, Snark recommended the place to us and since they hadn't led us astray yet, we followed their advice.  The tasting room at Chester Gap has a stunning view which was worth the slight detour all on its own.  Their 2010 Petit Manseng was selling for about $22, so we picked a bottle up.  In the glass the wine was a deep lemon gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of honey, grapefruit, grapefruit peel, baked apple and green apple.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with medium acidity.  It was very sweet with rich, luscious flavors of honey, vanilla creme, ripe red grapefruit, baked apple, baked pear and pineapples in syrup.  This wine had the least acidity of any that I tried and it suffered for it.  It was sort of like drinking a pineapple crème brûlée, which sounds and is really appetizing at first, but as you keep drinking it, it all gets to be a bit too much.  The alcohol level on this wine was 14.8% and it wore it pretty well, though it did pop up with a little heat on the finish.  I feel like if I had bought this in a half bottle then I would have felt better about it as it really drinks more like a dessert wine than a table wine.

The last bottle that I picked up was the 2011 Petit Manseng from Tarara Winery, which the Taste Camp group visited on Day 2 of our weekend adventure.  The winemaker poured all of us a glass of this wine as we piled onto the back of a couple of tractors that then took us to some of the Tarara vineyards.  Tractor tasting is not an art that I can say that I've mastered so I was glad that I was able to buy a bottle of this for $22 so that I could try it in a more neutral environment.  In the glass the wine was a fairly deep lemon gold.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of honey, pineapple, ripe grapefruit, beeswax, vanilla, orange creme and citrus peel.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  Unlike any of the other wines, this one was just off-dry.  The flavor palette was somewhat muted with honeysuckle flower, pineapple, golden apples and beeswax.  It was much more subdued than any of the other Petit Mansengs we tried and seemed to capture more of the difficulties of the 2011 vintage than the Glen Manor wine did.  It was nice enough, but I'd reach for the Glen Manor wine over this one every time.

I was pleased with most of the Petit Mansengs that we were able to try and think that the grape has an interesting future in Virginia.  Most of the table wines made from it are off-dry by necessity which may attract some wine drinkers but may scare away those who believe that any trace of sweetness in a wine is a reason for instant condemnation and is the sign of an inferior wine.  I hope those wine drinkers are ignored and more wines with interesting balances between acid and sugar are produced.  I don't think that Virginia Petit Mansengs are ever going to replace great German Rieslings but it would be very interesting to watch them try.

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