Petit Manseng is an under-sung white skinned gape variety that is the apotheosis of bright tangy acidity and exuberant aromas of kumquat, nectarine and honeysuckle. It can be among the very finest white wines of France despite its anonymity.
Petit Manseng is largely planted in the French Pyrénées-Atlantiques, from the cusp of the Basque country to farther south around the Spanish border. In the appellations of Jurançon and nearby Pacherenc-du-Vic-Bilh, as well as Béarn and Irouleguy, it reaches its apogee on deep pebbly soils where its tendency to ripen late despite early bud burst, allows for little but stingy amounts of juice despite yields of around 25 hectolitres per hectare or more.
Petit Manseng is usually blended with the less noble Gros Manseng and Courbu. It is often vinified as a dry table wine albeit, the variety's finest expressions are sweet. These may be made from botrytized grapes. However Petit Manseng's thick skins mean that its sweeter styles are more easily rendered from grapes that have been left to dry on the vine, before being harvested very late, often into October and even November at potential alcohols of close to 20 per cent. This technique is known as passerillage.
While Petit Manseng is prone to malevolent rot and both forms of mildew, the complexity of its wines are attested to by its popularity among ancient French royalty. More pertinent perhaps, its plantings in France have increased more than twenty-fold in the last 60 years with particular attention paid to its potential among the young guns of the Languedoc, including Mas Julien.
Influenced by these contemporary French expressions, some Victorian producers including William Downie, are crafting compelling wines from this new introduction to Australia, both dry and sweet.