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petit verdot – the james dean of wine
Kind of dark. Brooding. Powerful without being overpowering. Perhaps not for everyone’s taste. Such are the descriptors used by entertainment writers over the years for a number of distinctive actors, but the one that comes most immediately to mind is James Dean (though in Rebel Without a Cause Sal Mineo was the darkest character – too dark). Dean, on the other hand, met the criteria above, and further, like a good wine, he could also show off range, style, and an ability to attract an ultra loyal fan base.
Every so often we do something at our home in South Florida that has not (as far as we can determine) been done before. In years past we have amassed almost all of the Charbonos and all of the Pinotages produced in California, and had them tasted by a qualified panel of judges. This week we did the same with the increasingly popular Petit Verdot, which possesses all the characteristics ascribed to James Dean (we just wish we had come up with the connection between the two, but that honor goes to Dine Magazine’s Patrick Sullivan).
Wine lovers are usually aware that Petit Verdot is one of the modern five red “Bordeaux Varietals,” just as they are aware that generally it is used in small amounts to blend in some power and structure to other wines, such as Merlot or Cabernet Franc. Truth be told, however, there are more than five Bordeaux varietals (Carmenere - a sixth - is making a comeback in the New World). Petit Verdot, currently out of favor in France due to its long ripening season coupled with France’s poor late season weather, is now being bottled as a single varietal in many areas of the western hemisphere and Australia.
The impetus behind Petit Verdot being bottled on its own, or having added to it a small quantity of Merlot or Cab, most certainly comes from the American psyche that includes creativity, invention and ingenuity, and an American way of life that declines to impose winemaking rules merely due to tradition. Winemakers here are rarely satisfied with the “status quo” and constantly search out the newest envelope pushing techniques and products. Thus came single varietal Petit Verdot not so many years ago, and, to the surprise of almost everyone you ask now, there are over 30 being made in California, over a half dozen in Virginia, and more in Australia, Canada, and other countries.
As mentioned, everyone knows a good Petit Verdot should be strong on tannins, deep purple in color, and possessed of some spices that will enhance whatever wine to which it is added. On its own, however, one might ascribe to the wine the following descriptors in varying combinations: blackberry, pencil shavings, tar, cedar or other woods, cigar box, vanilla, oak, and leather.
OK – to our Florida tasting of last week. Participants included four writers, a sommelier, the leading independent retailer in South Florida, two collectors with top palates, and a restaurateur who maintains an award winning wine list. Each wine was judged as to whether, hypothetically, a medal should be awarded, and, if so, which one. They were also ranked as they compared to each other in the minds of the judges, with each rank being worth designated points. Ultimately we ended up with a result that mirrored the comments of the judges pretty closely.
After the formal blind tasting and ranking, we then took the five wines with the top scores and for fun blindly tasted them again and ranked them next to each other. Kind of like the NCAA “March Madness” where teams have a ranking before the tournament, and then usually have a different ranking after head to head competition.
As far as we know, all wines made in California were included in this tasting except Mazzoco (declined to participate), Homewood (the vintner listened and never called back), Carmody-McKnight and Goosecross (these 2 did not even have the courtesy to answer 2 emails, 2 phone calls, and a fax), Martin-Weyrich (they actually sent a bottle but with their present troubles we did not include the wine), Ledson (they called 3 times to say they would participate but never sent anything), and James Cole (they donated, but the particular bottle we received was defective so we did not rate it – we will retaste and comment in a future article). Because of the relative few Petit Verdots being produced, we put all of them in side by side competition regardless of vintage.
-The vintage did not seem to matter when these wines were tasted next to each other. It may have been to a great degree because the panel was made up of professionals who could often identify whether the vintage was fresh or had been around a few years. Nevertheless, the wide range of vintages among the top ranked wines pretty much obviates this factor as a consideration when buying Petit Verdot.
-The location was clearly important insofar as imparting structure and complexity. This tasting was performed blindly by the entire panel, and so no undue subconscious influence can be charged. When one views the results, it really is no surprise that Napa would far and away lead the preferences for a Bordeaux varietal. Six of the seven Gold medal wines were from Napa, and the last five in line were from outside the Napa Valley.
