Thursday, November 08, 2012

Washington Petit Verdot Shows Its Range

The Petit Verdot grape, French for "little green" is so named because in Bordeaux, it's homeland, it's on the difficult side to ripen. In France the grape is a prized part of the Bordeaux blending arsenal but in many years it may need to be "cut loose" if it's been a cooler vintage or a shorter growing season. In parts of the Médoc, where it's mostly planted, the wine only comes to maturity every four years or so. Traditionally blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, it is a supporting actor at best in France, and a moody one at that.

In Washington State however, if you've been paying attention for the last 3-4 years Petit Verdot has seen it's star rise.  It seems every couple of years there's an "it" varietal rising to the top in Washington state, where so much can grow so well. While Petit Verdot has never seen the heights that Malbec and Grenache have in recent years, you don't have to look nearly as hard to find it. Washington Wine Report's Sean Sullivan puts plantings  at 301 acres as of 2011 and looking forward it's "being planted briskly."

While in Bordeaux the wine is incorporated into blends to add tannins, color, serious structure and "stiffness" to both Cabernet and Merlot it's often thought of as too austere and monolithic to stand on it's own.  While a great deal of the Petit Verdot grown here in Washington is being used for some of the state's Bordeaux style blends, as well as a backbone for outstanding Cabernet and Merlot there's a fair bit of it being made as a single varietal. Enough of it, and by some of the state's most established names that it cannot be dismissed as mere novelty.

A quick look on the interwebs and I count in a few clicks Sleight of Hand, Dusted Valley, Forgeron, Gilbert Cellars, Januik, Seven Hills and L'ecole 41. None these the names of fringe or upstart wineries and some of them are among the state's old guard.  Many of these bottlings are limited edition, wine club or tasting room only and they offer an opportunity to provide a bit of variety to those who are loyal consumers of a particular label.

While Petit Verdot in Washington state may not ever make a short list for the wines that the state does best, it shouldn't be dismissed as gimmicky. There's enough complexity and nuance there to make something very interesting. The tendency to bottle single varietal Petit Verdot however is a relatively new one here, we'll know more about it in a few years. What I have not found though, is a dark, inky, tannic 2x4 hitting you over the head, which is kind of what I had expected.  What Washington's wine country though may have unlocked through both it's long warm growing season and  some innovative, patient and curious winemaking talent is a new way of looking at Petit Verdot.

For winemaker Hillary Sjolund of Sonoris wines and the consultation firm Enomama it's Washington's hot sites that really make for exciting opportunities where Petit Verdot is concerned. "Ripeness combined with lower acids make them really approachable and outside the box when compared to Cabernet or Merlot."

The 2012 vintage will set up nicely for Petit Verdot after a couple cooler vintages in a row. For Hillary Washington's Ciel du Cheval and Dionysus vineyards are great sites for Petit Verdot and she expects that the  2012 vintage may see her first single varietal of the wine.

I tasted two examples of the wine that show stylistic differences certainly but also a range in where we're finding the grape planted and how the state's varied growing regions are showing up in Petit Verdot. If you're looking to expand your own palate, try something unique or maybe see if you can figure out how this wine shows up in some of your more traditional favorites, seek one out and  see what you make of it.

2007 Terra Blanca Signature Series Petit Verdot This wine is tall, dark and handsome, like me. Aromas of smoke, game, earth and the darkest fruit character. I held onto this wine for about a year and a half before I gave it a go, and given the combination of a tannic varietal with a tannic site in Red Mountain, I was a bit nervous. The wine though was very dialed in from a structural standpoint and delivered well on balance. Flavors mirror the wine's aromatics with blackberries, plums, and substantial meaty characteristics. The tannins were softer than I expected but the wine held a substantial structure and has an obvious longevity ahead of it. $-Sold Out

2009 L'ecole 41 Petit Verdot Seven Hills Vineyard This Petit Verdot continues to show why Walla Walla is such an important part of the Washington wine lexicon. From the Seven Hills estate vineyard we have a wine that's aromatic and flavor profile is true to that site.  In place of big dark fruit aromas of anise, fennel, savory earthern aromatics, along with violets and black currant. The wine is (again) wonderfully approachable, with smoky and savory flavors, tobacco and blackberries. $ Sold Out



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