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Virginia is producing some world-class wines that can stand alongside wines from more notable regions.

This was the primary theme at the third annual Virginia Wine Summit last month that brought together over 200 industry professionals including winemakers, winery owners, chefs, writers, sommeliers (including three Master Sommeliers) at the historic Jefferson Hotel in Richmond.

Ray Isle, Executive Wine Editor of Food & Wine Magazine, served as keynote speaker at RayIsleSummit2014 this year’s Summit.  With an authentic fluency in Virginian wine, Isle praised those winemakers responsible for the state’s rise in wine prominence and those ‘extraordinarily impressive’ wines from the state that stand alongside wines from better-known regions.

That some Virginia wineries are producing world-class wines may not have been news to many at the Summit but, a small, thick-skinned grape most commonly associated with the Jurançon region of southwestern France did seem to be a pleasant surprise to many.

Starting with the Sunday evening kick-off dinner at The Roosevelt, to the panelist/media tour of Charlottesville area wineries on Monday, through the main event on Tuesday, Virginia Petit Manseng was the topic of much discussion.

“Petit Manseng has been a wonderful awakening for me and the potential of the grape here in Virginia,” said Isle during his keynote on Tuesday.

Isle was not alone in his observation, or awakening, about Virginia Petit Manseng.

At the panelist dinner on Sunday evening, a travel writer visiting Virginia wine country for the first time told me that he was most impressed and pleasantly surprised with the Petit Manseng wines he tasted the previous two days.

ShapsPetitMansengDuring the tour of Charlottesville area vineyards and wineries on Monday, our group visited with noted Virginia and Burgundy winemaker and consultant Michael Shaps at his eponymous winery.  Of the 22 wines Shaps shared with our group, both the 2012 and 2013 dry Petit Manseng were standouts.

“More than most other varieties grown here in Virginia, Petit Manseng is made in the vineyard,” said Shaps.  “The loose clusters, small berries with thick skins make Petit Manseng well suited for our climate.”

A number of other winemakers and Sommeliers at the Summit voiced similar opinions about this promising grape.

“Petit Manseng ages beautifully,” said Mike Heny, winemaker at Horton Vineyards, north of Charlottesville, who, along with Graham Bell, helped make Virginia’s first Petit Manseng in 2000.  “And, it’s the easiest vinifera variety to grow in the state.”

At a reception and dinner hosted by Barboursville Vineyards’ winemaker Luca Paschina at Palladio Restaurant that evening — while sipping on Barboursville’s Vermentino Reserve (which I consider to be one of the best white wines in the state) — a conversation with several out-of-state wine professionals turned to the growing number of promising white grape varieties in Virginia.

Several in the group suggested that Petit Manseng may have been a better choice for VAWineSummitthe state’s official grape, referring to the decision by the Virginia Wine Board in 2011 to designate Viognier as Virginia’s official signature grape.

Praise for Petit Manseng continued throughout the Summit at breakout sessions like the ‘Meet Virginia Whites’ tasting on Tuesday morning, which featured ten compelling Virginia white wines.

While each of the ten white wines poured during the session were indeed compelling, the three Petit Manseng wines —  Shaps 2013 Honah Lee Vineyard, Delaplane Cellars 2013, and Early Mountain 2013 Block 11 (65% Petit Manseng, 35% Muscat) — were the standouts based on an informal poll following the tasting.

Petit Manseng is not new to Virginia of course.  In 1987, Dr. Tony Wolf, Professor of Viticulture at Virginia Tech, obtained Petit Manseng budwood from the Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY, and began formally evaluating the vines at the Virginia Tech Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station in Winchester, VA the next year.

Like several of Virginia’s most popular varieties, Dennis Horton, founder of Horton Vineyards, played an important role in the early days growing Petit Manseng, as did Jenni McCloud of Chrysalis Vineyards, Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards, and Jose Morejon of the former Mount Juliet (now known as Grace Estate).

More than 15 years after those first vineyard plantings (for commercial wine production), statewide plantings of Petit Manseng are still small.  Only 63 acres of the total 3,088 bearing wine grape acreage in Virginia are planted to Petit Manseng.

