The regional classic, explained
Photo: Howard Bouchevereau
Wednesday 02 February 2022
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Check the back label of any Bordeaux red and chances are that either of the world’s two most planted dark-skinned grapes – namely Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – will dominate the blend. The duo alternates as Bordeaux blends’ protagonists as tenors and sopranos do in a 19th-century opera. Meanwhile, Bordeaux blends’ “minor” varieties just don’t get the air time they deserve. Take Petit Verdot, for instance. It concurs to make some of the region’s best wines yet rarely gets much credit on the label, where it usually follows Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot under the rather underwhelming description: “et al.”
In its homeland Bordeaux, Petit Verdot has historically been employed as a mere gregarious grape, present only as 1% or 2% of a blend, a touch more in a good vintage, as its extended life-cycle requires dry and sunny Autumns for its petit (i.e. small) berries to ripen properly.
“Petit Verdot is a late variety. It buds early and matures late… and it does not tolerate strong water stress,” says Jean-Pierre Bouillac of Vignobles Bouillac.
“It requires a particular growing know-how, essential to obtaining good results. It is more demanding than other red Bordeaux varieties in terms of work in the vineyard.”
In favourable vintages, even a splash can add extra layers of aromas, and enhance a wine’s colour and structure thanks to its fruit, rich in polyphenols. In less successful years however, Petit Verdot might develop what growers often describe as a “rustic” quality. Just like that fun, mischievous friend who’s indispensable on a crowded night out, take him on his own and things get awkward fairly soon. The result: 100% Petit Verdot wines are a rare occurrence across the region.
In 2016 however, Château Belle-Vue made the most of a warm vintage to launch what’s become one of Bordeaux’s best known varietal Petit Verdot expressions.
“In specific clay soils, such as the one we have in our vineyards, we are able to grow fruit to make rich and complex wines,” says Belle-Vue’s Sebastien Long.
“The combination of old and very old vines [some are over 80 years] has always been our hidden gem and the exceptional quality of the 2016 vintage pushed us to create a new cuvée – Petit Verdot by Belle-Vue – to show a different side of this unique variety… [with] a deep and dark colour, a lot of tannin, great natural acidity, and spicy, earthy, and berry fruit flavours.”
Despite the challenges of growing, Petit Verdot has some remarkable upsides too, especially when we compare it to the more prestigious Cabernet Sauvignon.
“It does not have the green notes that Cabernet Sauvignon normally shows whenever it lacks maturity, which is an advantage,” explains Bouillac, who also makes his own Les Mains Sales varietal Petit Verdot.
“From an agronomic point of view, it is also more resistant to certain diseases, which Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, is rather sensitive to.”
While it might be a bit of a handful to ripen fully in Bordeaux, Petit Verdot’s need for long and dry growing seasons means it adapted well to a variety of warmer, more torrid regions around the globe. It grows successfully across Spain, around Valencia and Murcia, and Castilla-La Mancha alone counts more hectares planted to it than Bordeaux itself. It’s also present elsewhere in Europe, notably in Portugal, as well as in Australia, the States, and here and there in South America.
In Mendoza, Argentina, Petit Verdot arrived in the 19th century alongside a party of other Bordeaux and south-western French varieties (including Malbec which eventually became the country’s signature grape). Mendoza Petit Verdot is still a niche business, but Juan Marcó, CEO and head of viticulture and winemaking at Finca Decero, sees a bright future ahead.
“We have little more than 15ha, which is a significant proportion of all the Petit Verdot planted in Argentina,” he says.
“When we started in 2000, it was a bit of a shot in the dark. We thought of planting it to use in small amounts in our Bordeaux blends. We had a very ‘conventional’ Bordeaux mentality at that stage.”
Marcó had already experienced working with Petit Verdot in California and thought that its unapproachable, angular quality made it impossible to vinify it as a single varietal.
“I had tried everything. Different maturations in oak, different bottle ageing, but in the end, nothing. It always felt almost ‘immature’, even when the wine was, on paper, fully ready and after I had rounded it up in barrels.”
