Body: Light to medium, but can be full.
Dry / Sweet: Dry
Acidity: High (can be razor sharp)
Age: Drink while young and fresh – within three years of release. Rich style wines can age for up to eight years.
Gros Manseng (GRO-mon-SON) is indigenous to Southwest France and probably originated in or near the appellation of Jurançon (zhoo-rahn-SAWN) close to the town of Pau. It is part of the family of “Manseng” grapes that includes Petit Manseng and Manseng Noir; the latter is now very rare. It is said by some to be related to the Albariño grape from the Galicia region of northwest Spain, and they certainly share many characteristics.
The word “gros” in French means large and refers to the size of the berries or grapes of Gros Manseng, which are large relative to those of the closely related Petit Manseng variety. By the late 1950s there were only about 100 acres of Gros Manseng left in France, and its future looked bleak. Thankfully, its fortunes changed and today it is widely grown in Southwest France where it is primarily associated with the dry wines of the Jurançon Sec appellation (the word “sec” means dry in French).
The production of these dry wines in Jurançon is a relatively recent phenomenon, which developed in the 1960s and 70s as wine makers responded to consumer demand for dry white wines. Up to that time the Jurançon appellation had long been famous – and still is today – for producing high quality Sweet wines made predominantly from Petit Manseng. When purchasing a Jurançon wine it is important to note the name of the appellation on the bottle, as those labeled Jurançon are always sweet, while those labeled Jurançon Sec are always dry; this often causes confusion.
There are two main reasons why winemakers favor Gros Manseng for dry wine production. The first relates to the vine’s ability to produce large crops, for as well as having large berries it also has large grape clusters, which in turn make it very productive. While this would normally be considered a negative (because higher crop yields generally mean lower juice quality) Gros Manseng has the ability, unlike most grape varieties, to maintain quality even at high yields. The second reason is that it has very high natural acidity, which is the chief characteristic of the grape. These factors, along with strong consumer demand for dry white wines, explain why plantings of Gros Manseng today outnumber those of Petit Manseng, even though the latter is considered to be a more elegant grape. Nonetheless, Gros Manseng is quite unique and has a great deal to recommend it.
The majority of wines made from Gros Manseng are Crisp in style and display great vibrancy and vitality, whilst a smaller number are Rich in style with considerable weight, complexity and depth. The harvesting of grapes used to make the Crisp Style wines usually takes place from late September to early October to ensure sufficient acidity, which is rarely a problem for Gros Manseng.
When it comes to the winemaking process care is needed, as the skin of Gros Manseng, similar to all grapes in the Manseng family, is very thick. Therefore the grapes must be gently pressed and skin contact kept to a minimum to avoid excessive levels of tannin and polyphenols (natural compounds in the skins that can result in bitterness) in the wine. Fermentation and aging usually takes place in stainless steel tanks and malolactic fermentation (to reduce acidity) is generally not used.
Appellation regulations for Jurançon Sec wines permit the use of up to five grape varieties: Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Courbu and a maximum of 15% of the finished wine made up of Camaralet and / or Lauzet. The composition of these wines can vary widely from 100% Gros Manseng to 50% Gros Manseng and 50% Petit Manseng or a more complex blend of some, or all, of the five permitted varieties. Whatever the combination, all of these wines will contain a high proportion of Gros Manseng.
Consequently, the key characteristic of these wines is their vibrant and lively acidity (they can be razor sharp), which provides the frame for their flavor profile. Aromas of flowers (honeysuckle and acacia), citrus, orchard and tropical fruits are followed by flavors of lemon, apple, pear, apricot, pineapple, candied fruits and honey, leading to a zesty mineral finish. Depending on the blend, different aspects of the flavor profile will be more prominent – Petit Manseng will bring more tropical fruit and honey flavors, while Courbu adds citrus notes and texture. These Crisp style wines should be consumed within two to three years of release, when they are at their best.
A smaller number of very interesting Jurançon Sec wines are made in the Rich Style. These wines are harvested and vinified in a different manner to the more typical Crisp style wines. The grapes are left longer on the vine to ripen, which increases their sugar levels and potential alcohol. Some are left so long on the vine that they start to dry and shrivel through a process known in France as Passerillage (similar to Passito in Italy, except that the grapes are left to dry on the vine and not after they have been harvested). This process concentrates flavors in the grapes and increases the body of the wine.
In the winery there are also important differences as these grapes are generally treated with oak, either during or after fermentation, and are left to age on their lees (dead yeast cells, and grape pulp, that settle at the bottom of the tank during fermentation). The resulting wines are richly textured and complex with pronounced tropical and dried fruit flavors, whilst also retaining good acidity. They can age well over several years displaying additional flavors of spice, nuts and even truffle. These wines are truly distinctive and a must for lovers of Rich style wines. Many are from the village of Monein – look out for examples made by Charles Hours of Clos Uroulat and Domaine Bru-Bache.
The white wines of Southwest France are not widely known or available, but they are quite distinctive and deserving of attention. Gros Manseng has not travelled far from its native region, although there is considerable interest in the USA (California and Virginia) and Australia for its close relative Petit Manseng, mainly for its ability to make Rich style whites and Sweet wines. However, a recent trend in Southwest France is to blend Gros Manseng with Sauvignon Blanc and the appeal of this combination may attract more attention internationally.
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