“I’m advising clients to plant Petit Manseng,” said Shaps.  “It’s a good viticulture decision in terms of quality as well as yields, and profitability.”

A number of other Virginia winemakers, including Jordan Harris, winemaker at Tarara Winery in Loudoun County, are in the process of planting more Petit Manseng or have near-term plans to plant more.

While the popularity and plantings of Petit Manseng is growing, this promising grape comes with it’s own set of viticultural challenges.

“One real challenge is taming the bold, high acidity, and balancing the sugars” adds Shaps.

There is also the matter of consumer education.  Because Petit Manseng is not widely produced outside of the Jurancon region in southwest France, wine enthusiasts are likely more familiar with the sweeter versions.

“Petit Manseng does not show terroir well and can hamper the beauty of so many sites in Virginia,” said Harris.  “Part of our charm is the diversity of terroirs and how transparent they can be.”

“With that being said, a huge potential upside of Petit Manseng is making affordable entry-level wines,” added Harris. “With less [vineyard] maintenance required, more consistent yields, stainless steel fermentation, and earlier release dates, Petit Manseng can be made and sold at lower price points that may appeal to more consumers, especially those new to Virginia wine.”

EarlyMountainBlock11A good point that highlights the importance of a grape like Petit Manseng to the Virginia wine industry.  Given the advantages — more consistent yields, good resistance to bunch rot, fruit quality, lower production costs — it’s tempting to contrast the potential of Petit Manseng to that of Viognier in the context of the best grape for Virginia.

Rather than being viewed as a competitor to Viognier, or any other grape, Petit Manseng, like other varieties, is one more grape with the potential for fantastic wine.

The truth is, the industry needs both grapes (and more of them) as demand for Virginia wine in the global marketplace continues to grow!

Congratulations to the wineries, winemakers, and everyone in the industry that made the third annual Virginia Wine Summit possible.  The Marketing Office of the Virginia Wine Board continues to raise the bar each year with more relevant and educational programing.

Drink what you like, with people you like!

Petit Manseng tasted at the Summit:

Michael Shaps 2013 Honah Lee Petit Manseng
USA, Virginia, Central Virginia
100% Petit Manseng
14% abv | $26
One of the standout wines of the Summit. Bright, precise, dry with notes of pineapple, peach, and mineral. Aippy yet not overwhelming acidity.  Showcases the potential of dry varietal Petit Manseng.   Shaps produced just 150 cases of the 2013 Petit Manseng. Expects to bottle about 300 cases of the 2014.

Delaplane Cellars 2013 Petit Manseng
USA, Virginia, Delaplane
100% Petit Manseng
13% abv | $30
Another standout from the Summit.  Luscious with notes of pineapple, peach, and honey.  The 2% RS provides just enough weight on the palate without tasting ‘sweet.’    Only available at the winery.  Buy this wine.

Early Mountain 2013 Block 11
USA, Virginia, Central Virginia
65% Petit Manseng, 35% Muscat
12.7% abv
An exceptional white blend.  This wine offers loads of honeysuckle, white flower and sweet lemon.  I poured this wine at a ‘get to know Virginia wine’ tasting that I hosted at a local wine shop and was the most sold wine of the tasting.

Ingleside Vineyards 2012 Petit Manseng
USA, Virginia, Northern Neck
84% Petit Manseng, 16% Chardonnay
12.5% abv | $24
This wine was poured during the Monday tasting for panelists at Trump Winery. Well received by others too, based on the comments I heard. Darker golden-yellow in color than the other Petit Manseng wines I’ve tasted which led me to believe it would taste much sweeter than it did (2.4% RS).  Grilled pineapple for days with citrus on the edges and hints of stones.  Finished with a lengthly honey-lemon finish.

Other Virginia Petit Manseng wines to see out:
Tarara Winery 2010 Late Harvest Petit Manseng
Glen Manor Vineyards 2013 Petit Manseng
Lovingston Winery Petit Manseng
Linden Late Harvest Petit Manseng