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A new southern classic: one Georgia winery calls Petit Manseng the perfect grape for southeastern terroir.

"Petit what?" I gasped when my husband mentioned he wanted to plant Petit Manseng at Tiger Mountain Vineyards. I had that same uneasy feeling I'd experienced when he told me he was going to plant Tannat, which had caused me to wonder if we'd be peddling grapes out of the back of a pickup truck instead of making fine wine, our ultimate goal. Of course, I had to admit the Tannat turned out to be popular with our wine club members and several upscale Atlanta wine shops.

John learned of Petit Manseng from his long-time Virginia mentor, Dennis Norton, owner of Morton Vineyards in Gordonsville, Va., who is never afraid to try the unusual if he thinks it will produce quality fruit in a southeastern terroir. So, it was no surprise that when Dennis called excitedly in 2002 to tell John he should plant Petit Manseng, John could hardly wait to try this Jurancon grape.

We ordered the first bare-root plants in 2002 from Ute Amberg, who owns Grafted Grapevines in Clifton Springs, N.Y., for $3.25 per plant. We planted 454 vines--almost an acre--choosing a moderately steep, sunny, well-drained slope and training the vines on a Geneva double curtain trellis. In the past four years we have added another half-acre. Petit Manseng seems to thrive in the Tiger Mountain soils, where they are planted at 2,000 feet. The soil is not Georgia red clay, as some assume, but largely the ancient, decayed granite of the southern Appalachians, which are, after all, some of the world's oldest mountains.

We planted the vines in rows running east to west, spaced 8 feet apart. (John says he would make those 6 feet apart if he could do it all over again.) We use divided trellis systems throughout the Ezzard vineyards--either Geneva double curtain or open lyre--and think these training systems assure that more air and sun penetrate the vines in a humid climate. Using Geneva double curtain was not unusual for us. There is nothing extraordinary in the pruning of these vines, either. We cut to two buds in late January and leave about eight shoots on each cordon, just as we do for all of our vinifera.

Stunning sugar measurements

Our first harvest, three seasons following planting, was limited, and we were initially uncertain about this grape, which had tiny berries and small, loose clusters. But when we started measuring sugars in late August in preparation for September harvest, we were stunned to find the Petit Manseng measured 24[degrees] Brix when most of our vinifera at that pre-harvest time were barely reaching 20[degrees]-21[degrees] Brix, When we experienced showers in early September and way too many gray days that first year, we were further delighted to find the Petit Manseng sugars did not stall out, as many vinifera are prone to do in wet conditions; they just kept climbing. It was as if we were growing grapes on California's Central Coast instead of in the southern Blue Ridge.

As other North Georgia winegrowers begin to ask John about Petit Manseng, seemingly the perfect grape for our terroir, they want to know if there are tricks to cultivating it. We are quick to assure them that we are using the same spray regimen with this rare white grape that we apply to most other vinifera: In early June, we apply sulfur and Manzate to prevent downy and powdery mildew; maybe Pristine and/or Vangard to guard against both mildew and Botrytis. Every seven to 10 days in July, John applies Captan, Vanguard or Elevate. In a season when we are attacked by Japanese beetles (which, of course, can make lace of the leaves overnight), he also treats the vines with Imidan. We harvest the Petit Manseng in late September, so after the first of August, John uses only the safer sprays such as Prophyte, Armicarb or Elevate.

John and assistant winemaker Jabe Hilson add Lalvin M69, a yeast strain that tolerates high sugar levels for fermenting the Petit Manseng. They totally block malolactic fermentation, and the wine shows good acids: 10.5 grams per liter in 2008, for example, and 8.5 grams per liter in 2010. The pH is right around 3.0. The wine is fermented in occasional new French oak, but mostly in neutral French oak and some stainless steel. For the first 3,5 months, the lees are stirred in the barrels, then allowed to settle out. Next, the wine is taken off the lees and cold stabilized. It is fined with bentonite and then gross filtered. It is not fine filtered until bottling, at approximately five to six months of age, and we allow the wine to bottle age for about three months prior to release. The alcohol levels are consistent at 13.8% for the 2010 vintage, 13% in 2009 and 13.5% in 2008.

