Petit Verdot: Virginia’s Next Wine Gem?

By Posted on Feb 24 2011 | By

Red Bordeaux Grape Gaining Traction in the Old Dominion

Color and spice and everything nice.  An apt description for a grape that Virginia wine lovers will be hearing—and tasting a lot more of—in the years ahead.

There’s nothing petite about Petit Verdot.  It produces a big, bold, dark wine that historically has been used as a minor blending grape in the Médoc region of France, typically contributing less than 15% to their classic blends. Its origins are thought to predate Cabernet Sauvignon and its sparing use in Old World wines provide depth and color to Bordeaux’s best offerings.  The French think of it as a spice not a sauce.

In the United States, for a wine to be called by its varietal name, a 1983 Federal law requires it must contain at least seventy-five percent of the grape named on the label.  It’s called varietal labeling.  In Virginia, a growing percentage of Petit Verdot is being crafted in this style.  And it’s causing a buzz.

In 2006, there was no separately reported acreage of commercially grown Petit Verdot in Virginia.  Yet in 2010, five of the top fifteen wines earning gold medals in the Governor’s Cup competition were bottlings of this deep purple beauty.  Think zero to sixty in 3.5 seconds.  And the grape is still in second gear.

Origins of a winner
So how did this aristocratic grape find its way to Virginia?

Tony Wolf, VA State Viniculturist

As with much of the advancement in viticulture in the state, Dr. Tony Wolf, Professor of Horticulture at Virginia Tech and the state’s cooperative extension viticulturist, played a role in determining if the grape could perform here.  “We found the vine grew well throughout the state because of its cold hardiness.  I think its future lies in its blending strengths. It can be a tougher sell as a straight varietal since it’s not a familiar grape to the average wine consumer.  But I’m upbeat about the vine and recommend it as a viable vinifera species for winegrowers throughout the state,” he says.

Wolf further underscores it will be state’s winemakers who ultimately decide how the grape will best be utilized. That debate is well underway and you may want to join in.

In tests plantings in Winchester from 1991 to 1998 and in Blackstone from 2005 to 2007, Wolf evaluated the grape’s potential for thriving in Virginia’s terroir.  He  advised winemakers in 2008 that in addition to its cold hearty constitution it produced a wine that was rich in color, acidity, alcohol, tannin, and spicy flavors.  Winemakers around the state looked up from their labors and responded with a collective, “Oh, really?”  The vine began to be planted statewide.

In 2006, any Petit Verdot being grown in Virginia would have been listed under an “other red Vinifera” category since the plantings would have been quite small.  In ’07, 101 acres were officially reported under vine and in ’08 115 acres.  Total wine grape production in Virginia in 2008 encompassed 2,870 acres, generating some 7,000 tons of fruit, so the grape was still in its infancy.  Statistics for 2009 are not available because the Federal Department of Agriculture stopped reporting individual vine acreage in the state.  The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office assumed that responsibility.  In March of this year, updated acreage plantings will be available.  Look for the grape to have gained an even stronger foothold in the last two years.

Winemakers’ verdict

Andy Reagan

So what are vintners around the state saying about the grape’s potential?  There are two camps of thought.  One segment of cellar alchemists believes a varietally labeled version will dominate in the years ahead.  Others are less optimistic, thinking the grape will retain its reputation as a blending component.  Most all believe the berry will find a permanent home in the state regardless of how it is employed.

One of the more passionate proponents of the grape is Andy Reagan, winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards.  “I believe Petit Verdot will become the best variety in the state. Just a few years ago at Jefferson we were producing sixty cases a year.  Now it’s around 600 and we could sell 1,000 cases if we had the fruit.  Some of the knocks about Virginia red wine is that it lacks color, structure and not enough depth.  Petit Verdot has it all; inky hues, firm tannins, good acidity, and a spicy palate.

“I like to blend in a bit of Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon to emphasize the fruit component which it doesn’t possess in abundance. In the vineyard, it’s been a consistent producer.  We’ve doubled our planting in the last two years and still can’t make enough of it.  It’s one of our tasting room favorites,” he says.

Jason Burrus

Jason Burrus, winemaker at Rappahannock Cellars, won’t go as far in committing to the grape’s future.  “I like Petit Verdot and Virginia should definitely pursue its cultivation.  But sometimes I think we place too much emphasis on varietal wines.  I don’t think predominately Petit Verdot or Tannat wines will cast a positive light on the state.  I see it more as a blender for use in Meritage-style wines,” he explains.

Michael Shaps

But no sooner that one opinion is expressed and a counter thought erupts.  Michael Shaps, owner and winemaker with Virginia Wineworks enthuses, “The grape could be Virginia’s number one red in less than ten years.  It will create its own demand. As more of it is poured in tasting rooms around the state, word will spread.

“Predominately I make it as a 100% varietal and use lesser amounts in some blends. It is a highly extracted, aromatic wine and makes itself in the vineyard, ripening consistently throughout most of the state.  It is a wine for the serious consumer.  And we need to connect with that category of drinker to put Virginia on the national wine map.  The buzz about the grape is well established among winemakers.  Soon the general public will catch the excitement.”

Stephen Barnard

Stephen Barnard, winemaker and General Manager at Keswick Vineyards, produces between 100 to 250 cases of the wine each year depending on the grape’s availability. He makes both a varietal and a blended rendition. “I’ve found some problems with inconsistent cluster development in our vineyard so we must carefully cull it at harvest time to eliminate any green berries.

“One drawback is its unfamiliarity which can hinder sales.  It takes time to educate the public to the merits of a new wine.  But Cab Franc had a similar challenge and it was overcome.  Petit Verdot is a big, aggressive, inky wine and not suited to everyone’s taste so I strive to make a more elegant version.  I love the wine and love making it,” he states.

Jeff White

Jeff White, owner and winemaker at Glen Manor Vineyards, and a relatively new vintner garnering impressive reviews for his wines, sees the grape as having multiple personalities.  “It is my most consistent grape in the vineyard and I use it for both blending and producing a 100 percent varietal. So far the wine has been perfect just by itself. I will produce about 125 cases as a varietal this year.  Everyone loves it and it sells out fast.  Last year, I was down to two cases and I pulled it off our tasting sheet. I sent an email out announcing the impending end of its availability.  It sold out in thirty minutes.  I think it could ellipse Cab Franc,” he says.

In pursuit of excellence
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the grape is it typifies Virginia’s pioneering spirit and willingness to continue to search for the grape that will place our state among the top producers in the Nation.  It’s perseverance with cause.  Reputations are firmly established when success is consistently met in both the vineyard and the cellar.

Every wine region in the world seeks to identify itself with one or two specific grapes.  Think Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Oregon Pinot Noir, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Argentina Malbec and Australia Shiraz.  In Virginia, Cabernet Franc and Viognier have made their mark.  But as our industry matures and gains more experience growing grapes and making wine, the search will continue for the ultimate wine berry.

Perhaps Petit Verdot will, indeed, be the breakthrough red grape of Virginia.  Keep your eye on tasting notes throughout the state. There’s a new Virginia wine gem emerging and its ultimate success or failure will be judged on how well it performs in the glass.

If you want to weigh in on the decision, cast a vote with your palate.


Published in the 2011 spring edition of The Piedmont Virginian.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES