Deep in the heart of France's Basque country, the Petit Manseng grape produces rich, sweet white wines. DANIEL CRAKER, a big fan of this lesser-known variety, introduces us to its delights.
Deeply rooted in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the Petit Manseng grape is one of France’s best-kept wine secrets. Tethered to the imposing mountain range, it has rarely ventured further than the far southwest, where its origins lie. Like many grape varieties, Petit Manseng has developed over the centuries from the careful selection of the best indigenous vines. This lengthy process of selection has resulted in a grape that is well adapted to the climate and soils it is cultivated in and gives a true notion of the ubiquitous term terroir.
Terroir and Growth
Petit Manseng’s terroir extends to three ACs: Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, Irouléguy and Jurançon. In the warm climate of Pacherenc, the white appellation of Madiran, it is grown alongside three equally little-known varieties – Gros Manseng, Courbu and Arrufiac – and produces sweet wines that can be truly rich and weighty. Further south, in the cooler climate of Irouléguy, deep in Basque country, Petit Manseng, which becomes Ixkiribot Xuri Tipia, is used as an extra for the dry whites. It’s only in Jurançon that PM takes the star role and earns its right to capital letters. Here and in Irouléguy, vine density is low, especially on the terraces that have been created to allow the vines and the accompanying machinery to descend the steep southwesterly slopes. There are just over 3,000 vines per ha (hectare), compared with 10,000 in Bordeaux and Burgundy, and they are trained en hautain, each trunk reaching over a metre high and attached to a wooden stake.
With its luxuriant foliage – in a year, a new cane can grow to over 10m long – it still remains a little on the wild side, so the training method accommodates its vigour accordingly. This also helps to avoid spring frost damage. Petit Manseng is an early-budding variety and there is still a risk of frost in March, especially in Jurançon and Irouléguy, when the first green shoots appear. By raising the growth away from the cooler air below, minor frosts can be eluded. In the past, training vines high off the ground also enabled growers to sow other crops at the foot of the vines in a region with a history of mixed farming. Nowadays though, most growers concentrate just on their vines, which has done wonders for quality.
Petit Manseng vs Gros Manseng
Until recently, Petit Manseng was neglected in favour of its more productive namesake, Gros Manseng. This variety can happily produce 80hl/ha if left to its own devices, whereas the frugal Petit Manseng with its sparse little bunches rarely manages 30hl. Over the last few years, however, with ‘less is best’ becoming the new leitmotif, the preference for new plantings in Jurançon, Pacherenc and Irouléguy has been for Petit Manseng. Even so, the vineyard surface it occupies in France remains at just over 600ha. The only way this is likely to change is if growers uproot less interesting varieties, for the INAO (national appellation control body) still holds a tight grip over new planting rights. But Petit Manseng has great local importance and the wines it produces have true individual character. In a world of increasing viticultural uniformity, that’s as good a reason as any to look out for it.
Jurançon and more
In Jurançon and Pacherenc, Petit Manseng is mainly used to produce single variety sweet wines from grapes that have undergone a natural process of dessication, known as passerillage, when the warm winds from Spain and a hot autumn sun concentrate everything the grape contains.
Botrytis cinerea has great difficulty getting through the thick-skinned Petit Manseng grapes, but if it does, the rot it causes is rarely noble and the grapes are discarded. So, unlike Sauternes, Monbazillac and other Sélections de Grains Nobles, there is no noble rot influencing the aromatics of these wines.
In Jurançon, the best grapes are from soils with a warm pudding-stone base rock, and harvests for Petit Manseng can start as late as the beginning of November and carry on through to early December or even January. Most estates do several selective pickings, or tries, and by the end of November, the grapes are all skin and pips. Any juice that manages to ooze out of the press contains enough sugar to reach between 16 and 24% alcohol. But not all of this sugar is fermented. The long fermentation process, which more often than not takes place in oak, is stopped at around 14% alcohol, leaving anywhere between 40g and 150g of residual sugar. That may sound cloying, but wines made from Petit Manseng always manage to keep a sharp acidic backbone. Sweet Jurançon or Pacherenc are often served chilled as an apéritif and the heady aromas of tropical fruits, peaches, citrus fruits and spices that the wines express in their youth are extremely enticing. After a few years in bottle, the wines tend to become more honeyed with notes of preserved fruits, gingerbread and black truffles – ideal to go with foie gras or one of the local ewe’s milk cheeses.
Written by DANIEL CRAKER