The Two Unsung Grapes Putting Virginia Wine on the Map
Petit Manseng and Petit Verdot may not be household names yet, but a group of Virginia winemakers are looking to change that.
By Carrie Dykes, originally published by Wine Ethusiast
Virginia ranks No. 6 in wine grape production in the U.S., with more than 280 wineries spanning the state. If that comes as a surprise, how about this: Virginia is one of just two places on the planet making noteworthy wines with Petit Manseng, a rich and unique white-wine grape that originated in Southwest France.
In addition to Petit Manseng, Virginia makes stunning varietal Petit Verdot wines. At the 2018 Virginia Governor’s Cup, one of the most stringent wine competitions in the country where hundreds of area wines are judged by a panel of experts, three 100% Petit Verdot bottlings were among the 12 wines that earned honors.
Virginia has seven American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), each with their own distinct geographic features. From the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to its westernmost border is an eight-hour drive. Its Eastern Shore AVA features sandy loam soils among many other types, formed by the meteor that created the Chesapeake Bay more than 35 million years ago.
Further west, the altitude rises gradually until reaching the Blue Ridge Mountains, which soar to over 5,700 feet above sea level, though most area vineyards remain in the 600–900 feet range. On the other side of the mountains, the Shenandoah Valley has rich soils well-suited to grape growing, and helps make up part of the Great Appalachian Valley.
Virginia grows just about everything. The most planted grape is Chardonnay, though Cabernet Franc and Viognier are also well represented throughout the region. However, though often overlooked, Petit Manseng and Petit Verdot are increasingly being used to create wines that uniquely showcase Virginia’s terroir.
Grown primarily in Southwest France, Petit Manseng is named for its small, thick-skinned berries. Wines made from these grapes typically present rich floral, spicy and tropical aromas. While not generally known for dry, single-variety wines, it is usually used to add intrigue and body to a blend.
Petit Manseng grapes are very high in sugar, which is why in the French regions of Jurançon and Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, they’re left to hang on the vines to produce late-harvest sweet wines. The grape’s natural high acidity balances the residual sugar and prevents the wine from feeling cloying.
Tony Wolf, a professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech, brought Petit Manseng to the state in 1987. It was one of several varieties he wanted to test for viability in Virginia’s climate.
Wolf saw that the Petit Manseng’s loose bunches facilitated airflow during hot, humid summer days and helped thwart mold and rot.
“Petit Manseng is bulletproof in the vineyard, very easy to grow and keep a low pH and high acid,” says Matthieu Finot, winemaker at King Family Vineyards. “But [while] easy to work with in the vineyard, [Petit Manseng] needs tact and time in the winery.”
This isn’t a grape that would fare well in Napa. Petit Manseng is a wet-weather grape, perfect for regions like Virginia and the Jurançon.
“Both [Petit Manseng and Petit Verdot] produce are what I would consider to be two of Virginia’s best wine grapes,” says Michael Shaps, winemaker for Michael Shaps Wineworks. “Both have small, loose clusters that can handle the heat, humidity and rainfall, with natural high acidity that can ripen in the hot August and September nights and still maintain flavors and balance. These two varieties are a natural fit for our climate and winemaking style.”
It is, however, a difficult grape from which to produce a dry wine without heightened alcohol levels. To combat this, harvest timing is critical.
When done well, a varietal, dry Petit Manseng wine will be highly aromatic and flavorful, with notes that range from cinnamon sticks to ruby-red grapefruit, baked pear and honey. It should feel alive on the palate with racy acidity.
These wines have caught the eye of sommeliers, adventurous drinkers, well-curated shops and restaurateurs. José Andrés, the Washington D.C.-based chef/restaurateur, has highlighted Michael Shaps Petit Manseng for years. It also fits the region’s cuisine, lauded for its fresh seafood, proving the old adage, “What grows together, goes together.”
Ben Jordan, winemaker at Early Mountain, sees the grape as integral to help forge a distinctive identity for Virginia wine.
“We think [Petit Menseng] can and should be an important part of Virginia’s future…it is both resilient in our climate and distinctive in the world of wine,” he says. “We are still developing the approach, but that’s the best part—we get to make this grape our own, and we don’t have to answer to anyone’s preconceived notion or tradition of the grape. That’s not often the case in an emerging region.
“This is a wine that Virginia can take out past its borders.”
Petit Verdot is known mainly for its supporting role in Bordeaux blends, though it typically makes up the smallest part of these. The variety produces a bold wine with deep purple hues, abundant floral aromas, plentiful tannin and a full body. From French, its name translates loosely to “little green one,” due to its late-ripening berries.
What separates Virginia Petit Verdot?
While its popularity has declined in France, Petit Verdot from Virginia has proved to be an impressive variety. It is able to reach full phenolic ripeness in warm climates, which results in a deep, brooding wine. Varietal bottlings have gained momentum in many warm climates like Argentina, Spain, Italy, Australia and Chile.
In Virginia, Petit Verdot occupies the place Cabernet Sauvignon does in many other regions. Regional growing conditions aren’t conducive to Cabernet, but local markets still had demand for a bigger East Coast red.
“Most growing seasons in Virginia aren’t quite long enough to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon to levels comparable with California, or other well-known Cab regions,” says Christopher Ritzcovan, winemaker for Jefferson Vineyards. “Petit Verdot is our answer to those who love the bigger, bolder styles of red wine.”
Today, there are 206 acres dedicated to Petit Verdot throughout Virginia, plus another 45 non-bearing acres. That’s a significant increase from the 80 acres planted in the state a mere decade ago.
A testament to the grape’s popularity, The Williamsburg Winery started with five acres of Petit Verdot in 2005 at their Wessex Hundred Vineyard in Williamsburg, Virginia. They have since planted an additional five acres in a separate vineyard in Winchester, Virginia, and source additional Petit Verdot from growers throughout the state.
“The success of our Petit Verdot program has been 100% organic,” says Michael Kimball, vice president of marketing at Williamsburg. “It is the grape that Virginia wine enthusiasts love and want to drink and it’s the grape that many people new to the industry have heard about and want to taste.
“We are so in love with Petit Verdot that we’re actually producing single-vineyard bottlings from several sites to show the diversity and complexity of this varietal [grape] and how it thrives here in Virginia.”