It’s a spring day in 2009 at Bellview Winery, and we’re finally going to taste our first vintage from a grape grown in one of our test plots in the vineyard. It’s a little-known grape here in the US, but in the spring of 2005 we had decided to take a chance and plant it. It seemed likely it would do well under the growing conditions of our area. This is our first sampling of the finished wine. As Dave pours, we note the wine’s beautiful inky, reddish purple color. We raise our glasses and swirl a bit. Sniffing, we discern an intriguing aroma of dark fruits, earth and spice. Time to taste – oh, lovely, smooth and round on the palate, carrying rich flavors of ripe plums and dark berries, good tannic structure, with spicy background notes and a pleasant earthiness following through on the finish. Well! We were hooked! The wine was Petit Verdot, and it seemed as though our gamble had paid off. Our customers certainly appreciated it as much as we did, as the 2007 trial production of about 60 cases disappeared rapidly from our shelves.
We’ve since planted 400 more vines of the Petit Verdot grape, and we now
feature it as often as possible on our tasting room wine list. As you’ll see, we can’t include it every year, but successive vintages have been equal in quality to the first, with interesting differences noticeable from year to year depending on the conditions of each growing season.
The Petit Verdot (petee vairdoh) grape has historically been grown in Bordeaux, and was used in small quantities in Bordeaux blends to add color, tannins, flavor and body. It needs a long growing season, with a warm spring for proper flowering and a warm fall to ensure full ripening. This means there were some years that French growers could not harvest their crop; due to immaturity, the grapes would have produced very poor quality wine. (Petit Verdot is translated literally as ‘small green’, which reflects the typically small berries and the tendency to resist ripening.) This has led to a loss of its popularity in France, but in warmer parts of the world growers are now seeing potential in the grape, and are planting more acres. Perhaps the global warming trend will be favorable for this variety, it remains to be seen. Petit Verdot is now grown in California, and used mostly for blending. (They say Petit Verdot is usually used like you would use a spice in cooking, because a little goes a long way.) Some wineries are producing it as a varietal, however.
Generally, Petit Verdot wines will be an intense, deep reddish purple, and will be full bodied with moderate acidity and high tannins. The high tannin content gives the wine potential to age for decades, and even blends including Petit Verdot will need time to age and soften. Aromas will encompass earth, leather, smoke, spice, cigar box, vanilla, molasses and even tar. The flavor profile includes smoke, spice, mineral and peppers, and often includes dense dark fruit, like blackberry, black cherry and black plum.
This month marks the beginning of spring, but for now it’s still cold, and our menus still include hearty soups and stews, roasts and winter vegetables. Perfect partners for this month’s featured wine. Serve the imposing Petit Verdot with the heartiest and most robust red meats and aged cheeses. Suggestions are Milanese style risotto, lentil soup with smoked ham hock, barbecue pork and caramelized onions, wild game and flavorful cheeses like Stilton.
Here at Bellview, there have been two years so far that we decided not to produce Petit Verdot as a varietal wine. They were growing seasons that were wet and cool, shortened by late cold snaps in the spring and/or early cold temperatures in the fall – 2009 and 2011. So there will be no release of this wine in 2013 when the other 2011 reds become available. Now’s the time to stock up on the excellent 2010 vintage, and to lay some down to age for future enjoyment. We’ll be doing the same, and when we finally serve it, we’ll be thanking ourselves for taking the chance on this wonderful grape.