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The difficult little grape

LOVE big wine? Do the words "dark," "dense," "tannic" and "spicy" turn you on? If so, then you have to get to know Petit Verdot wines. Over the past half century or so, Petit Verdot has been best known as one of the six noble red wine grapes of Bordeaux almost exclusively used as a minor component of Bordeaux's greatest wines. Recently an intrepid few, mostly in warmer climates outside of Bordeaux, have been making single variety Petit Verdot wines. But despite the intrinsic beauty of this powerful little grape, this variety still remains a profound mystery to many.

The earliest references to Petit Verdot in Bordeaux date back to the early 17th century. Some vino-varietal detectives believe that the grape was brought to Bordeaux by the Romans and is a relative of the Balisca vine that traces its history back to Albania in ancient Greek times. Others believe the vine is a mutant variety that evolved during the Middle Ages in the warmer areas of southwest France. In the 18th and 19th centuries the grape was used in small amounts of 2-10 percent in the blends of the best wines of Bordeaux. Despite the small amounts it was an important contributor to these wines adding color, tannins and structure.

The Achilles' heel of this variety is its late-ripening disposition. Petit Verdot drove the winemakers of Bordeaux crazy because it normally took three to four weeks longer to reach ripeness than other Bordeaux varieties. This is quite risky as the weather in Bordeaux in mid to late October when Petit Verdot typically ripens becomes very unstable and frost is increasingly a threat. In fact, the name Petit Verdot means little green which refers to the color of the all-too-often unripe grapes. On average the grape would only reach ripeness in one out of four vintages making it costly and risky to grow.

Risky business

By the mid-20th century many winemakers were replacing Petit Verdot vines with the earlier-ripening and easier-to-manage Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties. Only the best Chateaux, principally on the left bank of Bordeaux, continued to use the difficult variety usually contributing only 1-3 percent of the blend. Notable exceptions where Petit Verdot is a larger contributor are the great third growth Margaux wine Chateau Palmer that often has up to 10 percent and the Saint Julien third growth wine Chateau Lagrange that occasionally has up to 15 percent Petit Verdot.

Petit Verdot is a small grape with a thick skin which tends to make wines that are very dark red or purple in color, sometimes even blackish. When young, Petit Verdot wines often have dark fruit, banana and pencil shavings aromas and flavors. This may sound a bit strange, but the combination is actually quite sexy. As Petit Verdot wines age they tend to develop more dark fruit flavors along with violet and leather sensations. Young and old wines also tend to be somewhat spicy and have very robust tannins. The grape almost always makes weighty, age-worthy wines with good structure and length. In short, these are muscular and macho wines that offer remarkably distinctive and brooding dark fruit and spice box flavors.

New regions

Over the past two decades, a few brave and creative winemakers in Australia, the United States, Argentina and Spain have started to make single variety Pinot Verdot wines. Blessed with vineyards in stable climates that feature abundant sunshine allowing the Petit Verdot plenty of time to ripen, these winemakers started making excellent wines. Single variety Petit Verdot wines are rare everywhere and very few are available in Shanghai, but some of my favorite producers whose wines are available here are Finca Decero in Mendoza, Argentina; De Bortoli in Australia and Casa de la Ermita in Spain. Another positive trend recently has been some visionary Bordeaux winemakers betting on global warming and planting new Petit Verdot wines with plans to use a greater percentage of the variety in future blends. The wonderful intensity and structure of Petit Verdot wines also make them superb companions to hearty and flavorful meat dishes.

The stronger the flavors and more heavy or fatty a meat dish, the better it will go with Petit Verdot. Because of their hearty and spicy qualities, Petit Verdot wines also pair very nicely with spicy Sichuan, Hunan, Indian and Thai meat dishes. Four particularly Petit Verdot-friendly meat dishes I recommend are Sichuan oxtail with brown sauce, Sichuan-style rib-eye steak, Shanghai-style braised sliced pork and Indian mutton curry. In all these cases, the strength of the Petit Verdot wines stands up to the pungent flavors and heavy nature of the dishes while the tannins help digest these substantial dishes.

De Bortoli VAT 4 Petit Verdot, 2007

Region: Riverina, Australia

Variety: 100% Petit Verdot

Aging Method/Potential: aged 1-12 months in oak/drinking nicely now or can be kept another 5-7 years

Importer/Price: Torres/158 yuan



Pairing tips: allow 30 minutes for breathing and serve at 16-18 degrees Celcius; best with flavorful BBQ meats and stewed meat dishes

one of the best value Petit Verdot wines in Shanghai, the wine features a deep purple-red color, a black berry and black current nose and concentrated plum, chocolate and spice flavors with a nice round tannic finish"

Finca Decero Mini Ediciones Petit Verdot, 2007

Region: Mendoza, Argentina

Variety: 100% Petit Verdot

Aging Method/Potential: fermented & aged 16 months in 50% new French oak/lovely now but will evolve over the next decade

Importer/Price: Altavis/490 yuan (US$77) Sweetness:

Body: Pairing tips: allow 45 minutes for breathing and serve at 16-18 degrees Celcius; best with substantial pork and red meat dishes

from a vineyard at over 1,000 meters altitude, this wine has a dark purple-red color with blackish hints and plenty of lively blackberry, red fruit and jasmine flavors with a lovely long spicy tannic finish"

Casa de La Ermita Petit Verdot Crianza, 2006

Region: Jumilla, Spain

Variety: 100% Petit Verdot

Aging Method/Potential: 6+ months in French and American oak & up to 18 months bottle aging/drinking nicely now and can be cellared for up to 6-8 more years

Importer/Price: Ruby Red/245 yuan



Pairing tips: allow 30+ minutes for breathing and serve at 16-18 degrees Celcius; perfect with grilled lamb chops and many types of game meats

from high altitude vineyards in the hot and dry Jumilla region, this wine has a deep red-black color, aromas of violets and assorted black fruits and stewed black fruit and spicy chocolate flavors and pleasingly long finish"


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