Grape Varieties 26: Manseng

Written by Tom Innes

GRAPE VARIETIES – Number 26: Manseng (Petit and Gros)

The Manseng grape comes in two guises: Petit and Gros. Like another, less interesting, white variety, Viognier, Manseng nearly died out. It is a native of south-west France, its home being the Basque country, and it is practically never grown outside the region. According to official statistics, in 1968 there were only 90 hectares in France planted with Manseng. Happily, this has been reversed, and total plantings in 2011 stood at over 4,000 hectares.

The most famous wine made from these grapes is Jurançon – in terms of fame not exactly up there with Claret or Malbec! This is still a rare grape, not often seen. The wines can be dry or sweet. The dry versions are crisp, fresh, aromatic, waxy, tasting of quinces, nuts, peaches, citrus, apricots, spice …… The sweet versions, “Moelleux”, are even more exciting, with additional notes of honey and ginger appearing, particularly if they are cellared for a few years – but with their good acidity they are never too sticky or cloying, always fresh.

Petit Manseng is the better quality of the two, producing very small, thick-skinned berries, and extremely low yields. The resulting juice (and wine) is rich, strong and concentrated. Gros Manseng produces larger grapes and higher yields, and tends to be used for the dry versions, whereas the Petit Manseng dominates the production of the sweet wines. To make the sweet wines, the grapes are left on the vines into late autumn/winter in a process called passerillage, resulting in shrivelled berries producing tiny amounts of very concentrated juice.

As well as Jurançon, Manseng is to be found in Gascony in Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, the whites of the Béarn, and in the catch-all IGP for south-west France of Comté Tolosan. Also, Manseng is grown in Uruguay, taken there in the nineteenth century by Basque settlers.

The leading light of the Jurançon appellation is Henri Ramonteu at Domaine Cauhapé. On his 40 hectares he only grows Manseng – no other grape varieties. His wines are exemplary and delicious. For a more economical way of tasting Manseng, Fingal-Rock now stocks an IGP Comté Tolosan, Château de Cabidos, “Cuvée Clément”, made from 100% Petit Manseng; this is a sweet wine, in 50cl bottles, exhibiting all the glorious characteristics of the grape – fresh, aromatic, peachy, honeyed, with notes of quince and pineapple.

I expect that we will be hearing more about this grape variety over the next few years.