Obscure French Grape Makes Waves in Virginia (When Will the World Catch On?)
Born in Southwest France and notoriously difficult to cultivate, Petit Manseng is an obscure grape that’s largely unknown to the wine-drinking public. No major brand has created a single-varietal flagship with it, and it’s rarely name-dropped by sommeliers, even those devoted to esoteric grapes, regions, and blends.
In the southern state of Virginia, however, Petit Manseng is having a moment. Virginia’s heat, humidity, heavy rainfall, and soil (primarily composed of granite-based clay) are prime growing conditions for the wet-weather grape. And its winemakers possess the determination and creativity needed to wrangle the variety into versatile expressions.
On a recent trip to Virginia’s Monticello AVA, I had the opportunity to uncork a few bottles, developing a taste for the depth and diversity of Petit Manseng styles. I also got to meet a few producers who have embraced the variety and are producing it with aplomb across a range of terroirs, production practices and styles.
While Petit manseng may not be the most relevant grape or the easiest to tame, the centuries-old variety has a character and quality that stands out in a sea of uniformity. In Virginia, it’s capable of exuding Old World grace and New World grit. It’s only a matter of time before producers farther afield discover its many charms.
Petit Manseng is a low-yielding white grape from the Traminer family. It grows in loose clusters, with distinctly small, thick-skinned berries. In dry expressions, Petit Manseng features notes of honeysuckle, jasmine and lemon, while sweeter iterations shimmer with notes of banana and honey. The grapes, which are naturally acidic and high in sugar, can be harvested for dry wines, or allowed to hang a bit longer for dessert wines.
“What I love about Petit Manseng is its versatility,” says Mulongo Binti Simiyu, a wine consultant based in Nairobi, Kenya, and one of social media’s most outspoken advocates for Petit Manseng. “I drink all styles, from dry to sweet. Which I choose depends on the food I’m pairing it with and the weather.”
Virginia’s wine history dates back an incredible 400 years. It offers five major geologic regions with elevations of 5,000 feet and higher, plus grape-friendly sandstone, sedimentary, volcanic and limestone soils. That said, winemaking here is not without its challenges—we’re talking 40 or so inches of rainfall per year, plus blazing hot summers and oppressive humidity that beckons mold and disease.
Modern commercial viticulture wasn’t established in Virginia until the 1970s, when six pioneering winemakers successfully grew vinifera grapes. Their results intrigued both scientists and the wine industry, and spurred further investigation by the Virginia Cooperative Extension (a partnership between Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments) into which grapes could thrive in Virginia soils. One of the scientists involved was Dr. Tony K. Wolf, a viticulture professor at Virginia Tech. He was the first person to plant Petit Manseng in 1987 after reading the legendary wine scribe Jancis Robinson’s account of the grape in Jurancon, the birthplace of the grape.
The Petit planting was part of a 25-variety test of possible “novel” varieties. The Petit Manseng fruited in the experimental station throughout seven seasons in the 1990s; when Wolf and his cohorts observed the grape in comparison to others, they noted that Petit Manseng was more disease-resistant and able to maintain a low pH and high level of acidity despite Virginia’s furnace-hot summers. The grapes are so thick, the birds don’t eat them and fruit flies don’t bother with them, nor do they absorb the serious rainfall Virginia gets every summer like other vitis vinifera do—which translates to concentrated and fresh flavors (as opposed to diluted and drab).
As a result of the study, winemakers started planting Petit Manseng (along with a vast array of other promising vitis vinifera like Viognier, Albarino, Rkatsiteli, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot). Fast forward to modern day and here are some of the producers who are making the variety shine:
Classic Old World
Michael Shaps produces wine under his eponymous label in Charlottesville, and at another family winery in Burgundy, France under the Maison Shaps label. His Petit Manseng is grown in vineyards in the foothills of the Southwest mountains at about 800 feet elevation, with Davidson Clay-rich soils.
The grapes are hand-harvested and cold-soaked prior to pressing to accentuate aromatics and texture. The wine is barrel fermented with a blend of native and commercial yeasts and aged for 9 months in 30% new oak. Shaps doesn’t let it go through malo, saying he likes “to keep that acid which can otherwise be softened.” He often ends up adding a small amount of Roussanne (around 10%) to round out and soften the palate. Shaps’ Petit Manseng is big and structured, with notes of grilled pineapple and mango, ginger and apples. I tried a few vintages and, like a white Burgundy, it’s beautiful young but gains points and character as it ages.
Audacious New World
Emily Hodson, lead winemaker at Charlottesville’s Veritas, aims to make a sweeter expression of Petit Manseng called Moelleux, but it’s not a dessert wine. It walks—or rather, struts—the line between sweet and dry.
“Our first harvest was in 2004, making us one of the first producers in the state,” she says. “I really love our off-dry version of Petit Manseng. Our vineyards are a blend of clay, loam and gravel, and we’ve found that the sugar level in the grapes can skyrocket overnight sometimes, but the grapes still maintain that racing acidity. So even though our Petit Mansengs are technically off-dry, they can taste dry in the glass.” She attributes the balance to Petit Manseng’s natural acidity, but also to her decision to ferment the Petit on the skins.
In Hodson’s hands, Petit Manseng pours out amber-golden, with notes of orange peel, honeysuckle, beeswax and figs.
Shannon Horton possesses the same trailblazing spirit as her late father, Dennis Horton, who planted more than 60 vitis and native varietals in his Gordonsville vineyard in the 1980s, including both Norton and Viognier—which, at that point, had never been grown in the state. Decades later and his family continues to chart his wild course. Horton Vineyard’s Petit Manseng has won multiple awards, including the Governor Cup, and several winemakers (including Hodson) say their wines inspired their own plantings. Shannon rejects the use of malo and utilizes skin contact during the fermentation process to manage some of the grape’s more exuberant qualities.
Not that Shannon shies away from powerful flavor. Her Late Harvest Petit Manseng packs natural honey-sweetness due to longer hang times. It also pours out dark gold, with a luscious texture. Miraculously, the acid is still very much there, lending a surprising crispness to the honeysuckle, peaches, cream, golden apple, and candied ginger.
Meanwhile, Shannon’s 20-something-year-old daughter, Caitlin Horton, has launched her own label, putting a fresh and distinctly Millennial spin on Horton vineyard fruit. Her Gears and Lace line of Steampunk wine, which features Petit Manseng, is inspired by her love of steampunk culture, as well as her desire to create wines using offbeat production methods that traditionalists have historically shied away from.
One of her most exciting projects, Knots & Shuttles, is a sparkling Tannat made with a dosage of her mother’s late-harvest Petit Manseng dessert wine. It’s elegant and powerful, with notes of violet, red apples, black plums, spice and honey.
What’s next for the up-and-coming winemaker?
“We might do a sparkling Petit Manseng,” she says. “We’ll see.”
We hope she does, because if this grape has proven anything, it’s that it merits a variety of bottling styles.
Will Petit Manseng’s profile ever rise above cult status? While it’s impossible to know for sure, there’s obvious appetite among consumers to discover more unusual grapes and lesser-known wine regions.
“For years, even in France, Petit Manseng was overshadowed by Sauternes and Bordeaux whites, even though the acidity in Petit Manseng is way better than Sauternes and most wine lovers don’t know that,” says Binti Simiyu. “But in recent years, I’ve noticed a shift. There is a growing movement of wine lovers who are keen to discover rare grapes from lesser-known regions like Virginia.
Here’s to hoping more vintners like Caitlin Horton put a distinctive stamp on Petit Manseng, forcing the wider world of wine to take a chance on this (literally) small but mighty grape.