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A Petit surprise

By Celia Strong

Sounds interesting, don’t you think? This week we are going to explore some brand new things. A new wine, for sure. But, also, we’re going to take a pretty close look at a grape variety we’ve only mentioned in the past. And, why have we only mentioned it? Because it’s almost always just a small part in some blended wines. But, promise, this is going to be good.

So, let’s start at the beginning. With our grape. Petit Verdot. We must take note of the spelling of “petit” here. The masculine spelling. So, we may be safe in assuming its wine may be big and bold and masculine too? Let’s see. Petit Verdot is a red variety that is still one of the five reds classified to make Bordeaux red wines. Unfortunately, Petit Verdot takes more time to ripen, sometimes about two weeks more. In Bordeaux, its main growing ground, the climate can turn cooler before it is ripe enough, and this has meant it is being used less and less there. Historically, Petit Verdot predates Cabernet Sauvignon in the Bordeaux region. There are records of it from the eighteenth century, when it was used more in the Médoc (southern warmer part of Bordeaux) by many chateaux. Today, it seems that Petit Verdot only ripens completely one out of every four years. The parents of this grape are Tressort and Duras – both of which the Romans may have brought into The Bordeaux area. The name “Petit Verdot” actually means “small green.” It refers to the small bunches of unripe, green grapes its vines so often produce.

The characteristics of Petit Verdot are unique. In small amounts, it is used in blends, like red Bordeaux wines, to add tannin, color and flavor. It also is used to help “stiffen,” enhance and build up, the mid-palate of a wine. Further, it can enhance the aromas of a wine. Young Petit Verdot has banana and pencil lead aromas. When more mature, there are violet and leather notes. Of course, we have simplified this a bit. The actual list of flavors and aromas in Petit Verdot is much longer. Violets, lavender, rosewater, graphite with the pencil lead, cola, plums, blueberries, leather, banana esters, blackberries, mulberries, fennel, star anise, white floral blossoms (jasmine), vanilla, caramel, black olives. And more. Anybody besides me starting wonder why it’s used only in small percentages in blends? Hmmmm.

In France, almost all the Petit Verdot that is planted in Bordeaux. There are small amounts of this variety also grown in Italy and Portugal. In the New World, Chile and Argentina have plantings, as well as Australia and the United States. In Australia, with proper ripening, the grape develops spicy notes, a lot like Shiraz. Australia does claim to have more Petit Verdot growing than any where else. In our country, Petit Verdot is used in many blends. The more consistent, warmer weather of California makes its ripening much more dependable. And, isn’t that part of where we’ve heard about it before? Still in small percentages, but in blends? We’ve always listed it as part of wines using the five red grape varieties of Bordeaux. Remember?

Despite how good our list of Petit Verdot’s aromas and flavors sounds, it is rare that it is ever allowed to stand alone, as the whole wine. All of which makes it hard, especially for students like ourselves, to really learn what it tastes like. With research, we can find blended wines that use it. And, maybe, with very concentrated efforts, we can get a grasp on this variety. Part of our problem is going to be the varying percentages used from one vintage to the next. Some years more, some years less. I have found several United States blends that include some Petit Verdot. Regularly. Coppola Diamond Series Claret does will. Usually ten to fifteen percent. Donati Claret uses a much tinier amount, less than five percent. Gravel Bar Alluvial Red, from Washington State, includes a small amount. And, also from Washington, Chateau Ste Michelle Indian Wells Red does too. But, still, I’m not sure any of these wines have enough Petit Verdot in them for us to really learn it.

Not to worry, though. As luck would have it, for the first time ever, we have a wine that is made from one hundred percent Petit Verdot! From Argentina, even. It’s the Zolo Black Petit Verdot. All these years, and this is the first one. These grapes are sustainably grown at almost thirty-five feet above sea level. After harvest, they are cold macerated for five days and, then, fermented in cold tanks for fifteen days. The wine then rests on its lees for sixteen days. And, one hundred percent malo-lactic fermentation is followed by aging the wine in French oak barrels for eighteen months. Now, here’s the thing. This is still a very young wine. A first quick taste from the bottle is OK, but it sort of leaves you wondering “What’s the big deal?” There are some fruit flavors, some hints of pencil lead and leather, some tannins, just nothing great. Do it right, though. With our sample bottle, we went back four days later and retasted this wine. OMG! It’s big and bold and full of really dark fruit flavors, spices and vanilla, flowers like dark roses and dark violets, tannins to go with a great steak, it is a total package. Now, I know we don’t all have four days to let an open bottle come alive. But we do have decanters? Or wine aerators? Take a small taste, like we did, as soon as you open the bottle. See what you think. But, help it be all it can be. Work with it and help it open up. This wine is a truly great and rare experience. And, just like not many wines of a hundred percent Petit Verdot are made, we only got a limited few. Less than three dozen bottles. It may be named for a small bunch of unripe grapes, but this is one big treat. For $33.99. Enjoy.

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