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Medoc vintners turn to tricky grape to boost 2009 vintage

BORDEAUX (Reuters Life!) - A rare and difficult grape variety can make all the difference for a well-known wine-making area such as the Medoc near Bordeaux.
/ Source: Reuters

BORDEAUX (Reuters Life!) - A rare and difficult grape variety can make all the difference for a well-known wine-making area such as the Medoc near Bordeaux.

Several, if not the majority, of Medoc vintners have added parts of the Petit Verdot -- little green one -- grape variety into the blend for their 2009 vintages.

That gives the wines of that year an extra roundness which makes them more interesting than, say, those of 2006 when the blend was made up of the usual three varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Malbec can also be allowed into the blend but this robust grape is now mainly used in the stronger wines of the Cahors region.

Denis Bergey of Chateau Breuilh, for instance, used Petit Verdot in his 2009 wine that, while still young, already has a rather full body. His 2006, while older, tastes younger.

"One is a wine to have a meal with, the other is for an afternoon drink," he said at the Vinexpo wine trade fair, held every two years.

Medoc is the Bordeaux region's closest wine-making area to the Atlantic Ocean and further west than higher-priced areas such as Saint-Estephe or Saint Julien, all of them sit on the south side of the Gironde estuary.

Petit Verdot had nearly disappeared because it is a difficult grape to grow and must be harvested late, which exposes it more than other grapes to the vagaries of climate.

Bergey started to harvest the Petit Verdot grapes on October 20 of 2009, well after his other grapes.

In the 1980s, as wine-makers became more conscious of the need to have something in their wines to mark them out from their rivals and began returning to their regional roots, Petit Verdot made a comeback. Now there are an estimated 400 hectares (988 acres) planted with the vine in the Bordeaux area.

The grape is added with parsimony.

Berangere Tesseron of Chateau Larrivaux used Petit Verdot for just three percent in her 2009 blend. There was none in 2006.

"It is a very difficult grape, but when you have a good year then it is a real asset," she said.

Frederic Mehaye of Chateau Sipian used five percent of Petit Verdot. He searches for natural wines and uses low temperatures and a limited extraction -- the process in which the color and taste is taken from the grape skins. The more a wine is extracted, the more "synthetic" it becomes. There are wine makers who specialize in creating such designer wines and those who abhor over extraction.

But Mehaye is willing to go further with Petit Verdot than just five percent. Chateau Sipian will soon launch a 100 percent Petit Verdot wine.

That is turning the tables on the trends coming from the new world wine countries in South America and which goes down well with the modern consumer in the United States, United Kingdom or elsewhere who prefers to concentrate on concentrate on grape varieties rather than vineyards.

Bordeaux wines, including those from Medoc, are mixtures. Burgundy wines tend to be single-grape wines with a rich variety in taste depending on where the grapes are grown. Big Chilean, Argentinian or Californian winemakers can guarantee a stable taste over a large production.

And now a Bordeaux wine-maker comes with a Petit Verdot single grape wine.

He is not the first.

It is also done in Spain and the grape also grows in Chile, Argentina and California while the largest areas of Petit Verdot grapes are in Australia.