The red grape variety Petit Verdot has had a long history of growing in the Bordeaux region yet it has only been planted in tiny quantities during recent times. Petit Verdot is a later ripening grape that has thick skins like Cabernet Sauvignon and it can give a deep color, a tannic structure and spicy and floral aromatics yet it greatly struggles to get fully ripe and so in most cooler “classic” Bordeaux vintages it can be a grape that adds too much structure and an unpleasant unripe note. Today it is planted in tiny quantities in the Bordeaux area and those few producers who do use it will blend only a minuscule amount into their wines. And so it is quite uncommon for a Bordeaux producer to bottle 100% Petit Verdot but the Mulliez family, who owns Château Belle-Vue, has been doing just that since the 2016 vintage.
As Petit Verdot was losing its popularity in Bordeaux, it was gaining a small fan base in warmer, wine growing areas in other parts of the world such as Chile, Southern Portugal, California, Spain and Israel, just to name a few. But even in more consistently warmer wine regions, it is still a rare treat to find a 100% bottling of Petit Verdot as it is still considered by many to be a blending grape, if it is known at all, and it is a variety that many Bordeaux producers still consider to be too much of a gamble, especially for their cooler vintages. Yet there are a handful of producers that have taken that risk as the enticing aroma of the grape is like a siren’s song they cannot deny.
Château Belle-Vue is an estate just south of some of the top estates in the Margaux appellation and it is actually only a ten minute drive from Château Margaux in the Haut-Médoc. The Left Bank Château Belle-Vue should not be confused with the Saint-Émilion Bellevue on the Right Bank as it is a lesser known, bang for one’s buck producer that has recently gained some recognition with being granted Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel status in 2018 – only a total of 14 producers were given this honor – and it is a qualification that will be reassessed every five years so Belle-Vue’s director, Yannick Reyrel, notes that they are fiercely keeping on top of their quality so they don’t lose this qualification.
But besides Château Belle-Vue being an incredible value with some U.S. retailers offering it for $16 per bottle, when a case is purchased as a wine future, it is their commitment to the Petit Verdot variety that brings a unique characteristic to the wine; not only does the bottling of Château Belle-Vue have 20% Petit Verdot in the final 2018 blend but the château has decided to make a bottling of a 100% old vine Petit Verdot wine called Petit Verdot by Belle-Vue.
Château Belle-Vue was a passion project of financier Vincent Mulliez as well as his other properties Château Bolaire and Château de Gironville in the Médoc of Bordeaux that include some very special vineyards such as their Petit Verdot plot right by the Garonne river, south of the Margaux appellation, in the commune of Macau, that has vines that were planted in 1939, 1949 and 1958 – ranging from 62 to 81 years old. After Vincent’s untimely death at 44 years old, his wife Isabelle took over running the properties to make sure she continued her husband’s dream, to bring these hidden gems to the forefront in the Médoc. And their bottling of the old vines Petit Verdot by Belle-Vue is certainly a rare, special gem averaging around $19 in the U.S..
The Petit Verdot by Belle-Vue expresses a balanced wine that shows a lot of bright fruit and freshness yet the tannins are silky as not only do the old vines that produce fewer grape bunches have no issues with finding a balance between sugar ripeness vs. physiological (tannin from skins and seeds) ripeness but thoughtful practices in the cellar help with achieving harmony in this wine. The director of Belle-Vue, Yannick Reyrel, says that they use a combination of large Austrian oak barrels (new and used) and Italian amphora (clay vessel) to preserve the fruit in the wine during aging so the varietal characteristics of Petit Verdot can shine as well as the technique of fining with egg whites to gain a smoother texture as it removes some tannins and decreases astringency. Yannick notes that many mistakenly think Petit Verdot’s only virtue is to give a wine a darker color, and hence, why it is important to do a single varietal bottling of it as people then understand the spicy and floral lift that comes with the wine.
