Petit Verdot (PV) happens to be one of my favorite grapes for single-varietal wine. Why? I love its pretty, purple nose with little, white flowers and touches of violet. I love its spice-mix of fresh tobacco, allspice, and cedar. I love its plummy cherry/blackberry deep-fruit flavor. I also love its strong, tannic structure and acid balance. What don’t I love? The fact that it is very difficult to find PV as a single varietal. Instead, it is more typically found in blends — particularly Bordeaux blends (or “Meritage”, as denoted in the States).
Bordeaux is the historic home of PV, though it most likely did not originate in the Gironde. It is grown alongside Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and is particularly prevalent in the Médoc. Petit Verdot is the minority component of the blend, typically under 6%. Similarly, Meritage blends feature only small percentages of PV.
But, PV is now finding itself in vineyards across the globe, and many places are featuring the grape as a single-varietal wine. This pleases me greatly. The grape has a strong personality — nearly always exhibiting the flavor traits described above — but still manages to express varied terroir. This is an exploration of that combination of PV and place (with fun facts and historical notes, of course!.
Petit Verdot and the Volusii, in Tuscany
When thinking about grapes in Tuscany — particularly red grapes — Sangiovese first comes to mind. It is the prime ingredient, after all, in Tuscany’s most well-known wines: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Morellino di Scansano… But other grapes, like Syrah and Petit Verdot, became more prevalent with the “Super Tuscans”, and are now and gaining a foothold in the sub-region of Maremma. Maremma is that corner of Tuscany stretching along the Tyrhennian Sea (basically) from Follonica to Capalbio, which is at the border of Tuscany (Florence) and Lazio (Rome). This is an ancient wine-land, once part of the ager Cosanus, about which I’ve written before.
This was once a very prolific wine-producing area, with evidence for vast amounts of the product shipped out of the port of Cosa by the Sestius family. Evidence for Sestii products has been found around the Mediterranean, including in transit to non-Roman Gaul. So, while in the the antiquity the grapes weren’t “international”, the dissemination of the wine was so.
Following urban-flight from Cosa in the 1st century AD, the powerful Volusius family established their own agribusiness at a villa roughly five kilometers from the port of Cosa. The Volusii were a wealthy and powerful senatorial family. Like the Sestii, the Volusii made wine. Or, rather, they had wine made by slave-labor at the villa, to the tune of 1.2 million liters of wine, per year.
On the outskirts of the Settefinestre lands is the new estate of La Corsa, established in 2005. The estate has 18 hectares under vine, and produces substantially less wine than did the Volusii. La Corsa does make a wine called “Settefinestre” that is 100% Sangiovese.
While referencing the lands’ ancient history, La Corsa also courts the modern and bottles a 100% PV. This is a medium/light bodied wine that is quite elegant. The nose features wild fennel and mint alongside the lavender, and fruits are plum, dark cherry, black currant, and a touch of fig. Their is a touch of salinity to accompany the soil and mineral notes.
Petit Verdot and Afrikaans, in Paarl
Jan van Riebeek,of the Dutch East Indies company, founded the Cape Colony on the southern tip of Africa in 1652. These colonists spoke their native tongue, Dutch. Dutch remained the official language when, over time, the Cape Colony included French-speaking Huguenots, who were encouraged to settle, as well as individuals with African and Asian ancestry who arrived forcibly as slaves and exiles. Over the next several centuries, the Colony was variously held by the Dutch or the English, whose particular native-tongue also prevailed in officialdom.
Regardless of the Colony’s official, written language, Afrikaans was the language generally spoken by the Colony’s lingually-mixed population. Nonetheless, it was regarded with disdain by the elite, Dutch colonists and was only recognized as a dialect through the 19th century. From its spoken origins, it began to appear in public writings in the mid-19th century. In the early 20th century, Afrikaans was recognized as an official language of its own, and eventually replaced Dutch as South Africa’s language.
Much of the success for that recognition is due to the work of Stephanus Jacobus du Toit — Afrikaner nationalist and taalstryder, or “language warrior”. du Toit worked to standardize the language, translated the Bible into Afrikaans, and started the first newspaper in the language. du Toit was born and did much of his work in Paarl, adjacent to Stellenbosch. As a result, the monument to the Afrikaans language, the Afrikaanse Taalmonument — as well as the language museum — are found in Paarl.
Also in the heart of Paarl is the 50 hectare farm that comprises Glen Carlou. The estate was founded in 1985 by Donald Hess. He is part of the Hess Family Wine Estates which have been around since 1844 — before Afrikaans was a recognized language. This wine is a blend of 85% PV and 15% Tannat. It was our only blend in the bunch, and it tastes much different than the others. This is a very savory wine, with leather and tobacco trumping the plummy black-cherry notes. The wine certainly has PV qualities — but also tastes uniquely South African, with ample smoke and cedar.
Petit Verdot and goats, in the Central Valley, California
California’s Central Valley is decidedly unflashy. It sits between the major metropoli of Los Angeles and San Francisco, but inland and away from the greater glamour of the coast. Even the water controversy surrounding theCentral Valley Project — though still occuring today — lacks the same star power that, for instance, the so-called “Water Wars” wrought, fictionalized as they were in the movie Chinatown. The San Joaquin Valley, called “the food basket of the world” is beset with modesty — literally. The city of Modesto was meant to be named for William Chapman Ralston, founder of the Bank of California and champion of irrigation for the Central Valley. Ralston demurred, supposedly out of modesty, and thus the town bears the name Modesta, “modest” in Spanish.
