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10 Things You Should Know About Petrus Pomerol Wine

 

While many of the world's most highly prized and priced French wines today are bolstered by a classification that goes all the way back to 1855 dictating who the First Growths and Second Growths were, paving the way for a historically entrenched hierarchical order of the who's who of Bordeaux, some estates simply don't need classifications to just that - we're talking about Petrus.

Petrus comes from the incredibly small Pomerol wine region on the Right Bank of Bordeaux - the Pomerol AOC itself is one of the smallest fine wine regions in fact. The area ranges just 3 x 4 kilometers, and is tucked just next to the also well-distinguished and much larger Saint-Emilion AOC. Yet this combination of incredibly small production along with an outsized reputation bolstered by everyone from the late Queen Elizabeth to former US President John F. Kennedy, simply means big price tags and legendary status. No Grand Cru, no problem!

Let's find out more about Petrus in 10 things you should know about the small estate with a big reputation!

 

Petrus Takes Its Name From A Hill Named By Ancient Romans, And Also Carries A Biblical Reference, Hence St. Peter Is On Its Iconic Label

While Petrus is sometimes known as Chateau Petrus, the estate has no castle, but instead sits on a hill which is known locally as Pétrus boutonnière or Petrus buttonhole. The name was given by the ancient Romans who had noticed that during the hot summers, the hill whose composition was a deep mound of clay, would become as hard as a rock. Taking reference to a biblical story where Jesus had given Simon, the leader of his apostles, the new name of Peter, who then declared "On this rock I will build my church." - this let to the Romans calling the hill, Petrus, a stylised variant of Peter.

When the estate had come into the possession of a Madame Loubat, who had also owned the best hotel and restaurant in the Libourne ("Right Bank"), she thus commissioned the iconic label that we now easily identify to be Petrus - the label would show St. Peter holding the keys to Heaven. Today, a statue of the estate's patron saint also stands at Chateau Petrus.

  

Petrus Has Some Pretty Well Known Fans

Without the accreditation of a classification system, how did Petrus become such a well-regarded estate? Everyone from Queen Elizabeth, who had served Petrus at her 1947 wedding to Prince Philip, to US President John F. Kennedy, and even Beyonce, Johnny Depp, Oprah and Wayne Rooney, are big fans of Petrus! But before these folks got in on it, Petrus was first and foremost a winner at the Paris Exposition of 1878, where it won a Gold Medal, allowing the estate to price its wines at the same level of a Medoc Second Growth, making it the first Pomerol to do so.

However, it was ultimately post-WWII, when Madame Loubat, who had years earlier purchased the estate from the original owners, the Arnaud family, had aggressively began marketing it. Hers was a well-connected family who had already been in the wine business, with her brother also the Mayor of Libourne - it was ultimately at her well-known restaurant that she had come to know the former manager of Petrus who had brokered the sale of the estate to her.

 

 

She would also enlist the help of Jean-Pierre Moueix who was a sharp negociant, who understood the importance of worldwide distribution - they would price Petrus at the same level as the top Left Bank Bordeaux as a mark of faith in their wines. Moueix would bring Petrus to the US and UK, and ensure that opinion leaders would get to know of the wine. Restaurants began taking a liking to the iykyk wine and promoted it to their best customers. At New York's Le Pavillion restaurant, it was said that business magnate Aristotle Onassis would enjoy his Petrus at the corner table, raising the estate to that of a status symbol. Further praise from at the time rising wine critic Robert Parker, would further cement Petrus' reputation. 

Its All About That Blue Clay! Luck Or A Good Eye? Maybe Both.

As mentioned, Petrus sits on a hill 40m above sea level, that is composed of a thick clay - specifically 40 million year old blue clay. The clay takes a darker appearance because of the high density of organic material packed in it, containing high amounts of reduced iron. This is completely unique to Petrus and does not exist in any other wine-producing estate in the world - with two layers of clay topsoils and subsoils, as well as a surrounding plateau of thick gravel, vine roots are unable to penetrate the clay and thus grow sideways for nutrition, yet at the same time the clay is able to retain moisture better in the dry summers, aiding the vines. Being situated on top of a hill also means that the soils are able to be naturally drained when there is more moisture than needed as well.

 

 

Petrus is particularly fortunate considering that the Pomerol plateau only has about 20 hectares of blue clay soil, of which Petrus uses 11.5 hectares of it, with all other neighbouring vineyards only having some portion of blue clay in their soils. Much of this was the result of incident and through further acquisitions, Petrus has only grown its ownership of the unique terroir, when it acquired some 4 hectares from next door Chateau Gazin.

 

Singularity And Distinctiveness, Single Grape Varietal, Single Terroir And Single Label

Unlike many of its Bordeaux peers, Petrus opts to focus singularly on one grape varietal - Merlot. Since 2010, the already small and incredibly unique 11.5 ha Petrus estate has been 100% Merlot, offering wine fans the ability to taste an unparalleled singularity of flavour profile of Petrus Merlot grown on special blue clay soils, and only in one label!

 

 

In the past, the estate had historically kept an 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc production, however by the 1970's, this was reduced to 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc in percentages - however, Cabernet Franc has been typically left unused in most vintages. Subsequently by the 1980s, the varietal was only grown every third or fourth year, up until 2010 when it was replaced with Merlot altogether.

An Unparalleled Commitment To Quality - There Is No Second (Wine)

Petrus only has one release annually and does not produce any second wines (ie. wines that don't make the cut for Grand Cru releases are sometimes reserved for second or third wines) - any grapes that do not make the cut, Petrus sells simply as generic Pomerol harvested Merlot grapes to other winemakers. At Petrus, grapes are handpicked individually, with the growers constantly walking the vineyard, monitoring and tasting the grapes - when chewing on the grapes' pips, an easily crushed and almond-tasting pip signals that the grapes are ready.

 

 

Some folks have attempted to track down these "declassified" Petrus grapes, yet this remains entirely a secret. Petrus' commitment to the highest quality also means that in some vintages, where the estate believes the wines to be of insufficient quality, the estate would opt to simply not produce any wines - this was the case for 1956, 1965 and 1991. Since the 1970's, the estate has become increasingly selective, and has reduced production over the past five decades to almost half of what it was (from 70 hectolitres per hectare to only 40 hectolitres per hectare today). This equates to only about 2,500 cases (or 30,000 bottles) of Petrus being released each year.

When Everyone Retreated, Petrus Pressed Forward

In 1956, a devastating winter frost would significantly damage the grapevines of Bordeaux - Petrus was no exception. Two-thirds of its grapevines would be wiped out. Yet under the sharp eye of Madame Loubat, she had decided to coppice the surviving vines (cutting a vine to its roots) instead of completely replanting them - this became known as recepage where saplings are grafted onto the existing root. This had the effect of allowing Petrus to preserve its well aged vines when the rest of the region had instead decided to restart with young vines, thereby allowing Petrus to take the lead in offering higher quality wines in the following years.

 

 

Till this day, the average age of Petrus vines are over 45 years, and vines are only replanted after at least 70 years of age. The oldest vines on the estate date back to 1952. 

Organic Before It Was Cool, Anything For That Vine!

Today, organic wines are all the rage, but Petrus was at it long before it was fashionable - weeds would be planted to dry out the soil after rain, and would later be ploughed to serve as natural fertiliser - chemical fertilisers are never used. Growers plough and weed the vineyard three to four times a year, as well as practice crop thinning, with vineyard densities kept between 6,600 - 7,000 vines per hectare.

Aside from cloning its own vines to ensure its proprietary vines are protected and preserved, the vineyard undergoes a slow replacement cycle where one hectare is replanted every 7 - 9 years.

 

Winemaking At Petrus, Or How A Legend Is Made

After the grapes are harvested across three days in the afternoon to avoid morning dew, it is 100% destemmed and sorted, before being gently crushed before vinification in traditional, temperature-controlled concrete vats. The vats are never bled to reduce the amount of grape juice which in turn can increase the fermenting grapes' concentration (called saignee). After a short pre-fermentation maceration, the grapes begin to ferment and are subsequently checked for quality. It is then placed into an assortment of French oak barrels for 18-20 months of ageing. Barrels are steamed before being used for ageing to prevent the need for topping off during the aging, with 50% of the barrels used being new oak. 

A total of about 180 winemakers are committed to each harvest, led by Oliver Berrouet, who in turn is the son of Jean-Claude Berrouet, a talented winemaker who had come to the same Petrus vineyard to work with no prior experience but had worked closely with Jean-Pierre Moueix, Petrus' agent, responsible for 45 vintages of Petrus. Today, Petrus is owned and managed by the children of Moueix, with his sons also working with managing the Petrus brand and production.

 

The Helicopter Story Is 100% True

A legendary estate like Petrus surely has to do some legendary things - one of which that is often touted is how the vineyard would use helicopters to dry its grapes.

That story is 100% true. In 1987, as Merlot grapes offer only a short optimal harvesting window, the weather was incredibly wet during the harvest, raining nonstop, and thus helicopters had to be brought in to help dry the grapes, so that they could be picked one berry at a time. An extention of that happened in 1992, when heavy rain was the situation once again, and thus the vineyard had to have immense plastic sheets cover the entire grounds of the vineyard to prevent the rain from permeating the soil.

 

The Petrus Style

With an incredibly small production and a huge fanbase for the legendary wine, as well as the vineyard holding itself to such high standards, Petrus doesn't come cheap - but the question that remains is how does it taste.

It is said that the 100% Merlot wine is aromatically complex, distinctive for its notes of chocolate, truffles and spices, as well as secondary notes of coffee, cinnamon, dark cherries, wet earth and fresh flowers. Its texture is where the legend is made, said to have bountiful richness and viscosity, that is akin to silk and velvet. It is powerful with great concentration of fruits, and often requires extensive aging in the bottle, between 20-30 years before it is fully mature.

Despite its great aging potential, Petrus' can also be enjoyed young, and should you ever find one in your hands, it is encouraged for you to decant for 2-4 hours, allowing the wine to soften and its bouquet to bloom. Older Petrus' require lesser decanting, considering that its terroir makes for some of the softest tannin fruits. Peak maturity is nevertheless between 15-50 years of ageing. 

Some exceptional vintages include 1945 (which was what Madame Loubat had first struck gold with!), 1961 and 1982.

 

Kanpai!

 

@111hotpot