Château Belle-Vue, and their devotion to Petit Verdot, has also inspired another producer who is gaining attention among the elite of the Grand Cru Classé in the Pauillac appellation of the Haut-Médoc: Château Pédesclaux. The director of Pédesclaux, Vincent Bache-Gabrielsen, used to be the technical consultant of Belle-Vue as well as their other estates and it really made him fall in love with Petit Verdot. Vincent expressed how much the Belle-Vue 100% Petit Verdot cuvée from old vines blew him away and he noted this about the grape variety, “for me this vine is fantastic, very hard to cultivate and when you talk to vine growers about Petit Verdot they say it is awful [as it is difficult to grow] but if you talk to the cellar master about Petit Verdot they say it makes the perfect wine. It is considered the Médoc’s Syrah – Petit Verdot gives the blend a lot of spice, a lot of freshness, a lot of density.” As Château Pédesclaux, a fifth growth estate, invests huge resources into their vineyards and cellar to live up to their first growth land, as it is only a 15 minute walk east from first growth Château Mouton-Rothschild and a 30 minute walk south from first growth Château Lafite-Rothschild, Petit Verdot will play a part in their striving for greatness as Vincent planted Petit Verdot vines on the property in 2011 with the intention of becoming old vines one day.
Rebuilding a Better World
This bottling of 100% old vines Petit Verdot at an incredibly affordable price not only shows that Bordeaux can have accessible pricing when one looks beyond the famous names but they also produce wines that are truly exciting for younger and older wine drinkers looking to taste something outside of the box while still having authenticity of place. It is a wine that is classic and rich in tradition yet unapologetically exotic and different. Through time, as many try to find the answers to making the most out of this global tragedy of Covid by rebuilding a foundation based on a truly symbiotic society that gives all aspects, as well as people, a chance to shine and thrive, perhaps the world will see more thrilling things like forgotten old vines Petit Verdot come to the forefront.
It is easy to see why Bordeaux placed most of their focus on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (Cabernet Franc in a close third) as these grapes were not as difficult to grow and they had many qualities that were appealing to a wider range of people and were deemed as noble varieties and certainly this focus made Bordeaux in years past the place to emulate. This focus of having these few varieties dominate the Bordeaux red blends established a classic red style of wine yet it has also trapped this region into a very small, square box that gives the impression that their red wines are limited to varieties that are now made in large quantities from various countries around the world. But there are other varieties that have existed in the region, such as Petit Verdot, for at least a couple hundred years that could express a different side to this classic region and smash misconceptions.
Sometimes the world needs to become drastically dark and bleak to initiate a fire for light and hope and through the process people start to realize that their world before was never that bright as many people, small businesses, and in this instance, grape varieties have always lived in the shadows. Maybe a few producers starting to make 100% Petit Verdot wine is the first movement in Bordeaux to highlighting an old favorite that has been left behind to show the world that it has not seen everything that the Bordeaux wine region can bring to the table. Perhaps it is time to embrace what is difficult to offer, something that will add to a more complete story of what the Bordeaux wine region was at one time… and will be in the future to come.
2018 Petit Verdot by Belle-Vue, Bordeaux: 100% old vines Petit Verdot. This plot, as discussed above, comes from a plot near the Garonne river, south of the Margaux appellation, in the commune of Macau, that has vines that were planted in 1939, 1949 and 1958 – ranging from 62 to 81 years old. In Bordeaux they refer to this area as “a former island on the Garonne” as a long time ago there was a bigger river that surrounded one side with the Garonne river surrounding the other side – although today it is no longer an island. Dark ruby color with lots of black pepper and cardamom spice with hints of gravelly soil and wildflowers that was juicy with intense concentrated blackcurrant flavors on the palate that finished with delineated yet silky tannins.
2018 Château Bolaire, Bordeaux Supérieur: 50% Merlot and 50% Petit Verdot. This is another estate owned by the Mulliez family that is located in the same area as their old vines Petit Verdot. It shows the lovely partnership of Merlot and Petit Verdot with these vines averaging around 33 years old. Much more red fruit and less spice on the nose accompanied by a lush palate that was generous and friendly with soft tannins.
2018 Château Belle-Vue, Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel: 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 20% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc and 1% Carménère; vines averaging around 38 years of age. Château Belle-Vue is also located in the commune of Macau but it is technically considered in the Haut-Médoc unlike Château Bolaire or the Petit Verdot by Belle-Vue as those properties are too close to the Garonne river and so they are considered outside the boundaries. This wine had all those classic Left Bank characteristics such as graphite, gravel, fresh black fruit and sweet tobacco yet it had intriguing spicy and violet notes and a juicy yet texturally interesting palate. It was classically elegant and exotically fun at the same time.