Mostly, we grow grapes from the Rhone Valley. But there are exceptions. Vermentino, although found in areas near the Rhone (think Cotes de Provence, or Languedoc-Roussillon) isn't allowed in Cotes du Rhone or Chateauneuf du Pape, but has done great here at Tablas Creek. So too has Tannat, whose home in the French province of Pyrénées-Atlantiques can't even claim a border with the Rhone. In fact, it was Tannat's success here that sparked my dad's interest, nearly two decades ago, in the other grapes from southwest France. One of the most interesting of these was Petit Manseng, a grape which was, in its day, so admired that it made the only wine used to baptize a king of France.
Petit Manseng in the Old World
Petit Manseng's ancestral home is in Jurancon, in the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques. This a mountainous region includes a small stretch of the rocky Atlantic coast and a larger stretch of the Spanish border, and most of it is high in the Pyrenees mountains. Culturally, it is a part of the Gascon community of Bearn, and borders the Basque-speaking region of Pays Basque that shares many cultural and historical ties to the Basque communities on the Spanish side of the border. Madiran, the main French home for Tannat, is just to the north-east.
There are three permitted grapes in Jurancon (Corbu and Gros Manseng are the others) 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. 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 has increased correspondingly, from less than 90 hectares in 1968 (90 hectares was the combined plantings of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng) to 1019 hectares in 2009.1
A map of the vineyards of South-West France, from Les Vins de Sud-Ouest's press kit
In addition to its ancestral home in Jurancon and the neighboring Pacherenc, Petit Manseng can be found in small amounts in Languedoc, Uruguay (brought by Basque settlers), Spain, and Australia. That said, its second-largest footprint worldwide is in Virginia, where its resistance to rot and tendency to achieve high sugars and retain acidity is valuable in the hot, often humid climate.
Petit Manseng at Tablas Creek
In the early years of Tablas Creek, we were looking for a method to make dessert wines. The success we'd had with Tannat, another French Basque grape, piqued my dad's curiosity, and he made a visit to the Jurancon in 2003 to speak with producers and see if one of the grapes they use for their renowned sweet wines might be a good fit. He was struck by both the wines and the landscape, and arranged for Petit Manseng to be brought into USDA quarantine later that year. We received the vines in 2006, spent the next year propagating cuttings, and planted our first small vineyard block in 2007.
We were sufficiently intrigued by Petit Manseng's success in the early years that we planted another small block in 2011, although together they make up just 0.78 acres. Even in a productive vintage this light-yielding variety struggles to get to three tons per acre; the 2.18 tons we harvested in 2017 was our most-ever.
Petit Manseng in the Vineyard and Cellar
Petit Manseng is so named for its small berries (Gros Manseng has larger berries). In the vineyard, it shows moderate to low vigor, with upright growth, and produces small clusters of small, loose, thick-skinned berries. Its superpowers are its capacity to achieve high natural sugar content without the benefit of botrytis while still retaining remarkable acidity, and its resistance to rot. Although the second ability isn't particularly useful here, in France -- where Petit Manseng is often left on the vine until December to achieve its high sugars -- and in Virginia -- where thunderstorms are a regular summer occurrence -- it's invaluable. In Paso Robles, where fall moisture and rot are rare and heat and sun are givens, its ability to maintain almost inconceivably high acidity even after months of hot, sunny days is more relevant. 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 (roughly 50% higher than our average sugar concentration at harvest) and a normal harvest pH of 3.3. We only had a few buckets worth of grapes, and didn't make that juice into wine that year.
The harvest numbers in 2009 would be ideal for making a sweet wine, but by the time we got our Petit Manseng into production, we had mastered the vin de paille technique for dessert wines, and instead decided to experiment with using Petit Manseng to make off-dry (semi-sweet) wines, which it's also used for in the Jurancon. To that end, in more recent years, we have picked our Petit Manseng at higher sugars than we would for a normal white (in the 26°-28° Brix range) while the wine still had very high acids (pH of around 3.0). We ferment it until it has about 50 grams/liter of sugar left, typically with an alcohol around 13.5%. Although that sounds like a lot of sugar, the very high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest, and the wines taste balanced. If you're interested in the ebbs and flows of how our thinking on this grape have evolved, check out the blog post Wrapping our heads around Petit Manseng, from last year.
Aromas and Flavors
The flavors of Petit Manseng wines are rich but tangy, perfumed and tropical. It's possible to identify key lime, pineapple, mango, lychee and honey, as well as white flowers and green herbs. 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 is a natural fit. We've also very much enjoyed it with salty cheeses and fruit desserts.
We are just releasing the 2016 Petit Manseng, if you'd like to try it for yourself. We only made 125 cases, not enough to send out to our club members, so you'll need to order it or ask the next time you're in our tasting room. If you do open a bottle (or have of a recent vintage), please share what you think.