We first came across petit manseng (in New Zealand) at a Riversun grapevine nursery presentation in Gisborne.
The purpose was to introduce grape growers and winemakers to new clones and varietals that have potential for those wishing to replant or expand their wine portfolios.
Independent of this event comes news from Sam and Mandy Weaver at Marlborough's Churton Wines. Sam has been working on New Zealand's first plantings of petit manseng.
It's "a truly exciting grape variety", he says.
"It's fun to grow and has plenty of challenges in the vineyard and winery... but it has huge potential for quality and individuality."
Petit manseng is a low-yielding white varietal grown in southwest France.
It produces quality dry and sweet wines and because of its natural attributes it has good disease resistance.
In fact Riversun says this variety is considered bulletproof even in difficult years.
With all this in mind we asked Sam why Churton decided to experiment with the variety. His initial response was straightforward. "I love the variety and have had good experiences drinking it over the past 30 years."
Sam says he was interested in finding an alternative later ripening variety that would suit Marlborough's long autumns; a variety that would be something of an insurance policy against global warming. Sam's interest was further kindled through his friendship with the late Didier Dagueneau. Sam has visited Didier in Pouilly Fume and Les Jardin de Babylone, his Jurancon vineyard. Jurancon is one of the key petit manseng growing regions in France.
Didier was a winemaker from the Loire Valley who became a cult figure because of the quality of his sauvignon blanc wines from the Pouilly Fume appellation.
Sam says that what excites him most about petit manseng is that it can produce wine with a sense of mystery. Without mystery, wine is merely an industrial product.
"Not only does petit manseng produce a wine with assertive character and wonderful drive and length of flavour but also it produces accessible fruitiness.
"At the same time it has a mysterious quality that's difficult to put your finger on. It can be dry, but is most often demi-sec [semi-sweet] or moelleux. It has sensational depth of flavour with wonderful mineral acidity that makes it mouth-watering.
"It will never be a mass-produced variety; to make petit manseng properly it needs to be fully ripe and it only yields about 50 per cent juice [compared to sauvignon blanc which can yield greater than 80 per cent]. It is early flowering, very vigorous and late ripening."
Sam says it's very sensitive to powdery mildew but very resistant to botrytis.It isn't as "bulletproof" as first suggested, either.
"It has wonderful open bunches that are fan-like. I like to think that they're bunches that come from the realm of light.
"The bunches are spread open like a pair of children's [or clown's] hands imitating the sun. The berries don't touch each other and have thick skins that are golden in colour.
"It's a variety that really does need a long growing season. For us it ripens about four weeks after sauvignon blanc. We generally pick in the mid to end of May.
"When ripe, petit manseng has very high sugar content, very high extract and extraordinary acidity. [In tech terms we normally pick at 27-30 Brix with acid of 12-14g/l and pH about 2.8]. This gives the wine great richness and depth of flavour whilst still retaining freshness, tension and minerality.
"For the moment we are making it in a semi-sweet style but as it has this wonderful acidity it can seem almost dry."
Sam says any bottle of good petit manseng is memorable.
"Great bottles of wine are memorable for the people we drink them with. On one occasion I drank a bottle of Les Jardins de Babylone [Jurancon] as an aperitif on the terrace with Didier Dageneau, before going out to dinner with him. The terrace was literally outside the garage where he made the wine. Sadly that was the last time I saw Didier - he was killed in a microlight crash a few months later."
Why grow petit manseng?
"It's fantastic; it's challenging, and it loves the long autumns and intense light we have in Marlborough."
Churton Petit Manseng 2012 is New Zealand's first commercial release of this variety and the first to be exported. Only 700 (500ml) bottles are available and it is being sold on an allocation basis.
Churton Petit Manseng 2012, $49.95
A delightful lemon-gold colour with a lifted, spicy, perfumed poached quince aroma. Honeyed and carrying some generous nectarine and savoury notes.
The palate is exceptional. Light and bright with sweet apple and gingery spice, this delightful wine begins medium-sweet and finishes dry with lime and apple fruitiness.
Underlying warm earthiness and gentle floral notes contribute to exceptional depth and length of flavour. Perfectly balanced, a wine to lift the most jaded palate.
Sam and Mandy teamed their petit manseng with poached salmon and crushed herb potatoes - I teamed it with fresh pan-fried white fish, crisp summer salad and a few chips. The combination resulted in smiles all round.
At 9 per cent abv, this wine is perfect for a summer lunch.
Go to churtonwines.co.nz to find out about stockists.
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