On Friday, my dad, Neil, Tyler, Jordan and I sat down to taste through each vintage of Petit Manseng we've made (2010-2015) with the hopes of coming to a consensus on what we want out of this obscure, compelling grape.
Petit Manseng is a grape from southwest France, most notably the small appellation of Jurancon, where it produces naturally sweet wines with remarkable levels of acidity. [For a detailed description of the history of the grape, check out this blog post from 2011.] Unlike most grapes, whose acids fall off sharply as the grapes reach maturity, Petit Manseng maintains very high acids even as it concentrates to high sugar levels. A chart of our sugar/acid levels at harvest since 2010 gives a sense of how consistently unusual this grape is:
|Year||Harvest Date||°Brix at Harvest||pH at Harvest|
Because of the grape's high acids, it's not really feasible (or at least advisable) to make a dry wine out of it. If you were to pick it at a sugar level that you might ferment dry to at 14% alcohol (23° Brix), the pH would likely be in the mid- to high-2's. That would make for a searingly acidic wine.
When we made the decision to bring the variety into the country (back in the early 2000's) we hadn't yet tried out the vin de paille process that we now use to make balanced sweet wines from our Rhone grapes. So, to make a sweet wine was our original intent in acquiring Petit Manseng. But by the time we got it into production, we'd established the three different Vin de Paille wines we make, and decided to look instead to an off-dry profile for Petit Manseng. In this style, you don't let the grapes get to dessert wine concentrations (say, 33°-35° Brix and a pH of 3.4-3.6) but instead aim to pick between the acids and sugars you'd choose for a dry wine and those higher dessert wine levels, and plan to stop the fermentation when the balance of residual sugar and high acids are pleasing. Typically, these wines carry alcohols somewhere around 14% (so, they're not fortified) and residual sugars in the 50 grams/liter range. They can make remarkable dining companions with foods that are too sweet (think a coconut-based curry) or too unctuous (think foie gras) for a dry wine, but without enough sweetness to stand up to a dessert wine.
My notes on the wines are below, with links to each wine's page for detailed production notes. I have a few conclusions at the end.
- 2010 Petit Manseng (66 g/l residual; 13.6% alcohol): A tropical nose of lychee and pineapple, maybe preserved citrus. Nice freshness in the mouth, with spun sugar and tropical fruit balanced by lemony acidity. Tyler said it "put Jimmy Buffett in my head". Very fresh still, and didn't seem to have changed much from when it was released.
- 2011 Petit Manseng (26 g/l residual; 14.6% alcohol): Less sweet and more savory on the nose, almost riesling-like with petrol and citrus leaf, maybe a hint of lime. There's also a little noticeable oak that adds an interesting spice element. Unlike the 2010, this is definitely not sweet enough to be a dessert wine, and we thought that following what you might pair an auslese riesling would be a good start: spicy curry, or a banh mi with the sweet Vietnamese pickled vegetables. Or a charcuterie plate.
- 2012 Petit Manseng (42 g/l residual; 13.7% alcohol): The nose was easily the oldest of the flight, more like a traditional sweet wine and perhaps a touch of oxidation: crushed rock and butterscotch. On the palate, alluring in its way but without the characteristic freshness of the other vintages: candied orange peel and cream sherry, with a touch of burnt sugar. We thought it would be great with a salty cheese like manchego.
- 2013 Petit Manseng (63 g/l residual; 13.8% alcohol): The nose was beautiful: caramel, candied lemon, rocks and key lime. Quite sweet on the palate, but with almost electric acids (it was harvested at 2.97 pH, after all) and a savory, chalky, citrus leaf tannin mouthfeel. This was a somewhat polarizing wine, without perhaps some of the nuance of the less sweet/tart vintages but with amazing zesty appeal.
- 2014 Petit Manseng (33 g/l residual; 14.7% alcohol): A nose like the 2010, tropical with lychee and maple syrup, and an appealing briny mineral note. On the palate, more like 2011, though without the hint of new oak: less sweet and less acidic than the 2013, a gentler wine, also appeared a little more mature. On the mouth, preserved lemon and crushed rock, lightly sweet. Try pairings like the 2011.
- 2015 Petit Manseng (barrel sample; 79 g/l residual; 13.7% alcohol): Still cloudy and a little unformed on the nose, with orange peel and fennel coming out. On the palate, quite sweet and appley, like honeycrisp apple juice concentrate, though with good acids cleaning things up at the end. We'll try to keep this fermenting a bit longer.
In terms of direction, we decided that we wanted to aim going forward at something toward the middle of our range, where, curiously, we didn't have an example: something like 50 g/l residual at around 14% alcohol, with bright acids, though maybe not quite as intense as the 2013. Split the difference between 2010 and 2011, or between 2013 and 2014, we thought.
All the wines, with the exception of the 2012, were still showing very youthfully. As both sugar and acid act as preservatives in wine, that's hardly surprising. But it was nice to see nonetheless.
We all decided that we preferred the clear bottle (and the 500ml package) to the 750ml green bottle. So, look for it to make its return with the 2015 vintage, to be bottled this summer!