Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Petit Manseng: A French White Grape Finds a Home in Virginia

The small berries and thick skin of petite manseng
make it perfect for late harvest dessert wines.
In January the Virginia Wine Board released a report on the state of the Virginia wine industry and Virginia wine as a brand. The report contains two telling quotes from restaurateurs about Virginia wine. One told the researchers: “Traditionally there was an impression that [Virginia Wine] is overpriced, insipid and that they have NO ability to make the reds.” Notice the past tense “was.” Does that mean these impressions about Virginia wines are changing? Another restaurateur thinks so: “I wouldn’t have been able to sell any of it 10 years ago. But I think people are starting to come around now.”

I think both of them are right. Even though a recent tasting of Virginia’s gold medal-winning wines left me more than a little disappointed, I refuse to give up on Virginia wines. Winemakers in Virginia have been fighting for recognition by putting out more and more quality wines made from an increasinly wide range of grapes. And one of the most interesting Virginia wines is made from a grape few people have heard of: petit manseng.

Petit manseng, along with its big brother gros manseng, are traditional white grapes of Jurançon, a region near the Pyrenees in Southwest France. Petit manseng's small berries and thick skins translate into bold tropical and floral aromas. On the palate, the wines frequently show zippy acid and gobs of tropical fruit. Many petite manseng grapes are harvested late when they contain the most sugar, and are frequently made into dessert wines packed with apricot and spice flavors.

Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Virginia claims to have produced “America’s first varietally labeled Petit Manseng.” They describe petite manseng as “an aromatic grape producing sweet wines bursting with aromas and flavors of flowers, honey, candied fruit and spice.” Some Virginia wineries blend petit manseng with other varieties like traminette, viognier and vidal blanc.

Petit manseng was one of 25 varieties analyzed by the Virginia Cooperative Extension in a major 1987 study. Doctor Tony K. Wolf, Viticulture Extension Specialist at the Virginia Cooperative Extension, had heard good things about the grape from British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson. And while collecting petite manseng in Geneva he “was astounded at the high quality of the fruit that was still hanging on the vines” late into the harvest season. Planted in Virginia, petite manseng grapes produced bountiful yields and the grapes proved to be more resistant to rot than chardonnay. “Petit Manseng wines fit a particular niche market, I believe,” Dr. Wolf wrote in a 2003 trade publication. “Finished with some residual sugar, they make excellent dessert wines. Dry Petit Mansengs are sort of like dry Rieslings or dry Gewurztraminers…” Dr. Wolf was clearly on to something, because 25 years after experimenting with petit manseng, Virginia wineries are putting out some solid examples of what they and Nature can do with this grape.

I’ve tasted a lot of French wines made from petite manseng, but not many from Virginia. Recently I had the privilege of tasting three Virginia petit manseng wines in one night. The tasting convinced me that petit manseng from Virginia is a wine to watch in the coming years.

2011 Chateau O'Brien Petit Manseng (Virginia, Fauquier County)
I tasted this wine blind, and it was a lot of fun trying to guess what it was. It smells like grass, grapefruit and white peach. The palate shows tangy acid, a burst of tangerine and lime fruit. For a while, I was convinced this was a California interpretation of a French Muscadet, with its lime and salt and sea flavors. There’s a burst of tangerine on the finish. My guess ended up being: a California muscadet. I was excited to see it was a Virginia petite manseng. It’s very aromatic and full of flavor, and it would be great with oysters or shrimp. 87 points

2008 Linden Petit Manseng Late Harvest (Virginia, Northern Region)
At the end of a recent tasting of domestic white wines, I had the pleasure of tasting two dessert wines made from Virginia petite manseng. The Linden Late Harvest bottling has to be one of the best Virginia wines I've tasted, no kidding. It’s got this amazing golden color with thick, creamy legs. The wine shows gorgeous aromas of apricot liqueur, marmalade, dried flowers and salted nuts. The palate is an explosion of honey and orange marmalade, while notes of chamomile and persimmon add complexity. Clover honey and caramel linger on the finish. This wine is quite balanced, and believe it or not I think it has serious aging potential. Five years would do wonders on this wine, at least that’s my guess. My interest in Virginia petit manseng is growing. 90 points

This dessert wine, like most everything I've tried from Glen Manor, is peculiar. It smells of smoke, apple zinger and a whiff of pepper. The palate is oily, but balanced with tangy acid, which I like. This has a lot of spicy flavors going on, some of which are quite pungent. It’s a fun wine, a good conversation starter and a wine for the experimental palates out there. 80 points

Like all Virginia wines the quality depends on a wide swath of factors such as rainfall, heat, the presence or absence of rot or mold in the vineyard, the skill and dedication of the winemaker. That said, petit manseng clearly offers Virginia winemakers an opportunity to produce delicious wines that could appeal to a lot of palates. I’m excited to try some more in the future.

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