The monocépage wines of Bordeaux: Part I – Petit Verdot
In the first of a new series of articles on the monocépage wines of the Bordeaux region, our Bordeaux Correspondent Colin Hay explores the rare but fascinating anomaly that is single-varietal, single-vineyard Petit Verdot.
Bordeaux is famously a region of blends, of blending and of the art of blending – often, if not always, of terroirs but invariably of varieties. What is right-bank Merlot without at least a little Cabernet Franc? What is Pessac Sauvignon Blanc without Sémillon? What is left-bank Cabernet Sauvignon without at least one, and preferably two or more, of a range of other varietals (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, even Malbec or Carménère)?
In the familiar terms of the conventional wisdom, varietal diversity in the vineyard offers the wine-maker a more varied and expansive palate with which to express their terroir.
But wherever there are conventional wisdoms there are iconoclasts too. And it is with those iconoclasts – and, more specifically, with the fruits of their iconoclasm – that I am concerned in this new series of articles on the monocépage wines of Bordeaux.
My aim, to be clear, is not to argue that monocépage wines are somehow preferable to – and might ultimately replace – their more familiar blended counterparts. But it is to suggest that, under certain conditions, in certain vineyards and in the hands of certain winemakers, monocépage wines are at least as effective in expressing the specificity of a single terroir than a more traditional insistence on varietal diversity. In short, it is to suggest that monocépage wines are not quite as iconoclastic as they might at first seem.
Quite simply, and perhaps rather more importantly, many of these wines are excellent and, taken together, they undoubtedly add richness and diversity to the vinous palate offered by the region. They bring something new to table.
And there are lots of them if one is prepared to look for them – more and more each year. Yet, taken together, they account for just a tiny proportion of the region’s overall production.
There is a second reason, too, for a series of articles on monocépage wines. For to look at a variety it its purest expression is, arguably, the best way to introduce it – and, hence, the best way to begin to understand the role it plays in the region’s (blended) wines more generally. As a wine writer I learn much about a wine by tasting, as I sometimes have the privilege to do, some of the monovarietal elements from which it is constructed (the parcel of Merlot on limestone, the parcel of Merlot on clay, the parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon on gravel and so forth).
Monocépage wines offer those who don’t have and are never likely to enjoy that opportunity a similar chance to understand better the composition of the multi-varietal blends representing the majority of their Bordeaux consumption.
I start with a perhaps unlikely candidate for mono-varietal expression, above all in Bordeaux – Petit Verdot.
Petit Verdot is something of a workhorse and yet also something of an anomaly. For unlike practically all of the other varieties that I will consider in this series of articles, it is present in virtually no region of the world in monocépage form. If ever there were a varietal for blending – or, put differently, if ever there were a varietal for not expressing in monocépage form – this would surely be it.
Petit Verdot, where it is present at all in Bordeaux, is present in tiny quantities. It tends to pass largely unnoticed. Indeed, if anything, it tends be noticeable more for its absence than its presence. And given its susceptibility to a variety of maladies and the difficulty of getting it to full maturity, is it often absent from the final blends of those wines that would otherwise benefit from its presence.
Petit Verdot is a vigorous variety that benefits from being grown on soils prone to hydric stress. Yet traditionally it is associated with the palus (or marshy terroir) bordering the river, often with its roots below the water table. This might seem paradoxical. It is largely explained by the fact that few varieties grow as well in such conditions – conditions which were appealing in that they offered at least some protection against phylloxera.
It comparison to other Bordeaux varieties, Petit Verdot requires, and certainly benefits from, a long hang time as it tends to be late ripening. It is intensely coloured and high in acidity and its brings, when ripe, a violet florality and a nutty and peppery element to the aromatic profile of a wine. It also has a reputation for yielding brutal tannins and requires, as a consequence, careful and delicate vinification, above all gentle maceration with very little pumping over.
Described in such terms it might not seem to have a great deal going for it. But it was very widely planted throughout the Bordeaux region in the 19th century, when there was in fact rather more of it under vine than Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, in the wake of the phylloxera crisis, it tended to be planted in the palus, with its roots in the riverbed. It produced, one can only imagine, rather severe, green wines with raw tannins and elevated acidity.
It was certainly difficult to ripen and was largely dug up in the 20th century to be replaced by higher yielding, more reliable and earlier ripening varieties, notably Merlot grafted onto American rootstocks.
In its heyday (if we can call it that), it remained very much a left-bank exclusivity, associated in particular with the appellation of Margaux and the southern Médoc more generally. Here it typically brought vim, depth and colour to wines from somewhat lighter terroirs. Its second home was in Pessac-Léognan, where it remains a small component in the final blends of a number of classed growths, including Domaine de Chevalier, Malartic Lagraviére and Smith Haut Lafitte (if not in every vintage).
