In terms of prestige, excellence and standing, it doesn’t come much bigger or better than Pomerol’s finest. Serena Sutcliffe MW steps inside the fabled world that is Château Pétrus.
Petrus, the most powerful word in wine. No other two syllables conjure up the same allure, the exotic luxury and the anticipation of vinous excitement.
It was not always thus. The great growths of the Médoc were firmly established before the name of Pétrus first appeared in records in 1837. The Arnaud family were the owners both then and when Pétrus won a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, rocketing its own name and that of Pomerol to the fore. The Arnauds started selling the property to Madame Edmond Loubat from 1925 and she acquired the estate in entirety by the end of the Second World War. Madame Loubat considered her wine should be sold at least at the level of the First Growths. In this she was absolutely right, particularly since the Pétrus of the time was a mere 7ha (hectares). She donned her legendary hats and sallied forth to tell the world that they were missing something exceptional. This formidable woman came over to England for the Coronation in 1953 and sent a case of Pétrus to Buckingham Palace – history does not relate the vintage but could it have been the 1947 or the 1949?
The wine itself was tended with infinite care. Virtually hand-made, both vineyard and chais benefited from feminine attention to detail. The site was, and is, jewel-like, unique in its composition and the underlying reason why Pétrus tastes like no other Bordeaux. Pétrus is on the high terrace of Pomerol on which lies a 20ha island, or buttonhole, of clay. Through the accidents and acquisitions of ownership, it happens that nearly 11ha of this clay fall within the property – in 1969, the size of Pétrus increased from 7 to 11.4ha when a clay parcel of Château Gazin was bought. Only the hectare of vineyard now bordering Gazin is gravelly and thus atypical of Pétrus.
Another unique feature is the deep-lying hard iron soil known as crasse de fer.
In 1943, an extraordinary relationship between Pétrus and the family business of Jean-Pierre Moueix began. He saw the great potential and quality of this wine and became the sole agent for the property, introducing Pétrus to America in 1945. Madame Loubat died in 1961 and for a while one of her nieces, Madame Lacoste-Loubat, represented the property before, gradually, Moueix acquired all the shares of both her niece and her nephew. More importantly, the management was in Jean-Pierre Moueix’s capable hands and, from 1970, Christian Moueix nurtured and made Pétrus, together with the talented Jean-Claude Berrouet as oenologist and Michel Gillet as viticulturist. After Jean-Pierre Moueix’s death in 2003, Jean-François Moueix became gérant, or manager, of Pétrus while younger brother Christian is directeur technique.
During the Loubat era, the vineyard had a far greater proportion of Cabernet Franc than today, up to 20% as opposed to 5% now, which only goes into the blend in very ripe years. The Moueix regime feels strongly that the colder clay soil needs Merlot and so increased the percentage to the 95% we have now. Complantation is practised in vines up to 20 years old, keeping up the average age of the vines to around 40–45 years. This was always a mantra at Pétrus, going back to the Loubat days when Madame Loubat did not replant after the ferocious l956 frost but very successfully regrafted on to the existing root. Happily, such a natural catastrophe has not happened again – in 1956 there was effectively no production (1 barrel) and the maitre de chais told Christian Moueix that he ‘ate the whole crop!’. However, Christian does not favour overdoing complantation as he considers that there is not enough space for the roots to develop so, once there are 50% gaps, he prefers to replant the whole block. The vines planted in the 1980s were clones from nurseries but, recently, selection in the mass, after checking for any virus, has been the norm.
