The Challenges and Rewards of Making Petit Verdot

Producers make the case for the variety, and show how to get customers excited about the grape.

By Jameson Fink for SevenFifty Daily

Of the red wine grapes that make up classic Bordeaux blends, Petit Verdot seems to have the fewest fans. It ripens late and can produce wines with overwhelming tannins. Petit Verdot has been judged to be a supporting actor, a component for boosting color and body. It rarely gets to be the star. But every grape has its champion—or at least a winemaker willing to work with one often relegated to a minor role.

SevenFifty Daily wanted to explore the possibilities of this underdog grape. We spoke with three winemakers across the United States who make Petit Verdot single-varietal wines, to learn why they choose to work with the grape and to find out more about how they position these potentially unfamiliar wines for sale to consumers.

A New Discovery for Loyal Customers

In Napa Valley, almost 23,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon are grown, compared with fewer than 800 of Petit Verdot. Though there’s not a lot of it, winemakers like Kevin Morrisey of Ehlers Estate in St. Helena, California, welcome the challenge of working with the grape. “First and foremost,” he says, “we have enough warm sunny days to get this finicky varietal completely ripe—it’s a late-ripening grape. It also needs deep, well-drained loamy soils and first-class farming. We have all of that.”

The presence of Petit Verdot in Ehlers Estate’s organically farmed vineyards dates to 1995, when famed Bordeaux wine consultant Jacques Boissenot oversaw the estate’s replanting. Looking back, it seems serendipitous to have employed Boissenot for the task, particularly when it came to planting Petit Verdot. Says Morrisey, “I’m guessing that, as a Bordeaux winemaker, Jacques planted it because he knew we had enough summer heat and sunshine to properly ripen it, which is not often the case in France.”

 Kevin Morrisey. Photo courtesy of Ehlers Estate.

Kevin Morrisey. Photo courtesy of Ehlers Estate.

 

Boissenot’s expertise and foresight paved the way for Morrisey to bottle Petit Verdot as a single variety. While Morrisey confesses that he likes to have the wine to “geek out on,” there’s something sentimental about his interest in the grape, too. It creates a snapshot of a time and a place. “I love blending with it,” he says, “but I also love having a record of it in the bottle.”

As far as customer reaction to Petit Verdot, Morrisey says, “We don’t really sell it but rather present it … I tell people that at dinner it will satisfy you as well as a great Cabernet, but you’re committed to an adventure. So drink it all night long—don’t bounce around between a lot of different wines.” Brand loyalty also helps get people interested in the grape. “Everyone seems to love discovering new wines,” Morrisey says. “If it’s from here, our customers will eagerly try it because they already like what we do.”

Of course, making Petit Verdot is not a flight of fancy. “If the Petit Verdot coming off our ranch wasn’t exceptional as a stand-alone, though,” Morrisey says, “I would not bottle it. It would all go into polishing the blends.”

Attention to Detail Makes for an Accessible Wine

Even though it represents only 1,200 of the 130,500 tons of red-wine grapes crushed in Washington State annually, Petit Verdot has the highest average dollar value per ton of the top ten red-wine grape varieties. The variety first stood out for Yashodhan “Billo” Naravane, MW, the owner and winemaker at Rasa Vineyards in Walla Walla, in 2009, when he was sampling for a blend. “The qualities of the Petit Verdot were so outstanding that year that we decided to showcase Petit Verdot with a wine called Living in the Limelight,” he says. “Petit Verdot rarely takes center stage, so we thought that the name was appropriate. And there is a nod to the band Rush, of which we are huge fans.”

 Yashodhan “Billo” Naravane, MW. Photo courtesy of Rasa Vineyards.

Yashodhan “Billo” Naravane, MW. Photo courtesy of Rasa Vineyards.

 

 

Though the grape has a reputation for making wines that need time in the bottle before becoming accessible, Naravane says that “Petit Verdot can be delicious in its youth and throughout its life span if the attention to detail in the vineyard-winemaking is there.” Like Morrisey, he stresses the importance of locations with free-draining soils and high heat. But it’s not just about getting grapes from the right spot. “With Petit Verdot,” Naravane says, “one has to pay great attention to the extraction; otherwise the resulting wine will lose any sense of elegance and become a coarse, tannic beast.”

And like Morrisey, Naravane finds that people are receptive to the wine when it’s poured for them. “Just one taste,” he says, “and customers usually leave with a bottle or two.”

Filling a “Big Red” Category

In Virginia, Petit Verdot has a stronger presence than in the West. For vinifera grapes, it’s only behind Cabernet Franc and Merlot in tons produced in the state. What makes it a compelling choice for red wine here? “The grape itself seems to be very happy in our environs or terroir, as ripening and tannin development is relatively effortless. It does tend to want to overcrop, but that’s easily managed,” says Emily Pelton, the head winemaker of Veritas Vineyard and Winery in Afton. “I also love how intensely colored this wine is compared with Cabernet Franc, our other celebrated red variety in Virginia.”

 Emily Pelton. Photo courtesy of Veritas Vineyards.

Emily Pelton. Photo courtesy of Veritas Vineyards.

 

 

Taming Petit Verdot’s tannins, however, can be a challenge. Pelton employs “extended maceration, which allows those tannins to start the polymerization process early and therefore become longer and softer. I also have the luxury of a nice amount of time of bottle age on my bigger reds.”

Part of the success of Petit Verdot at Veritas is that it fills the “big intense red” category in the winery’s portfolio, says Pelton. And since many people are not familiar with it, she has “a really fun story to tell of how this grape has, for lack of a better word, found its home in Virginia.”

Winemakers are finding that customers who enjoy their core bottlings are willing to take a walk on the wilder side. More than a passion project, making stand-alone Petit Verdot showcases a winery’s adventurous spirit—and additionally offers a chance to educate and differentiate.

Jameson Fink, who resides in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, has worked for Wine Enthusiast, Grape Collective, and Foodista. His eponymous blog was two times a finalist for a Saveur Blog Award. He is somewhat of a pariah for his unwavering defense of the Champagne flute and is on an eternal search for bars and restaurants that aren’t too loud. Follow him on Instagram: @jamesonfink.

Sarah Craun

Monticello Wine Trail, PO Box 244, Charlottesville, VA 22903