Silver medals in San Francisco

Tiger Mountain Vineyards won silver medals for its Petit Manseng (2008 and 2010) in the San Francisco International Wine Competition and a gold medal for the 2009 vintage in the Jefferson Cup Invitational. While I prefer the dry Petit Manseng, John left 1.4% residual sugar in the 2010 vintage after it was picked at 27[degrees] Brix, and it is a big hit with most of our wine buyers, perhaps because it is so textured and has a mid-body roundness that is hard to attain in southern wines. In the future we hope to pick it no higher than 25.5[degrees] Brix. The wine, which is 100% Petit Manseng, retails for $35 per bottle.

One of the good qualities of Petit Manseng is that its second bud is quite productive. During the record 2007 mid-April freeze in North Georgia, it was the only one of our eight vinifera varieties to produce a second bud with even ripening and good fruit. The annual production has varied depending on weather conditions and berry set, but generally from our acre and a half of Petit Manseng we produce between 160 and 230 cases. In 2010 we produced only 95 cases because we decided to let some of it hang (clusters under the canopy) into late October in order to make Sweet Petit, our first late-harvest Petit Manseng, We picked those remaining clusters at slightly more than 30[degrees] Brix, and the resulting wine contains 4.7% residual sugar. We produced 40 cases (375ml bottles) of this first vintage, which sells only at the winery for $40 per bottle. In less than two months, more than half of the sauterne-like dessert wine has been sold.

A review of Tiger Mountain Vineyards' Petit Manseng, written by Master of Wine Doug Frost in Tom Stevenson's 2009 Wine Report, said it best: "Is Petit Manseng the right grape for northeast Georgia's elevated vineyards? Who the heck knows, but this is very, very interesting, balanced with honey, lemon, apples and some ripe melon. And it's not the first Petit Manseng the region has produced--just the best one this year."

Shortly after John planted what I termed "that weird Jurangon grape," I learned that Petit Manseng is the only wine ever used to baptize a royal child--Henry IV of France, during the 16th century. Though it is served today in some of Atlanta's top restaurants, we haven't run into Petit Manseng at any southern baptisms!

RELATED ARTICLE: Would a market materialize?

When my husband John and I decided to try Petit Manseng at our Tiger Mountain Vineyards, we were a bit anxious about what kind of market might materialize for this unusual varietal, so we named the first vintage Burton Blanc rather than Petit Manseng, and hoped our neighbor resort residents at Lake Burton would try a new white with their favorite summer name. We produced only 60 cases in 2005 and sold out in less than two months--another surprise. We also learned that the wine was a big hit with our more sophisticated buyers, wine collectors and those looking for the unusual.

We played with pairings and asked our buyers what they liked with the Petit Manseng. Seafood--even oysters--they reported, and soft cheeses and fruit. Cold soups, some said, are perfect with the crisp, refreshing quality and long finish of the wine. The tangy, textured layers of flavors include hints of green apple and citrus, making it an excellent pairing with Asian dishes.

Martha Ezzard, a lawyer-turned-journalist, is a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist and editorial writer. She and her husband John own Tiger Mountain Vineyards in Tiger, Ga., with partners Marilyn and John McMullan. The first vineyards at Tiger Mountain were planted in 1995, and the winery opened in 1999. Ezzard recently finished writing a book, ''The Second Bud: Starting a Wine Grape Vineyard in the Bible Belt," based on the Ezzards' vineyard venture.
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Title Annotation:Grapegrowing
Comment:A new southern classic: one Georgia winery calls Petit Manseng the perfect grape for southeastern terroir.(Grapegrowing)
Author:Ezzard, Martha
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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