Despite never having been officially classified, Chateau Petrus is one of the single best known estates in the Bordeaux wine region. The chateau crafts some of the rarest and most sought after wines in the world, whose most avid fans have included Queen Elizabeth II (who served it at her engagement party) and President Kennedy. The 28 acre estate is located on the highest part of the prestigious Pomerol appellation on Bordeaux’s Right Bank. The vines of Chateau Petrus are planted in soil rich with black clay, ideal for growing Merlot. This varietal, in fact, accounts for nearly 96% of the vines and is used to produce a grand vin made exclusively of Merlot, a rarity among the properties of Bordeaux. Petrus wines are velvety, intensely concentrated and rich with complex aromas of truffles, chocolate, and luscious red fruit. Truly powerful, a bottle of Petrus wine from the best vintages can age for more than fifty years. An ultimate treasure for any wine collector or wine lover.
Petrus. Perhaps no other word in the world of wine conjures up so much allure, such profound respect and exotic, mystic luxury. But what do we really know about this mysterious Pomerol estate, birthplace of the most expensive of all Bordeaux wines? Let's take a closer look at the history and terroir of the legendary Petrus, and discover just what goes into its sought-after nectar.
But before getting into the history, some interesting facts you may not know about Petrus and its wines. In many ways Petrus represents an exception among the great chateaux of Bordeaux. First, Chateau Petrus is somewhat of a misnomer, albeit a very popular one. While many other estates in the region, notably Chateau Cheval Blanc and Vieux Chateau Certan, include magnificent chateaux amidst their vines, you will find no such "Chateau Petrus" at Petrus. Here it is the vineyard, not the castle, that is given the most importance. Despite being one of the most well-known and respected in the world, Petrus wines are not classified. This is because the estate is located in the appellation of Pomerol, which has always rejected the limiting restrictions of a quality classification system. Nevertheless, Petrus and Chateau Cheval Blanc are also referred to as the two Pomerol estates on par with the First Growths of the Medoc and Premier Grand Cru Classe (A) of Saint-Emilion. Also unlike many other Bordeaux wine estates, Petrus does not produce a second wine, selling the fruit not deemed of high enough quality for their Grand Vin as bulk. Where this bulk ends up is a well-guarded secret. In some years, none of the fruit is deemed worthy of the Grand Vin, so no Petrus wine is produced. An example of such a vintage is 1991, a year of bitter April frosts in Bordeaux. Petrus is also one of the most commonly counterfeited wines in the world. Clearly any bottle of Petrus 1991 will be a fake.
The name Petrus first appeared in written records in 1837, when many of the prestigious chateaux of the Medoc, on Bordeaux' Left Bank, had already been established. At this time, the estate constituted only 7 hectares and was owned by the Arnaud family, who finally sold the estate to Madame Edmond Loubat in 1945, just after the Second World War. A passionate believer in the potential of Petrus, it was Madame Loubat who first transformed its reputation, pushing Petrus wines into the international spotlight. But it was undeniably, the passion of Jean-Pierre Moueix that made Petrus wines some of the greatest in the world. Originally from the Correze region, Moueix found a new home in Libourne, where he founded wine merchant business. While serving as the exclusive distributor of Petrus wines, Moueix also began purchasing shares of the property and by 1969 his son, the Moueix family achieved sole ownership and added a clay parcel of Chateau Gazin, increasing the total size of the property to 11.4 hectares. In 1964, Petrus hired talented winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet, who - together with viticulturist Michel Gillet - produced 45 vintages and elevated the wines of Petrus to their modern-day glory. One of the most important vintages for Petrus was the 1982, loudly lauded by the world's most influential wine critic Robert Parker. Although Petrus wines had already been renowned for their quality, Parker's reviews lead to even greater international recognition and boosted the price of these wines significantly. Following the death of Jean-Pierre in 2003, his oldest son Jean-Francois became manager of the property, while younger brother Christian took the role of technical director. In 2008, Jean-Claude Berrouet retired, remaining a consultant for Petrus while his son, Olivier, took over the reigns as winemaker.
During the "Moueix regime" at Petrus, several changes were made. Cabernet Franc, which during Madame Loubat's ownership of the estate represented around 20% of the total vineyard, was reduced to only around 5%. This varietal only entered the Grand Vin in very ripe years. After the 2010 harvest, the 0.5-hectare patch of Cabernet Franc vines was uprooted and since then Petrus wines have been 100% Merlot. This was a decision based on terroir, as the Moueix family believe that the colder climate and clay soils of the estate are better suited to Merlot than any other varietal. Already in the early 1970's, Christian Moueix pioneered the use of organic methods (i.e. crop thinning) in managing the vineyard of Petrus, well before these became fashionable. The estate has also modernized its wine cellar, with an optical sorter replacing manual sorting in 2009.
To understand how the wines of Petrus came to be some of the best in the world, it is necessary to understand the terroir of this gem-like site. The vines of Petrus are planted in a patch of clay soils at an altitude of 40 meters, on the highest plateau of Pomerol. The site is also home to subsoils of hard iron, known as crasse de fer. In fact, Petrus is the only vineyard in Pomerol entirely composed of clay soils, which date back 40 million years, while the rest of the appellation is characterized by thick gravel, dated only 1 million years. This ensures great drainage, since drops of rain can permeate the clay and become available to the vines in the dry months of summer. The average age of the 100% Merlot vines is around 40 years, due to a preference for regrafting over replanting damaged vines. The vineyard team carries out ploughing and weeding three to four times per year and plants a weed to dry out the soil after rain, which is late ploughed into the soil as a form of organic fertilizer. Harvest usually takes place pretty quickly, in a short bracket of 3 days, due to the fast-ripening nature of Merlot, and every possible measure is taken to make sure harvest occurs under optimal sanitary conditions. In rainy vintages, Petrus has used plastic sheeting to shield the soil or even helicopters to fan dry the vines after a downpour.
At the winery, stemmer-crushers are used to remove the stems before a gentle crushing. Fermentation then takes place in vats of concrete, with maceration usually lasting between 15 to 21 days to encourage a slow and steady extraction of tannins. The wines are pumped over once per day, half in the morning, the other half at night. After maceration, the wines are transferred to another vat for malolactic fermentation, after which the wines to be included in the final blend are selected. The blend is matured in oak barrels, of which only 50% are new and even these new barrels are soaked for 15 days in water to rid them of any overwhelming flavors. The wines are aged for a length of time determined by the characteristics of each vintage, and are racked every three months.
But what is it that has true wine lovers spending thousands of dollars per bottle on Petrus wine? On the one hand, its rarity. Unlike many other Grand Vin wines of Bordeaux, the distribution of Petrus is extremely limited. But it’s also the inimitable signature style of the estate. The wines of Petrus are spicy and extraordinarily flavorful. They have an exotic quality that set them apart from the classic wines of Bordeaux. On the nose, the bouquet reveals cassis, violet, cinnamon, plum, black cherry and truffle, along with the dark chocolate notes typical of Merlot. This rich, full-bodied wines offer a velvety smooth texture on the palate, intense flavors and a shocking length. A vintage of Petrus should always be kept in bottle for at least 15 years before tasting, although many vintages can age and develop beautifully for more than fifty years.