This centuries-old grape from Jurançon could be on the verge of a 'Viognier moment', says Jane Anson.
She meets a Thai winemaker in the shadow of the Pyrenees who is helping to tame Petit Manseng; immortalised by French poet Colette as one of the wine world's great seducers - partly because of its fabled status as a source of strength to philandering King Henry IV of France.

‘An accident of nature’ is how owner Robert Alday describes Château de Cabidos.

‘Truly in the middle of nowhere,’ adds the property’s long-term winemaker Méo Sakorn-Sériés happily, who says the peace reminds her of her childhood in a rice-farming family near the Laos-Cambodia border in northern Thailand. ‘I first moved to Europe with my French husband after meeting him as a Médecins Sans Frontières doctor in Thailand. We lived in Paris, then Bordeaux where I studied winemaking. I went back to make wine in Thailand for a few years before returning to Bordeaux. Then a friend asked me to help the pruning season at Cabidos in 2006 and I never left’.

Cabidos is found in a beautiful rolling valley in the Béarn department of southwest France, in the foothills of the Pyrénées mountains, somewhere in between the AOC vineyards of Madiran and Jurançon. But it doesn’t belong to either of them, and instead finds its own way under the IGP Comté Tolosan.

All of which makes Cabidos a small vineyard – 8.5 hectares – with some serious challenges.

Besides the (questionable perhaps) disadvantage of being outside of the AOC system, the main grape planted here is Petit Manseng. This is a variety that 16 years ago stood at number 365 on the global plantings ranking and whose acidity levels are so high that sugar in the grape needs to reach around 14.5% potential alcohol or risk being ‘basically undrinkable’ as Sakorn-Sériés puts it. Add to that the plantings of Chardonnay and Syrah that they have here, both grapes hardly signatures of southwest France, and you have a serious marketing problem on your hands.

And then there’s the vineyard itself, abandoned for more than a century after the double blows of the French Revolution (when the entire estate came close to being burned to the ground) and the phylloxera crisis at the end of the 19th century. It took the return of the de Nazelle family, who had owned Cabidos off and on for centuries, to finally replant the grapes 20 years ago. The first vintage following replanting was in 1995, so it must have been a wrench for them to sell up, just last year, to construction magnate and property investor Alday.

Alday, who lives in St Jean de Luz on the French-Spanish border, is currently heading up numerous large building projects in the ever-expanding city of Bordeaux but this is his first vineyard. A proud Basque native – is there any other kind? – he seems ready to invest where necessary. And to leave things as they are when no change is needed.

‘I have been clear since first arriving here that Méo is the heart of this place,’ he says as we take a long walk through the steeply-sloped vineyards under the still-intense October sunshine. Progress is cheeringly slow as Sakorn-Sériés stops every few minutes to examine the readiness for harvest of the golden-hued, copper-flecked bunches.

It’s quite clear after spending a day at the property that Alday is right. Sakorn-Sériés is a formidable secret weapon for any property. The only female Thai winemaker in France, she studied agriculture in Bangkok before moving to France, and was twice awarded the Golden Secateurs during her studies in Bordeaux for her pruning skills. It’s a skill that she continues to exercise, although now she also takes planting decisions, oversees the harvest and make the estate’s dry white, sweet and red wines.

Rise of Petit Manseng

And then there is the fact that Petit Manseng is fast becoming a sommeliers’ favourite.

It’s running the risk of having its Viognier moment, a grape that was almost extinct in the mid 1980s and is now successfully thriving across much of the Rhone and southern France, Australia, California, South Africa, and further afield.

And now winemakers around the world are starting to take notice of the overlooked charms of Petit Manseng. Critics, too, are watching and fans of also include the co-founder of The Sampler wine shops in London, Jamie Hutchinson.

Already by 2015 Petit Manseng had reached number 260 in the global grape rankings, a 100-point climb within a decade that is worth cheering, as its structure and personality make it worthy of attention. It has surfaced in regions as disparate as Portugal, New Zealand and Australia, and become sought after by winemakers in the fast-growing vineyards of Virginia (funnily enough as has Viognier).

Unusually here at Cabidos it is used for both sweet and dry wines – in Jurançon, winemakers more usually turn to Gros Manseng for the dry whites. ‘We decided here that Petit Manseng is the noble variety and it is the one that we want to focus on,’ says Sakorn-Sériés. ‘It has the structure and the acidity for making great dry wines, if you are careful with vinification’.

The challenge is walking the line of balance for getting enough sugar to counter the acidity without risking stuck fermentations through a syrupy must. The sweet spot is not lower than 14.5%abv and not higher than 15%abv, giving a very small margin of error.

Alday is not the only person to have noticed the potential here. Today Swiss oenologist Jean-Michel Novelle who worked with the previous owners has been replaced by two of southwest France’s most respected powerhouses; Jean-Claude Berrouet and Jean Brana. One needs no introduction – Berrouet was of course winemaker at Petrus for over 40  years. Less well known perhaps is that he is a Basque native, and here he is working with one of the most brilliant producers from his home region of Irouleguy. Together they provide yet another secret weapon in the Cabidos arsenal.

Cabidos wines to try

Cabidos cuvée Gaston Phoebus Petit Manseng Sec 2011

This is labelled as dry, and certainly has the clean balance to justify it, but in fact has 13g/l of residual sugar. Expect an enjoyable blend of rich pear against bracing citrus fruit, with the sweetness coming through most clearly in the mouthfeel and texture. This would be great balance to spicy food – including, yes, a fragrant Thai curry. For me it offers the complexity of a Gerwuztraminer as an accompaniment to this style of food but without the heavy floral fragrance. 92 points / 100

Cabidos cuvée Gaston Phoebus Petit Manseng Doux 2011

Here you get the full expression of what Petit Manseng can achieve, with notes of white truffle and gently spiced toffee apple. A sour lemon and lime edge keeps the palate clean. The intensity builds slowly but surely; never staying into heaviness. We tasted this with tiny slices of cystallised ginger, and I can not recommend the pairing highly enough. 11.5%abv, 130g/l residual sugar. 95

Edit: staff edited this column to include notes on Colette and Henry IV, and Jamie Hutchinson’s interest in Jurançon.

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