This 'little green' grape is making a comeback

John H. Isacs
The wide availability of information and greater popularity of wine means drinkers are becoming more sophisticated and this in turn results in a desire of greater diversity. 
John H. Isacs
This 'little green' grape is making a comeback

Sun-drenched vineyards of the Western Cape

Over the centuries, wine grapes have come and gone as climates and drinking habits changed. Many distinctive varieties have disappeared because they are difficult to cultivate, disease-prone or late-ripening. These challenges make them too risky for growers. More reliable and fashionable varieties are planted in their place and as a consequence, the diversity of varieties and wines has suffered. However, all hope is not lost.

The wide availability of information and greater popularity of wine means drinkers are becoming more sophisticated and this in turn results in a desire of greater diversity. In addition to demand, new growing technology and even global warming is allowing some of these difficult but delicious grapes to make a comeback. One vino revival worth noting is Petit Verdot.

The earliest reference to Petit Verdot in Bordeaux dates back to the early 17th century. The name in French means “little green,” reflecting the frequent inability of the grape to fully ripen.

Most vino varietal detectives believe the grape must have origins in a warmer climate. Some hypothesize that the Romans brought it to France and the variety is genetically related to the Balisca vine that traces its history back to Albania in ancient Greek times. Others speculate it is a mutant that evolved during the Middle Ages in the warmer areas of southwest France.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the grape routinely comprised a small percentage of the best wines of Bordeaux. Despite small amounts, Petit Verdot was an important contributor to the wines adding color, tannins, structure and age-worthiness.

By the mid-20th century, many Bordeaux winemakers started replacing Petit Verdot vines with the earlier ripening, more reliable and popular Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. A few of the best Chateaux, principally on the left bank of Bordeaux, continued to use the difficult variety in small amounts.

My father often lamented that the longevity and structure of many top chateaux wines of Bordeaux produced after the legendary 1945 vintage suffered in part from the shrinking contribution of Petit Verdot.

Notable exceptions where Petit Verdot was and continues to typically be a bigger contributor are the outstanding third growth wines Chateau Palmer in Margaux with often up to 10 percent and Chateau Lagrange in Saint-Julian that occasionally has up 15. One of my favorite Cru Bourgeois wines, Chateau Meyney in Saint-Estephe likewise features a higher percentage of Petit Verdot in the blend.

All three wines appreciably benefit from greater Petit Verdot contributions.

Over the past two decades, a small but increasing number of brave and creative winemakers in the warmer climates of Australia, the United States, Argentina, Portugal, Spain and Italy have started to make single variety Pinot Verdot wines.

Blessed with vineyards in stable climates with abundant sunshine that fully ripens the Petit Verdot grapes, these intrepid winemakers are creating highly attractive new expressions of this special grape. This is indeed a delicious comeback story.

When still young, single variety or predominantly Petit Verdot wines typically have dark fruit, banana and pencil shavings aromas and flavors. As the wines age they develop more dark fruit flavors along with alluring violet and leather sensations.

All Petit Verdot wines are weighty, age-worthy wines with good structure and length and have a predilection toward spiciness — in short, muscular, macho and distinctive.

Single variety Petit Verdot wines are still relatively rare but fortunately a few lovely examples are now available in Shanghai.

The Finca Decero Mini Ediciones Petit Verdot from Mendoza in Argentina is made with grapes from vineyards featuring a dark purple-red color with blackish hints and plenty of lively blackberry, red fruit and jasmine flavors with a pleasing long spicy tannic finish. From the Valle de Uco sub-appellation of Mendoza, the Tomero Petit Verdot Reserva is a rich and elegant wine with savory black fruit and exotic spices sensations and a beautifully complex and long finish.

The Bill Downie Petit Verdot from the Riverland in South Australia and Gippsland in Victoria is another must-try. The wine has a lively black cherry, blueberry and blackcurrant nose with fresh cherries on the palate and mouth-coating silky tannins.

Last but certainly not least is KWV The Mentors Petit Verdot from the Western Cape, South Africa. This deep ruby red wine has an expressive cherry, black olive and violet nose with typically Petit Verdot sensations of lead and bountiful ripe black and red favors and a long tannic finish.

Petit Verdot wines are ideal companions to flavorful cheeses and the meatiest of meat dishes. The stronger the flavors or the heavier and fattier a meat dish, the better it pairs with Petit Verdot.

Inherently hearty and spicy, Petit Verdot also pair exceptionally well with spicy Sichuan, Hunan, Indian and Thai meat dishes. Four particularly Petit Verdot-friendly meat dishes are Sichuan oxtail with brown sauce, Hunan cumin pork ribs, Shanghai-style braised lamb and Indian mutton curry. The strength of the Petit Verdot stands up nicely to the pungent flavors.

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