Few grapes have captured the imagination of Virginia winegrowers as much as Petit Manseng (PM) has. In 2011 there were only 68 acres were planted in the state. 10 years later that number ballooned to 179 acres, making it one of the fastest-growing varieties in Virginia (matched only by Petit Verdot).
While 179 acres may not seem a lot, put this number in perspective. Given there is only around 1,600 acres of Petit Manseng planted worldwide Virginia’s contribution means it possesses over 10% of the world’s total plantings of this variety.
In its home region of Jurançon (SW France) PM is usually made into a dessert wine or blended with its genetic relative Gros Manseng. French-made 100% PM table wines are rare.
Virginia wineries initially used PM primarily for dessert wines but have since focused on 100% varietal dry or off dry table wines (and increasingly, use PM in white blends as well). It shouldn’t be a surprise that Horton Vineyards’ 2016 Petit Manseng was the first white wine to ever win the Governor’s Cup wine competition.
Petit Manseng’s popularity is largely due to its suitability for Virginia’s humid weather. PM’s loose clusters facilitate good airflow, improving its ability to fight rot and benefit from pesticide sprays. It also has thick skin, making it more weather and insect resistant.
But as one owner told me years ago, “Winegrowers love Petit Manseng. Winemakers hate it.” That statement is far less true today than it was back then because winemakers have learned to deal with its high acidity and sugar levels. But left on its own PM wants to focuses on these qualities and winemakers must fight to dial them back.
One drawback to Petit Manseng is its smaller berries means this variety tends to be low yielding, so bottle prices can be high. That said, smaller berries give it a greater degree of juice-to-skin contact, so the flavors have lots of intensity. PMs typically have strong tropical or apricot flavors and lots of texture, and are known as ‘big’, flavorful wines.
Some friends and I decided to do a blind Petit Manseng comparison. 8 wines came from Virginia and a bottle from Italy finished out the assortment. We tried to find more non-Virginia Petit Mansengs but they are so rare my local wine stores couldn’t order one. All bottles were bagged randomly.
I will say that if I did this all over again, I would probably add more food and space the tastings out, because I think those factors impacted our palates; especially in judging the amount of residual sugar (RS).
1. 2019 Glen Manor Vineyards (Dry) (14.3% ABV, stainless steel): I feel Glen Manor needs no introduction. I purchased this bottle a few years ago but somehow never got around to drinking it. In 2019 they made two styles; a ‘regular’ and a ‘dry’ version. But even the dry version was so fruity it was easy to think it had a decent amount of sugar.
2. 2019 Michael Shaps (95% PM/5% Roussanne, 75% new oak/25% neutral, .2% RS, 14.7% ABV): Shaps is another winemaker that needs no introduction. This particular bottle is a two-time Gold Medal winner in the Virginia Governor’s Cup.
3. 2021 Paradise Springs Winery (Fermented in a concrete egg; 14.8% ABV): Winemaker Rob Cox made this wine using fruit from William’s Gap. In terms of winemaking it was fermented in a concrete egg, which softens the acidity. No RS listed.
4. 2020 “Plutôt” Joy Ting Wine (12.8% ABV, 9 months sur lie, neutral oak): Joy Ting runs the Winemaker’s Research Exchange and as benefiting a researcher, her wines tend to push boundaries of winemaking styles. Aged on its lees for almost a year, this wine was made in a low-intervention manner and in a dry style.
5. 2021 Pearmund Cellars: Double Gold at the 2020 San Francesco Chronical Wine Competition. Pearmund (and its sister winery Effingham) have a great track record for PMs. If this hadn’t been part of my event, I would have used my 2019 PM instead.
6. 2020 50 West Winery (14.2% ABV): I’m not especially familiar with how this winery makes their PM so I don’t have a lot to add.
7. 2019 Bluestone Vineyards (13.9 ABV, 10 months sur lie, 30% French oak): Part of the 2021 Governor’s Case. I finished one bottle in late 2022 and was really impressed with it. Sadly it appears I didn’t store this bottle properly, so its almond-driven qualities weren’t present.