-The price of the wines could be correlated to conclude that one does in fact need to spend more than a nominal sum to buy the better Petit Verdots. The upper echelon wines were all $45 and above, while the lowest scoring 10 wines all had price tags of $35 or less (except Lange Twins, which asks $45).
-Value, on the other hand was a completely different story. Reminding you that the judges on this day are all well familiar with wine prices, it was the general consensus that the prices being asked for many of these wines are more related to the present panache of the varietal than the actual quality of the wine. While almost everything we tasted was pleasant and enticing, almost all of them lacked the complexity one looks for in an expensive wine. To pay $125 (Anderson’s Conn Valley), or $105 (Briar Rose), or $75 (Frazier), or even $68 (Bourassa), one would have to find far more in the glass than did this panel, even though we appreciated all four of the wines enough to assign three gold medals and one silver, Clearly upon looking at the results, you can find top of the line Petit Verdots from $40 - $60, the range where our panel felt comfortable in recommending them if one was seeking quality and value.
-The biggest surprise was the showing of Briar Rose Winery from Temecula. We were stunned to see their Website, with wine prices as high as $1300 per bottle (this is, after all, Temecula), and the asking price for the Petit Verdot is way out of line at $105 in our opinion. However, when you talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk, and this winery did exactly that in this tasting by garnering a Gold medal and high rankings.
Our special congratulations go to Stonegate and Bourassa for earning the most points to tie for first place in the tasting, and also to Trinchero Family for winning the head to head competition among the top five scorers.
Perhaps all that is left is to actually show you the full results. If we have missed a producer, please let us know. It is never too late to taste and at least write about what we find. Maybe a bottle that will remind us of this generation’s James Dean – Johnny Depp.
Rank and Hypothetical Medals from Aptil 11, 2010, Petit Verdot Tasting
at home of Monty & Sara Preiser
1. 2004 Stonegate ($60) – Gold (Napa)
1. 2005 Bourassa ($68) – Gold (Napa)
3. 2005 William Hill ($45) – Gold (Napa)
4. 2007 Trinchero Family Central Park West ($50) – Gold (Napa)
5. 2004 Briar Rose ($105) – Gold (Temecula)
6. 2006 St. Supery ($50) – Gold (Napa)
7. 2005 Ehlers Estate ($45) – Gold (Napa)
7. 2004 Frazier ($75) – Gold (Napa)
9. 2006 Jarvis ($44/375ml.) – Silver (Napa)
10. 2005 Sawyer ($54) – Silver (Napa)
10. 2006 Imagery ($39) – Silver (Sonoma)
10. 2007 Ferrari-Carano ($38) – Silver (Sonoma)
13. 2005 Trahan ($35) – Silver (Napa)
13. 2006 Stryker Rockpile ($45) – Silver (Sonoma)
15. 2005 Murphy-Goode ($28) – Silver (Sonoma)
16. 2006 Ballentine ($38) – Silver (Napa)
17. 2005 Anderson’s Conn Valley ($125) – Silver (Napa)
18. 2005 Markham ($40) – Silver (Napa)
19. 2006 Heitz ($35) – Bronze (Napa)
20. 2005 Truchard ($35) – Bronze (Napa)
21. 2005 Rutherford Hill ($35) – Bronze (Napa)
22. 2006 Mietz ($30) – No Medal (Sonoma)
23. 2007 Grands Amis ($25) – No Medal (Lodi)
24. 2006 Lange Twins ($45) – No Medal (Lodi)
25. 2007 Linden ($28) – No Medal (Virginia)
26. 2007 Justin ($39) – No Medal (Paso Robles)
27. 2006 Crystal Basin ($28) – No Medal (El Dorado County)
“PLAY-OFF” OF THE TOP 5
1. 2007 Trinchero Family Central Park West ($50) – Napa
2. 2005 William Hill ($45) – Napa
2. 2004 Briar Rose ($105) – Temecula
4. 2004 Stonegate ($60) – Napa
5. 2005 Bourassa ($60) – Napa
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.