Regular readers will know that I think that the châteaux that managed the Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc grapes well in the 2009 vintage have definitely added that je ne sais quoi to their wines. Paul Pontallier from Château Margaux confirmed my belief and said that the Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot performed this year at their highest levels. I have been asked what the introduction of those two particular grapes does? How do they change the wine, improve it, and why do they perform better as a blend rather than as a stand-alone? So, in answer to your questions . . .
Bordeaux red wines can be made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere. Winemakers use the grapes in varying amounts to create a blend though today Malbec is very seldom used, and Carmenere is used in tiny quantities. I have not been able to find out much about the history of Petit Verdot other than there are records of it in 18th century France. It’s origins are unclear but as it ripens much later than the other varieties in Bordeaux it could have begun life in hotter climes than the Gironde – it’s possible that it was brought to the region by the Romans as they moved inland from the Mediterranean.
Almost all the Petit Verdot in France is planted in Bordeaux, mostly in the Medoc. Total plantings in Bordeaux currently amount to a few hundred hectares only (which is not much for Bordeaux). The late ripening qualities of Petit Verdot have been a problem for wine makers – it often ripened too late and which meant that in some years the entire crop was lost. It’s said it only properly ripens once every four years (which is to do with weather patterns). Petit Verdot is also inclined to have small, green, seedless berries if weather conditions during flowering are unfavourable (it is also vulnerable to early frost). This is quite possibly where the name stems from – petit (small), and verdot (green).
However, if Petit Verdot ripens fully the thick-skinned grapes produce mouth-gripping tannins and high fixed acid. These characteristics are used to balance the softening quality of Merlot and to stiffen the mid palate of Cabernet Sauvignon. In other words Petit Verdot adds structure and perfume to the blend. The aroma is strong and encompasses earth, leather, smoke and cigar box tones. On the palate, the taste is spice, minerals, violets and peppers.
Cabernet Franc is often described as being a blending insurance policy against the later-flowering Cabernet Sauvignon in case it doesn’t attain optimum ripeness but in fact Cabernet Franc is a more senior grape than Cabernet Sauvignon – DNA testing has shown that Cabernet Franc is the parent of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s origins are unknown but it has been grown around the Libourne area of Bordeaux for centuries and it could be a native of the area. Cardinal Richelieu transported cuttings of the vine (said to be his favourite grape) to the Loire Valley where they were planted at the Abbey of Bourgueil under the care of an abbot named Breton. By the 18th century, plantings of Cabernet Franc were found throughout Fronsac, Pomerol and Saint Emilion, making quality wines.
Cabernet Franc vines bear thinner-skinned, earlier-ripening grapes with lower overall acidity, when compared to Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc vines survive cold winters better than Cabernet Sauvignon and need less heat to ripen fully, but are more susceptible to being damaged by Spring frosts. Its early budding does pose the viticultural hazard of coulure early in the growing season – coulure is a reaction to weather conditions that causes a failure of grapes to develop after flowering.
Cabernet Franc makes a bright plum coloured red wine often distinguished as being lighter in both colour and tannins, and fruitier than Cabernet Sauvignon. Aromas identified in Cabernet Franc often include green pepper, raspberry, tobacco and violets. The lighter tannins give the wine a smoother and more supple mouth feel. Cabernet Franc adds structure and complexity to the blend.
Both Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc can be used to make single varietal wines. Wines made purely from Cabernet Franc tend to be light to medium bodied, soft, rich and dry. The Loire Valley makes single varietal wines from Cabernet Franc and the grape is also used in creating Ice Wine in Canada. Petit Verdot is seldom used to make a separate varietal wine, except in the New World (eg California and Australia where they are becoming a contender as the alternative to Shiraz) where it ripens more reliably. The high tannins in the wine mean that it may require longer oak ageing to soften the wine.
Bordeaux has blended its grapes to make wine for millennia, each grape in the blend complements the other, resulting in a balanced and harmonious wine. In effect the whole is better than the sum of the parts. The 2009 vintage in Bordeaux In my opinion, was the result of a warmer growing season, with a largely dry and sunny summer which accounted for the peak performance of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
In the past, vintages have been hailed either as either a Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon year – this year in my opinion, although the Cabernet Sauvignon was very good, the 2009 vintage will be remembered by me at least, as the vintage of the less popular grape verities – Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Although, not easy to grow those Chateaux that did grow both/either verities in 2009 achieved superb results when added either singularly or together to the final blend, they came up with some excellent wines.
When a top Chateau owner told me that they were frustrated that they couldn’t grow enough of their Cabernet Franc, I knew I was on the right trail with my thoughts and I am positive his final blend would have achieved even greater accolades than he has over the recent tastings!