8. 2021 Three Creeks Winery (13.5% ABV, stainless steel, .75% RS). Located outside Leesburg; Ashton Lough is the winemaker. I had an earlier vintage of this PM and loved it; this vintage may have been even better. I later learned this was ‘Best in Class’ in the 2022 American Wine Society competition.
9. 2020 Casale del Giglio (13.5% ABV, 5-6 months sur lie, barrel aged): I don’t have many details about this 100% Petit Manseng from Italy. Grown around 50 km south of Rome in the Lazio wine region, which is known for its white wines. According to its website, this varietal is a newer planting that shows promise.
Just for kicks, we also added in a 2016 Horton Petit Manseng (winner of the 2019 Virginia’s Governors Cup) and a French Gros Manseng at the end of the event. The Horton wine aged beautifully, while the Gros Manseng was very bright and fun.
I don’t pretend this event proves anything beyond how on this night, with this group of people, we picked a few favorite wines. Virginia has lots of great PMs that could easily have been included. Even a different selection of light bites or slower pacing may have produced different favorites.
Round 1 / Flight 1
- Bottle #1: 2019 Glen Manor Vineyards (11 points)
- Bottle #2: 2019 Michael Shap (14.5 points)
- Bottle #3: 2021 Paradise Springs Winery (15.5 points; Round Winner)
This was a great round – even if we got the levels of sweetness consistently wrong. 3 points went to 1st ranked choice; 2 points to the 2nd ranked choice, and 1 point to the last ranked choice per attendee.
Although two of the three bottles were made in a dry style (Shaps had .2 RS), many of us were fooled into thinking they had at least some residual sugar in them. Over and over, their brightness and alcohol levels fooled our tastebuds. This became a problem throughout the event.
Bottle #1: 2019 Glen Manor. My first sniff gave me so many tropical notes it reminded me of a sauternes. That was way off – this wine was definitely dry, but it was so aromatic and tropical that my tasting notes were skewed.
The notes from the group were largely in sync. We definitely got descriptors of stone fruit, with different participants throwing in notes of minerality, pineapple and coconut. Also had a white pepper finish.
Bottle #2: 2019 Michael Shaps: The nose was initially musty, which threw us off; was this our Italian wine? But before long it was gone and replaced with an apricot nose, maybe apricot with butter.
It was ‘round’ on the palate, and our tasting descriptors included notes of apricot on the palate and a tart finish. There was some debate if this had some oak on it (turns out it did). We also found notes of stone fruit and thought it had some RS (it turns out this was one of the few times we were right about RS).
Bottle #3: 2021 Paradise Springs: A ‘classic Virginia Petit Manseng’ according to several guests. The nose was very light initially but the apricot soon came out. We found fruity qualities although it was hard to discern a particular one. The only drawback I found is it was somewhat one-dimensional.
According to winemaker Rob Cox, “This particular PM was aged entirely in concrete egg which we intended to blend with our stainless PM and just make one wine. However we enjoyed it on its own enough so we decided to bottle it separately to see how it would be received by customers.”
- Allison: #3 / #1 / #2. Thought #3 was the most ‘classic’ example of a Virginia PM, but appreciated the drinkability of #1.
- Alex: #2 / #3 / #1. Gravitated towards #2 because of its depth and brioche qualities but appreciated the creaminess of #3.
- Elvia: #2 / #1 / #3
- Frank: #3 / #2 / #1.
- Matt: #1 / #2 / #3
- Stacy: #3 / #1 / #2.
- Vicky: Wines #2 and #3 were tied, followed by wine #1. Was convinced that #1 had more RS in it than it actually did, which was a common mistake for all of us.
Round 1 / Flight 2
In retrospect I wish we paused longer after the previous round to let our palates reset. The acidity we just encountered seem to throw us off because some of these wines – especially the first one of the lineup – seemed watered down by comparison.
I sampled some of these same bottles later and disagreed with some of our initial assessments, but nevertheless I shall report what we found at the time of the tasting.
