Rewarding harvest: The petit manseng grape adds unique flair to local wine

Petit manseng is resilient on the vine and a natural remedy to boost acidity in a blend. “It does great in the vineyard,” says Jeff White of Glen Manor. “It’s the one grape you don’t have to worry about at harvest." Photo: Xavier Saubot Petit manseng is resilient on the vine and a natural remedy to boost acidity in a blend. “It does great in the vineyard,” says Jeff White of Glen Manor. “It’s the one grape you don’t have to worry about at harvest.” Photo: Xavier Saubot

Petit manseng has captured the curiosity of many of Virginia’s top winemakers. Just how integrated the grape will become to Virginia’s repertoire remains to be seen, but it is off to a roaring start. “I love the grape,” says Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards. “It is so versatile. It can be aged so long.”

Originally from southwest France in the Jurançon appellation, petit manseng has likely been grown there since the mid-1500s. “There is a lot of clay in Jurançon, and humidity. It’s very similar to here,” says Matthieu Finot, winemaker at King Family Vineyards. Professor of Viticulture Tony Wolf (Virginia Tech) also draws parallels between France’s petit manseng zone and Virginia’s growing regions. “They have rain in the Jurançon, too,” he says. “It’s up against the Pyrenees. It’s what we call a ‘wet weather grape.’”

Wolf brought petit manseng from New York to Virginia in 1987 to evaluate several potential varieties that might be suited to Virginia’s climate. Thirteen years later, Michael Heny and Graham Bell made a petit manseng wine at Horton Vineyards. Jennifer McCloud of Chrysalis released her petit manseng in 2002. Today, you’ll find about 77 acres of petit manseng in Virginia that contribute to a wide variety of styles at many different wineries.

Walking through a vineyard, you can instantly tell there is something different about this varietal—it looks curious on the vine. The grapes barely touch one another in a loose bunch that resembles a chemistry class drawing of a molecule more than the classic bunch of grapes. In humid Virginia, this translates to airflow between each berry, which means petit manseng has a natural ability to ward off rot and mildew. The thick, strong skin also makes the fruit hearty in the vineyard, especially in poor vintages.

In Wolf’s experimental block, he noted that in the cool and wet 1996 vintage, 18.1 percent of the chardonnay grapes rotted, while just 1 percent of the petit manseng grapes experienced rot. Losing 18 percent of a crop can be devastating, while a 1 percent loss is more absorbable.

Winemakers around the state echo the grape’s vitality in the vineyard. “Petit manseng grows so well in Monticello. It’s vigorous, with practically indestructible thick skins, plus high acid,” says Rachel Stinson Vrooman of Stinson Vineyards.

Once harvested, managing the acidity of petit menseng can be a test to the craft. “Petit manseng is easy to grow, but it is more challenging for the winemaker to make something good afterwards,” says Finot. Area winemakers approach the taming of the fruit in different ways.

Lovingston winemaker Riaan Rossouw uses carbonic maceration to round out the acidity; his 2014 petit manseng is a delightful example from Virginia. The wine is ever-so-slightly off-dry with a bright acidity that brings everything into a juicy balance. Light tannins from a longer skin maceration fill out the wine, and it dances on the palate before finishing long.

Michael Shaps takes an old world approach and brings the acid of petit manseng into check with a hint of skin contact and some barrel fermentation. The touch of oaky richness from the barrel ferment is a beautiful counterpoint to the acidity, and the result is an austere, dry wine that can age gracefully right alongside your bottles of red Bordeaux.

Some winemakers use the grape’s natural acidity as a blending component. High-acid grapes and rich grapes have been blended throughout history to create balanced wines. White Bordeaux is an example where bright, crisp sauvignon blanc blends with buttery semillon to make a balanced wine that has richness and acidity. You’ll find this same mindset in play in many of the world’s most famous wine regions: In Rioja, blending in a small percentage of high-acid graciano cuts through the fruitiness of tempranillo. In most Champagne bottlings, smooth and rich pinot noir is used to temper bright chardonnay, and in the southern Rhône blending can achieve beautiful balance in both reds and whites.

Many Virginia winemakers are playing with petit manseng’s usefulness for blending. Finot blends the full force of petit manseng’s acidity with viognier and chardonnay to bring a brightness to King Family’s 2014 Roseland white blend. At Early Mountain Vineyards, the 2014 Block 11 is a blend of petit manseng and muscat—drinking it might remind you of biting into a fresh clementine. Grace Estate adds a touch of petit manseng to vidal blanc to make its 2011 Le Gras white blend.

Petit manseng’s resilience and acidity also makes it a perfect candidate for dessert wine. One of the most unique aspects of Virginia’s vineyards is that just about every winery produces a dessert wine—you rarely find this in other regions of the world. As petit manseng ripens and sugar levels increase, the acid levels still stay high.

Stinson Vineyards makes a great local example, and it would also be worth seeking out a bottle of Linden’s late harvest petit manseng for a world-class dessert wine that can age for years.

You will not find petit manseng in many places outside of the Jurançon and Virginia. The grape is a unique treasure that can make beautiful wines in select climates, and we’re lucky that local wineries are breaking open the possibilities of petit manseng in our home state.

–Erin Scala