Fans of Tablas Creek on Facebook this week saw something unexpected: a photo of a bottling we've never done before. In fact, it's a bottling that no one in California has done before, that we know of at least. It's Petit Manseng, a white grape traditional to France's southwest, which has made admired but not widely disseminated sweet wines for centuries in the region of Jurancon.
Jurancon, in the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, is a mountainous region that includes a small stretch of the rocky Atlantic coast and a larger stretch of the Spanish border, high in the Pyrenees mountains. Culturally, it forms a part of the Basque community that spans the French-Spanish border. A larger, interactive version of the map at right can be found on Wikipedia.
There are three permitted grapes in Jurancon (Corbu and Gros Manseng, in addition to Petit Manseng) but it is generally agreed that Petit Manseng is the finest of the three, and the most suitable for making the sweet wines that made the region famous. Gros Manseng, which we also imported but have not yet harvested, is more suited for the dry Jurancon Sec wines, while Petit Manseng achieves sufficient concentration and sugar content to make naturally sweet wines without botrytis. This character was so valued that Petit Manseng is noted as the only wine used to baptize a king of France: Henry IV, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty, in his native Navarre.
After several decades of disfavor, the sweet wines of Jurancon have returned to fashion since about 1970, and the acreage of Petit Manseng have increased correspondingly, from less than 90 hectares in 1968 (90 hectares was the combined plantings of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng) to nearly 650 hectares in 2006. Two images of the grape are below; to the left a lithograph from a 19th Century ampelography and to the right a photo of one of our Petit Manseng mother vines, in a pot on our patio.
In addition to its ancestral home in Jurancon and the neighboring Pacherenc, Basque settlers brought Petit Manseng to Uruguay, and it has found homes in the neighboring Languedoc and the more surprising (to me) Virginia, where its resistance to rot is particularly valuable in the often humid climate.
When we decided to bring in Petit Manseng, we had not yet discovered the Vin de Paille process for making dessert wines, and were fresh off a disastrous experiment where we had tried to freeze grapes to make a pseudo-ice wine. Given the success we'd seen at Tablas Creek with Tannat, another French Basque grape, Petit Manseng seemed a natural extension. The vines were brought into USDA quarantine in 2003, and released to us in 2006. The first small vineyard block was planted in 2007.
Petit Manseng is so named for its small, thick-skinned berries (Gros Manseng has larger berries). It is capable of achieving very high natural sugar content without the benefit of botrytis. Petit Manseng in France is often left on the vine until December to achieve its high sugars, and its ability to withstand rot is noteworthy. In Paso Robles, where fall moisture and rot are rare and sun more reliable, its ability to maintain almost inconceivably high acidity is perhaps more valuable. As an example, our first tiny harvest of Petit Manseng came in 2009. We had forgotten about the small block and when we rediscovered it in early November and measured the grapes -- three weeks after a 10-inch rainstorm rolled through -- they tipped the scale at an incredible 37° Brix and a pH of 3.3.
In 2010, we picked our Petit Manseng in mid-October at a more manageable 26.2° Brix and a pH of 3.10. We fermented it in a single barrel, and stopped its fermentation when it had about 50 grams/liter of sugar left and sat at an alcohol of 13.5%. We were stunned that there was so much sugar left at the point where we felt the flavors were in balance. The very high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest. The wine was aged on its lees in barrel and bottled last week. We'll make a small amount available through an offering to our wine club members sometime later this summer or fall.
The flavors of Petit Manseng wines are rich but tangy, perfumed and tropical. It's possible to identify pineapple, mango, papaya and honey, as well as white flowers and spice. Due to its residual sugar and high acidity, Petit Manseng wines have tremendous ability to age. For food pairings, the literature nearly always suggests foie gras, which makes sense to me. Foie gras is hard on dry wines due to its richness, but unless the chef makes some very sweet accompaniment the sweet wines it's typically paired with can be overpowering. A semi-sweet wine with excellent freshness like Petit Manseng could be a natural fit. I'd also think that it would be a great wine with cheeses, but would need to do some experimentation to have confidence in the right fit.
Where will Petit Manseng take us? Who knows. But we're sufficiently intrigued with the grape's capabilities that we're planting another half-acre at the western edge of the estate. And we may just have to come up with a foie gras-themed event to test the pairing hypothesis of the experts.