It is also present, if rarely and in even smaller proportions, on the right-bank notably at Couvent des Jacobins in Saint-Émilion and, increasingly, in Pomerol (where a relatively recent change to the appellation rules allow its presence in the final blend at up to 10%). It is a little known fact that, having first been used in the blend for La Fleur-Pétrus in 2015 (at 0.5%) it is now typically present in the final blend of the grand vin at around 3%, reinforcing the wine’s gracious violet florality.
In sum, Petit Verdot ripens late and is thick-skinned – as, arguably, must be the winemakers who have to cope with its legendary capriciousness! It brings lots of character and with that character tannin, colour, spice and acidity – and quite a lot of alcohol too. Like seasoning, a little goes a long way. Its demerits are that it is capricious: it doesn’t always ripen, it is susceptible to malady and its yields, as a consequence, are highly variable. It is difficult to rely upon.
But it is present in very many of the great wines of the region (notably in their greatest vintages). It represents around 2% of the final blend of the grand vin of Château Margaux and between 3% and 4% of the blend of Palmer. It is often present at in excess of 10% in the final blend of both Angludet and Desmirail and – in another little known fact – rarely now falls below 15% in the final blend of the much-admired St Estèphe Château Meyney (whose old-vine Petit Verdot is planted on a gravel terroir along the riverside).
Monocépage Petit Verdot
But what does it yield on its own?
Until recently that was a very difficult question to answer, at least for those without the opportunity and desire to have tasted barrel samples prior to blending (a privilege not, of course, afforded to many). And, even then, it should be noted, there is a great deal of difference between Petit Verdot grown and vinified for blending and that destined for mono-varietal expression (where the tannins, above all, need to be managed rather differently).
Monocépage Petit Verdot, in Bordeaux at least, is perhaps something of an indulgence on the part of the winemaker – a wine made rather more for philosophical or aesthetic than purely commercial reasons. No one makes very much of it and no one sells what they produce at an elevated price point. These are wines made for the connoisseur – or, perhaps more accurately, made for the winemaker and justified it terms of the opportunity to the connoisseur they ostensibly provide. They are winemakers’ projects and might almost be seen as a winemaker revealing some of their art – ‘showing their working’, as it were.
As that perhaps suggests, these wines are a labour of love, a fascination sometimes verging on an obsession. They show off Petit Verdot at its best; but they are not necessarily the best use of Petit Verdot. One learns a great deal from tasting these wines. But I find myself asking, time and again, if what I am tasting might not be better expressed as part of a blend.
That sounds like a criticism. But it isn’t. It isn’t for two reasons above all. First, these wines bring so much to the table and give us an insight that we would not otherwise have. It would be a great shame to lose that. And, second, whilst I did find myself asking, time and again, during this tasting whether the Petit Verdot in my glass might not express itself better if it were joined by other varietals, my answer remains unclear. I remain undecided – and, on balance, I feel more like the sceptic in the process of conversion than the believer in the process of denouncing his faith!
What is crystal clear to me is that there a great deal of technical skill present in these wines. And there needs to be. Though stylistically quite varied, in each and every case we are in the presence of very fine wine-making by extremely accomplished technicians. Monocépage Petit Verdot is not easy. Put differently, in the hands of other wine-makers, old vine, single-vineyard, single-varietal Petit Verdot of the quality on display in these bottles would probably not tempt me very much.
It is testimony to the skill and to the craft of the wine-making on display here that these wines are as good as they are. I am very happy to commend each and every one of them to you.
The tasting process
As for each varietal in this series of articles, I approached producers of monocépage Petit Verdot that were known to me, asking for a sample of one or more recent vintages. In the case of one property (which has provided samples for other articles in the series), the winemaker felt that the only monocépage Petit Verdot that they had made to date was simply too young at this stage to be included in my tasting. For an article series like this, I prefer to be guided by the properties themselves on these questions (the vintage or vintages presented and whether they are ready to be shown). All samples were tasted in Paris under the same conditions using a combination of stemware from Grassl, Reidel and Sydonius.
|Monocépage Petit Verdot
|Hommage à Denis Dubourdieu
|Moutte Blanc Moisin
|Moutte Blanc Moisin
|Noroît Petit Verdot
|Petit Verdot by Belle-Vue
- Hommage à Denis Dubourdieu 2018 (Bordeaux; 100% Petit Verdot; aged 12 months in oak barrels; 14.5% alcohol; just 2635 bottles). The first vintage of this monocépage micro-cuvée from selected parcels of Petit Verdot planted by Denis Dubourdieu in 2005 on the deep clay terroir of Château Reynon in the Premières Cotes de Bordeaux near Cadillac on a south-eastern facing slope. This is, as far as I am aware, the only monocépage Petit Verdot of the right-bank. The product of a very gentle extraction. At first one senses just the purity of the fruit – fresh plum, plum skin, goji berry and bright red cherry notes – and then the salty, almost briny, minerality starts to reveal itself, bringing a slight charcuterie note. With more air, a hint of truffle and chanterelles. There’s spice too – hoisin, Chinese five spice and the Asiatic peppercorns typical of Petit Verdot. On the palate, the tannins are fine-grained yet a constant presence, texturing and structuring the wine which remains tightly bound to its spine. Long and fresh, pure and tightly focused. This might not be the most complex of wines, but it is ultra-expressive of the varietal. Promising, but needs time. 89+.
