By Doug Fabbioli
One of the parts I like best about my job as a winemaker is the culture of sharing information in order to make better wines and, hopefully, a better industry. We just had a Winemaker’s Round Table where we tasted Petit Manseng from the 2016 vintage – all made here in Loudoun County. We taste blind so we don’t know which wine is which. Also, the winemaker is usually in the room so diplomacy is important in critiquing a wine. The round table format is for learning, not sales, so the winemaker needs to have an open mind about styles and input in order to make the most out of the experience. In other words, please check your ego at the door.
Our roundtables don’t often focus on one varietal, but with Petit Manseng being a sound varietal in the vineyard, we felt it deserved the winemakers focus addressing the styles, procedures, challenges and demand for these wines. Petit Manseng grapes are known for giving big fruit characters, high acid and high sugars that are converted into high alcohol.
The balance of this wine is challenging, which leads this wine to be used as a blender rather than a varietal name on the bottle. When using a varietal name, customers have an expectation of style for the wine. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon is known to be a bold dry red wine. Riesling has had issues with its expectations because some are bone dry, others are very sweet and many are in between. We winemakers in Northern Virginia cannot define exactly what the style for Petit Manseng should be, but we can each find our own and see where it fits among the others. The other challenge is that we generally only get to make one batch per year, so the definition of style needs to be well thought out long before the grapes arrive on the crushpad.
We have a number of techniques or “tools” that we utilize in order to adjust style in a wine. One of the ones we are considering for 2017 is extended skin contact. Once the grapes are crushed, they can be left together as a mash where the flavors and tannins from the skins are absorbed by the juice. This actually will decrease the acid and raise the structure of the wine. Higher crop loads on the vine is another way to help tame this wild beast of acid and sugar. Another technique that added some character was barrel aging. Some new oak characters seemed to add to the complexity without masking over the fruit. Styles ranged from dry and austere, to sweet, fruity and complex as well as many styles in between.
If there were a conclusion from this tasting and discussion, I would say that Petit Manseng is a very interesting and dynamic wine. It often needs a little sweetness to balance out the acidity but I will not say “always”.
With all the new beer styles, craft beverages and tasting rooms opening, another wine in the mix is not a bad thing. As an industry, the wineries need to keep bringing a fresh thing to the table. Petit Manseng is a solid choice for something fresh. Enjoy!