In 1912, the city’s motto became “Water Wealth Contentment Health”. More interestingly, the motto might instead have been “Nobody’s Got Modesto’s Goat” — the winner of the public vote on the subject. There does not seem to be a good reason given for this suggested motto. But, the phrase was perhaps quite commonly used around that time, and large herds of goat (and sheep!) were herded in the Central Valley, generally. Modesto is the seat of Stanislaus County, whose code allows for up to 4 goats (or sheep!) per 1 acre plot of rural residential land. And, don’t forget about the Stanislaus County fair’s talking goat!
In addition to goats, Stanislaus County is home to grapes, some of which were used in the making of this Jeff Runquist wine. Runquist owns no vineyards, and thus sources all of the grapes that he uses. The Petit Verdot come from the Damir Ranch in Stanislaus County.
This PV is aged 18 months in oak. It has the ripest flavors of the bunch, bursting with dark cherry, blackberries, currant, and quince. It is full in the mouth and long at the finish. Despite the “big” flavors, the wine carries unmistakeable PV notes of lavender, tobacco, and allspice. Delicious.
Petit Verdot and Kennewick Man, in the Columbia Valley, Washington
Who was Kennewick Man? Well, at 8,500 years old, he is one of the oldest skeletons ever found in North America, and by far the most complete. On a more personal level, he was roughly 40 at the time he died, and probably spent a lot of time hunting and fishing with a spear. His active life was also somewhat traumatic; he experienced broken ribs, two knocks to the head, and a spear to the hip!
Isotopic analysis of his bones suggest he traveled pretty far over the course of his life (possibly from Alaska to southeast Washington), and that he ate a lot of seal meat. But, he was buried far from the sea (and seals) in an area where riverine fish abound, as well as berries. In fact, Kennewick Man’s DNA suggest he is closely related to the Colville tribes of Native Americans who, historically, were hunters and gatherers around the Columbia River where Kennewick Man was recovered.
Luke Bradford of Cor Cellars also traveled a long distance (from vineyard work in Italy) before planting grapes in southeastern Washington — though his life doesn’t seem as traumatic as Kennewick Man’s. Cor Cellar’s Petit Verdot comes from the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, which border the burial place of Mr. Kennewick.
The wine is made from 100% PV from the McKinley Springs Vineyard, and is aged 20 months in oak. It hits all the PV notes — lavender nose, cherry & plum fruits, a hint of ground spices. The wine is rich in the mouth and full of alcohol — though the heat is subdued. A very nice wine.
Petit Verdot and Vespasian, in Chester County, Pennsylvania
Yes, Vespasian. What is the connection? William Penn! In the late-17th century, William Penn (Billy to us Philadelphians) founded Pennsylvania Colony, and planned and developed Philadelphia (Philly to us Philadelphians). Philadelphia was thus one of the original three counties composing Penn’s Sylvania. The “City of Brotherly Love” was so named by the Quaker Penn as an expression of his goal for a settlement of goodwill and tolerance among the many peoples who came to the New World (particularly those, like the Quakers, who sought religious tolerance), as well as with the native Lenape. Bucks County, named after England’s Buckinghamshire, was another of the original, 3 counties. The final one was Chester County. Like Bucks, it was named for a locale in Penn’s native England.
While the name Chester (the county seat of Cheshire) stems from an Anglo-Saxon toponym from the 10th century AD (you can try to say it: Legeceasterscir), the place has a much older history. In the 1st century AD, it was known as “Deva Victrix“, which was a Roman fortress town in Brittania. This is where Vespasian comes in. Vespasian was declared Emperor of Rome in 69 AD. He ruled 10 years until his death, during which he famously completed the construction of the Colosseum. Prior to his assumption of Emperor, Vespasian expanded Roman rule to the North through military incursions into Britain, all during the (mostly)disastrous political-rule of his predecessors ( think Caligula and Nero). Treaties promulgated by Vespasians early activities in Brittania soured, and Deva Victrix was built for protection and possible further military actions. Deva Victrix also had a civilian settlement that outlasted the military fortress, eventually growing into the town of Chester.
Chester County in Pennsylvania lies west of Philadelphia, and forms part of the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. This border dates to ca 1780, as established by the surveyors Mason and Dixon. Their work was begun at an observatory from which they calculated latitude and longitude bearings from the stars. This observatory, now marked by the Star Gazers’ Stone, stands a few miles from Stargazers Vineyard, in Coatesville, PA.
Petit Verdot is not so common in Pennsylvania, but John Weygandt of Stargazer’s clearly knows his land and his grapes because this wine is fantastic. It’s nose is dusty violet and lavender with some green peppercorn, artichoke, and ripe cherry. It has a full, juicy body with deep, cherried plum, some espresso, and a hint of vanilla. This wine was the absolute winner of the tasting. Find it and drink it!
Our exploration of Petit Verdot showed us that the grape is, indeed, expressive of place (and winemaker!). But, across the globe, it retains those characteristics that make it so appealing: especially lavender, plummy cherry, general “purpleness”, and rich spice.