- Bottle #4: 2020 “Plutôt” Joy Ting Wine (10 points)
- Bottle #5: 2021 Pearmund Cellars (15 points)
- Bottle #6: 2020 50 West (17 points; Round Winner)
Bottle #4: 2020 “Plutôt” Joy Ting Wine. White flowers and pineapple on the nose, rounder on the palate. White pepper on the finish. Various descriptors of the palate were thrown out, including citrus undertones and some minerality. Several of us thought it was especially floral, and we guessed it was likely made entirely in steel.
This wine seemed flabby by comparison to the PMs we just tried, although when I sampled it later than night after my taste buds reset I disagreed with that assessment.
Bottle #5: 2021 Pearmund Cellars. This wine had the lightest color of maybe anything we sampled this day. We speculated this might have had some oak on it.
It was fruity – maybe the most fruit forward of the nine we tried – but a different kind of fruit from what we already sampled; maybe more strawberry notes? Others mentioned peach or stone fruit (especially on the nose).
Bottle #6: 2020 50 West Winery. Very dark color. I found it had an almost nutty quality to it. Notes of caramel and almond were thrown out there. Stone fruit was there, although I didn’t think fruit was its most prominent quality. It was also one of the heavier PMs so far.
- Allison: #6 / #5 / #4. Thought #6 was the most complex of the lineup.
- Alex: #4 / #6 / #5. Enjoyed the brioche on #4 the most.
- Elvia: #6 / #5 / #4
- Frank: #5 / #6 / #4. Felt #5 was full but balanced, while #6 had the most body.
- Matt: #6 / #5 / #4. I especially liked the body of #6; that carried my vote.
- Stacy: #6 / #5 / #4
- Vicky: #5 / #4 / #6. Especially enjoyed the fruit-forward nature of #5
Round 1 / Flight 3
- Bottle #7: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards
- Bottle #8: 2021 Three Creeks Winery (Round Winner)
- Bottle #9: 2020 Casale del Griglio (Wild Card to next round)
We paused for food between flights 2 and 3, and I think that helped reset our taste buds. This flight quickly became a contest of bottles #8 and #9, which were two of the favorites of the day. While wine #9 was the ‘round winner’, I gave wine #8 a wild card to the next round.
Bottle #7: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards. I was really looking forward to sampling this one, which I sampled only a few months earlier. My last bottle had an apricot/nutty flavor that didn’t remind me of a ‘traditional’ Petit Manseng but nevertheless was excellent.
But it appears I didn’t store my second bottle correctly because none of those qualities came out today.
This bottle had an overpowering vegetal quality to it, with the only exception being some caramel notes. Many noted it smelled of wet cabbage. Not sure what happened to it, but we ended up putting it aside.
Bottle #8: 2021 Three Creeks Winery (round winner). There was a slight musty quality initially but was soon replaced by a light whiff of pineapple.
There was a lot of discussion on the nose; some said it had a bit of cooked cabbage but others liked it a lot. We largely agreed it was very refreshing; a smooth summer sipper with some citrus at the end. Nice complexity as well.
Notes of citrus zest, fresh cut grass, and pepper were thrown out by the audience.
Bottle #9: 2020 Casale del Giglio. Heavier on palate and we guessed it was off dry. But given our track record so far it could easily have been made in a dry style
I was impressed by its overall balance with a good amount of complexity; oak and acid with a little tartness at the end. Different fruit qualities were apparent, with notes including peach/apricot, stone fruit, and minerality thrown out.
- Allison: #8 / #9
- Alex: #8 / #8
- Elvia: #8 / #9
- Frank: Tie between #8 and #9
- Matt: #9 / #8
- Stacy: #9 / #8
- Vicky: #8 / #9
Bottles #3 (Paradise Springs), #6 (50 West), and #8 (Three Creeks) were the winners of their respective flights. But we loved #9 (Casale del Giglio) so much I gave it a wild card to advance as well.
