Petit Verdot is a densely dark, full-bodied red grape used in France as seasoning, and to add additional backbone and distinction to Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon during cool, lean, and rainy years. Unfortunately, it is a very late ripener and a poor producer even in good years. In the wine world, it is a sort of Catch-22 grape, because the years when it is needed, it may not ripen at all.
While the French are pulling this vine, Napa Valley’s Viader Vineyards and Winery has been growing the grape for over 20 years, and has been making it as a varietal for eight.
Owner and winemaker Delia Viader believes the grape may be just perfect for the Napa Valley and its long, warm Indian summers.
She thinks it is the new flavor in the Napa Valley.
"The French don’t have the large amount of sun that we have; therefore, they cannot get the grape to ripen very well, but here in Napa, we have plenty of sun, and our vineyard on Howell Mountain has a due west exposure. It is well suited for Petit Verdot. "
Viader thinks it can become the next "it" wine. "We call it our racy wine," she said. "It’s very different. It has high natural acidity, and dense tannins." She said that by working at higher PH, she can tame the tannins, and make the wine softer. "By working above 4 PH, sometimes even 4.4, we manage to tame the beast, and bring it down to balance. It’s such a wonder to see a wine with such muscle become a docile, beautiful, but dense red wine."
To bring out the richness of the fruit, Viader says they will keep the wine on its skins for as long as 67 days. "The French would freak out with our PHs., but we get that extra flavor, tannin, body, and color.
It’s a delicious wine, and a new taste. It’s not a textbook wine, but I think there’s a lot of interest in it."
Viader, who has doctorates from both UCBerkeley, and MIT, says that Petit Verdot is not your easiest grape to grow or manage. Her vines are planted at an elevation of 1200 feet, on a 32 percent slope. The spacing is 4 feet by 5 feet. She refers to her 20-year-old vines as her "bonsai" vines, because they yield only 1.25 tons per acre.
"We’re happy when we even get a crop, since with our soil, they really struggle, but that make great wine, " she said.
The wine spends 24 months in new French oak, and is balanced with about 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 3 percent Cabernet Franc.
Viader said Petit Verdot holds up very well, and is an easy wine to age.
Viader’s son, Alan, who grew up at the winery, and is now the vineyard manager, said they do not start tasting the fruit until the end of September. "It’s never really ripe until the end of October, and even into November," he said. "The ultimate test is really in the flavors and the tannins."
His mother agreed. "It’s almost impossible to approach the grape unless you can get at least 14 percent alcohol, or around 25 or 26 brix."
She adds: "Then it comes out with very distinct flavors. It’s very dense, very plumy. One woman said, ‘Oh this is just sinful. This is like liquid chocolate.’ It’s so distinct, something you remember and want to come back to."