Organic methods were used at Pétrus before they were fashionable – ploughing and weeding three to four times a year, as well as planting a weed that dries out the soil after rain and which is later ploughed in to act as a natural fertiliser. Christian Moueix was one of the first to practise crop thinning as early as 1973. In a year like 1982, when some other top growths were merely contemplating the possibility, this was undoubtedly a factor in the quality of Pétrus in such an abundant year. As a result, Pétrus virtually never does a saignée, or bleeds the vats. With 180 people in the total Moueix team, at harvest they can all be called in from other properties at the optimum moment for Pétrus. On average, it takes three afternoons, not necessarily consecutive, to pick Pétrus, avoiding morning dew and enhancing ripeness and natural alcohol. The Merlot, of course, has a short ‘bracket’ for picking as, with heat, it ripens so quickly. In rainy years, helicopters have been used to dry out the crop and in the torrential conditions of 1992 plastic sheeting was employed to keep the earth dry.
The timing of the harvest is critical, involving constant walking of the vineyard, observing and tasting the grapes. They chew the pips – if they crush easily and taste of almonds, the grapes are ripe, if the pips are bitter and too crunchy, the grapes have not attained the desired ripeness.
Destemming is practised at Pétrus (only in 1973 and 1974, 20% of the vats had added stems), and the stemmer-crushers of today ensure that no stems are crushed before removal. Cold macerations are not a feature here. Fermentation takes place in concrete vats followed by a maceration on the skins for 18–25 days. Normally, fermentation starts at 17/19ºC and goes up to 32ºC but, in 2003, the upper limit was 29ºC to balance the exceptional conditions. The malolactic fermentation also takes place in concrete. The wine then goes into 100% new oak barrels from Demptos, Seguin-Moreau and Taransaud, except in a lighter year like 1997 when some barrels from 1995 were used. Even in stronger years, everything is monitored, and the wine can be moved out of the 100% new oak into one or two-year old casks. Normally, the wine from vines of over 10 years old goes into Pétrus, although one year the production from a ‘young’ block had to wait 18 years.
As with all great wine properties, an open mind is vital. At Pétrus, experiments and trials are quietly undertaken, adopted or discarded. They still prefer vertical presses as they consider them more gentle, while horizontal presses ‘lacerate’. They used to include the press wine in the vat to help start the malolactic fermentation, but recently they have kept it apart, deciding in January whether to add in 5-7%, always identifying the press wine with the original vat from whence it came. Some press wine has an anchovy taste and that is always eliminated. In 1990, on an experimental 2ha, they tried crop-thinning at the beginning of July and at the beginning of August. At the comparative tasting in summer 1991, they favoured by 12 to 5 the wine from the early crop thinning. However, 1990 was a hot summer, so the experiment was not conclusive. There are now two sorting tables at Pétrus, which lengthen the picking time from 10–12 hours to 20 – interestingly, in the superlative 1998, there was no trie at all! The table de trie was actually bought in 2002, as the very difficult flowering that year gave very irregular ripeness while, in 2003, the table was used for eliminating burnt berries. Perfectionism at Pétrus runs to macerating their corks in water, with tasting, testing and analysing in batches.
The Soul of Petrus
These are the mechanics of making Pétrus. But what of its soul, its ‘persona’, the individual, idiosyncratic elements of the wine that make it extraordinary. The exotic, super-spicy profile is always there, the tapestry texture, the way mini-explosions of flavour burst upon the palate as it makes contact with the air. It is an oriental rather than an occidental wine, eccentric rather than classic. It is gloriously itself. The terroir triumphantly transcends the grape varieties. The Merlot has completely taken over the Cabernet Franc but it remains the Pétrus we have always known. (Here there is a comparison with Lafite, which has become far more Cabernet Sauvignon than of yore, but it is still magically Lafite.) At Pétrus, even half a barrel of Cabernet Franc makes a discernible difference when added to 60 barrels of Merlot – usually, two to three barrels of Cabernet Franc make it into the grand vin. I admit that Pétrus has the bitter, dark chocolate taste of Merlot rather than the milk chocolate of Cabernet Franc, but that is as far as it goes! Pétrus is defined, intense and untamed, both a revelation and a mystery – and infinitely, stunningly good.
Written by Serena Sutcliffe MW