No tasting notes this time; we sampled and got straight to sampling & voting. Every attendee voted for their 1st / 2nd / 3rd / 4th ranked choices; 4 points for 1st choice and down to 1 point for 4th choice.
After some deliberation, the winner of the night were:
- Overall favorite: Wine #8 / 2021 Petit Manseng from Three Creeks Winery (24 points)
- 2nd favorite: Wine #3 / Paradise Springs (17 points)
- 3rd favorite: Wine #6 / 50 West (15 points)
- 4th favorite: Wine #9 / Casale del Giglio (14 points)
Ashton Lough explained via email, “I love Petit Manseng, it is one of my favorite grapes with which to work. It makes beautiful dessert wine and table wine. PM and I became friends immediately upon meeting during the harvest of 2012. I like to call Petit Manseng, “Sauvignon Blanc with junk in the trunk”.
It grows better in VA than either Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, and I think it makes a more delicious wine than both.
The 2021 PM fermented in a stainless tank for a couple months, then I racked it, fined it and filtered it. It has 7.5g/L or 0.75% RS and EtOH of just under 14%. If the wine turns out dry or off-dry I am equally happy, I don’t force it either way. Sometimes I like to let the wine decide where it wants to go.”
I later was told this was the Best in Varietal Class at the American Wine Society 2022 wine competition.
- Allison: #6 / #8 / #9 / #3
- Alex: #8 / #6 / #3 / #9
- Elvia: #8 / #9 / #6 / #3
- Frank: #8 / #3 / #9 / #6
- Matt: #8 / #3 / #9 / #6
- Stacy: #3 / #6 / #9 / #8
- Vicky: #8 / #3 / #9 / #6
I do these blind tastings for fun, but it’s impossible not to draw conclusions from every event. I think the most important take-away for this particular event is our favorites says more about the ‘judges’ than it does about the wines.
Lesion #1: Perceived sweetness can fool you! Even when made as a dry wine, PM is so acidic and fruity that we frequently mistook certain bottles as having some RS. Those who don’t like RS were often too quick to dismiss a wine because of its perceived (but absent) sweetness. With the bottle hidden behind the bag, even popular wines such as Glen Manor’s ‘dry’ PM didn’t get the attention they otherwise deserved.
I asked Ashton about this, so he gave a far more sophisticated rationale than I ever could.
“Balance between acidity and sweetness, or the illusion of sweetness, is the key. The palate confusion is normal and understandable between dry and off-dry PM. The normal detection level of sugar is 0.5% or 5g/L RS some people are more or less sensitive. But there are ways to create sweetness without RS.
There are ways to encourage glycerol production from yeast. Elevated glycerol levels and alcohol content can make a difference in the illusion of sweetness. This brings the wine into balance without adding sugar on the back end. Take a sip of Vodka for instance, seems sweet, but only Ethanol and water are in it.”
Lesion #2: PM is especially a food wine. I think PM needs food, more-so than other white wines. We had liberal amounts of bread, cheese, and other snacks but these wines cried out for something spicier. I think the lack of the right food affected our palates more than we realized.
Lesion #3: Let the taste buds reset. I think we needed more time between rounds than I normally provide. The higher levels of acidity fatigued our palates faster than I anticipated, so the wines of the second round were duller than they really were.
Lesion #4: People gravitate towards ‘varietally correct’. This lesson goes beyond this particular event. I constantly find people gravitating towards the wine that they feel represents ‘what it’s supposed to be’.
But what does that mean? What qualities does a Cab Franc ‘supposed’ to have? California Cabs are different than any other Cabs, but you’d be wrong to dismiss others just because they don’t taste like California (unfortunately many do). Chardonnay is a chameleon; many would insist that Burgundy is the ultimate expression of excellent Chardonnay, but that’s probably unfair.
In this case, my group gravitated towards whatever could be described as ‘classic’ and ‘dry’. If that’s your preference then go for it, but I hope people open up to other styles in the future.
Despite all this, I think the 2021 PM from Three Creeks was outstanding. If anybody else samples one, let me know what you thought!