- Moutte Blanc Moisin 2019 (Bordeaux Supérieur; 100% old vine Petit Verdot, some of the plants being over 100 years ago; aged for 18 months in oak barrels, 70% of which are new; 14% alcohol; around 2800 bottles produced). This was probably the first single-varietal Petit Verdot in the region, the first vintage, I think, being 2000 – with the consultant here first being the legendary Petit Verdot specialist, Jacques Boissenot, and now his son, Eric Boissenot. This has a lovely freshness and a sensuous tender quality. It is defined on the open, expressive and intensely aromatic nose by a florality that immediately has one thinking of Margaux (and, near Macau, we are very close). There is wild thyme, even a little hint of lavender, wrapped around a ripe, pure raspberry and darker berry fruit. The naturally elevated acidity of the varietal is nicely tamed by the gentle, subtle sweetness of the oak. On the palate, this is quite delicate and lightly-textured with a sinuous, luminous quality very characteristic of the vintage. Pure, precise and with a nice focus and decent length if no great depth or concentration. This feels very complete. A very elegant expression of the varietal and a wine I really like. It seems to express its terroir and the vintage very seamlessly and eloquently. 91.
- Moutte Blanc Moisin 2021 (Bordeaux Supérieur; 100% old vine Petit Verdot; aged for 18 months in oak barrels; tasted with Moutte Blanc’s consultant oenologue, Eric Boissenot, en primeur; 14% alcohol). Plump, pulpy, chewy with lots of freshness, impressive crumbly tannins and good potential for aging. Red and darker berry fruit. Pure. Sapid and intensely juicy and refreshing on the very lifted finish. Maybe more interesting structurally than in terms of fruit complexity, but fascinating and very well made. Again, I have the sense of a wine that speaks very clearly in the authentic accent of its terroir. 89-91.
- Noroît Petit Verdot 2020 (Pessac-Léognan; 100% Petit Verdot; just 0.2 hectares on deep gravel over clay with a southern exposition; only 1,200 bottles produced; aged in oak barrels, 50% of which are new; 13% alcohol). This is sourced from the most North-Westerly parcel of the vineyard of de Rochemorin in Pessac-Léognan. ‘Noroît’ is the vernacular French name for a ‘nor’westerly’, a wind or breeze from the north west. The parcel itself is on a well-drained deep gravel soil planted with a new Petit Verdot clone, 1058. This is a little smoky and meaty. There’s a lovely note of cedar already. And a beautifully luminous almost crystalline, limpid mid-palate charged with fresh, crunchy dark berry fruits (loganberry and raspberry above all). At first it’s not as peppery as you expect, but with more air-time (as it were) assorted crushed peppercorn notes gradually reveal themselves, but never in a dominant way; a hint of bay leaf too. We have great purity and precision here – a very direct and clear expression of the variety. I love the subtle floral element that I was not really expecting and that lingers on the finish – hibiscus perhaps. Tender, lithe, sumptuous. 92+.
- Petit Verdot by Belle-Vue 2019 (Haut-Médoc; 100% old vine Petit Verdot from just over 2 hectares planted over 80 years ago on a clay terroir on the appellation boundary with Margaux; aged in Italian amphorae and oak foudres; 14% alcohol). Tasted immediately after the Moutte Blanc Moisin from the same vintage, this is bigger, darker, bolder and distinctly spicier in personality but with a similarly pleasing wild herbal element alongside the ripe dark berry and stone fruit (raspberry, bramble and baked plum). There’s a little more cedar too and that hint of bay leaf that I often find with Petit Verdot. On the palate this, too, has the sinuous character of the vintage and, once again, you’d probably place this blind on the other side of the appellation border in Margaux. The slightly greater extraction makes the tannins and the minerality more evident than in Moisin and this is more of a vin de garde, the tannins and the acidity building a little towards the finish and just shading a little towards dryness. That, I think, will come round with a little more bottle age; indeed, it resolves itself even with a little air, as the cracked pepper notes come through. Overall, very impressive with a lovely dynamism over the palate and impressive purity once again. 90.