“But Petit Verdot here was a different beast,” he says. “I realised that the quality of this variety was amazing: the ripeness of the tannins was excellent, the wine was complex but very approachable, with lots of powerful notes of blueberries and an excellent structure.”
The geography of the region is crucial to the qualitative development of Finca Decero’s Petit Verdot. Altitude – the winery’s Petit Verdot vineyard, Remolinos, sits at about 1000m – helps moderate the hot temperatures. This avoids sugars from building up too early in the season, when the tannins are still unripe. Meanwhile, Mendoza’s dry climate helps moderate the variety’s inclination to excessive growth.
“In the vineyard it’s just like an adolescent child. It grows quite strongly and it is quite normal to have three or four clusters per shoot, so you need to cut some off to allow the rest to mature properly.”
Climate change hero
Just south of Rome, by Italy’s Latina province, Petit Verdot found a new home, too.
Oenologist Paolo Tiefenthaler arrived in the area in the late 80s and has been vinifying Petit Verdot for Casale del Giglio winery ever since.
“There wasn’t much here when I first arrived, so I began by planting nearly 60 different grape varieties to see which was best suited to this area,” he recalls. Because of the consistently warm temperatures, most varieties would mature as early as mid-August, so Tiefenthaler veered towards Petit Verdot because of its characteristic long growing season.
“In such a hot climate, a prolonged, slower ripening helps to obtain finer tannins and eventually a more stable wine.”
To ensure that his Petit Verdot is given enough time to reach full maturity, Tiefenthaler grows it on sandy soils, as their low water-retention capacity means they get warmer sooner and the vines’ growing season kicks off early as a result.
“Petit Verdot is capable of withstanding sunshine and heat (certainly more than Cabernet Sauvignon) and yet it never reaches very high alcohol content. Lack of water isn’t usually a problem, which is good, because here it rains very little. We’re talking so much about varieties that can respond well to climate change, and Petit Verdot is certainly up there.”
Indeed, Petit Verdot’s resistance to water stress and to higher temperatures makes it well suited to tackle the effects of the changing climate, especially in areas where warming conditions, droughts, or heat waves are becoming a regular occurrence.
In the Catalonian subregion of Penedés, Jean Leon winery first planted 4ha of Petit Verdot in the early 2000s. In 2021, after successfully lobbying the local Denomination of Origin for its inclusion within the regulations, the winery upped its Petit Verdot game further, reaching a total of 11ha.
General director at Jean Leon, Mireia Torres, is convinced that the grape is playing an increasingly key role in Catalunya, especially given its capability to scoff at the escalating threat posed by summer heat waves.
“They don’t affect its ripening so wine quality never suffers as a consequence,” she says.
Jean Leon has been steadily upping the amount of Petit Verdot that goes into its 3055 blend, while reducing the percentage of Merlot “which is instead more sensitive to climate change”. As of the 2020 vintage, 3055 became a blend of 80% Petit Verdot and a more modest 20% Merlot. Additionally, the same vintage gave birth to Jean Leon’s latest label, PV-20, an experimental expression designed to show Petit Verdot’s potential in Penedés as the ideal response to the warming temperatures.
In its homeland too, Petit Verdot’s climate change credentials are benefiting it with spiking demand. According to the Bordeaux wine bureau, the variety’s popularity has risen exponentially over the past 20 years – albeit from a small base. From the mere 376ha in 2000, plantings have increased by more than three times, with Petit Verdot now covering some 1,233ha of land.
While this figure might still be a drop in the ocean at just over 1% of the region’s humongous total hectarage, Bordeaux’s Petit Verdot champions believe the percentage is bound to keep growing.
“In Bordeaux, Petit Verdot remains a challenging grape to grow… but plantings have increased,” says Long confidently.
“The climate change allows us to harvest it at its best potential with a spicy and dark fruit profile, deep colour and a more elegant tannic structure. We have 3.5ha... and we are going to plant another block of 1ha between 2022 and 2023. Petit Verdot has a real role in the future of Bordeaux: it will bring diversity, new options for the growers, and help tackle the challenges of climate change.”
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