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Ric arrives at Chateau Petrus

September 25, 2016
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Drive too quickly and you’ll miss this

Petrus. The mere mention of this name immediately conjures excitement, awe, and a sense of the unattainable. Everyone knows Chateau Petrus makes one of the most expensive and most highly sought-after wines in the world, definitely the most expensive of all Bordeaux. Tasting opportunities are rare, unless you have very generous friends who don’t mind popping a bottle for you, or you don’t mind splurging several thousands yourself. A visit to the chateau itself is also difficult to arrange, unless one is properly connected. It was with great anticipation, therefore, that the pieces fell in place for me to enjoy a private visit to this venerated estate on the morning of 19 September 2016.

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For years, I have heard of people scrounging all over the tiny commune of Pomerol in search of Chateau Petrus but being unable to locate it, unless one is sharp enough to spot the crossed-key emblem on a small nondescript building that is otherwise unmarked. Well, all that changed about 4-5 years ago. Now, a sizeable one-storey mansion sits at the site with the famous crossed-keys emblazoned on its forbidding iron gates with the French standard flying high from a tall pole with a “P” at its tip. Okay, it looks a little pompous but when you make the wine that everyone wants, but cannot get enough of, I guess one may enjoy certain bragging rights.

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We were welcomed at the door by its Ambassador Elisabeth Jaubert and, together, we trooped down to the vineyard. Chateau Petrus rests right at the top of a very gentle hill, all 11.5 ha of it, flanked by Ch Gazin, Ch L’Evangile and Vieux Chateau Certain. Unless one actually stands right there, this small but highly significant observation will go unnoticed. As Pomerol is largely flat ground, this gentle mound, therefore, affords additional drainage of water away from the vines, preventing dilution of the grapes.

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Mme. Elisabeth Jaubert

In fact, I hadn’t realised until Elisabeth pointed out that the vines of Petrus are planted in the direction of the slope, which means that on one side, the rows of vines are planted north-south, while on its adjacent plot, they are aligned east-west. This is one little fact that makes the wine of Petrus unique.

Then, of course, there is the soil, which is largely made up of clay. In particular, there is this matter about blue clay, which really has a bluish hue due to a higher ferrous content. It seems blue clay is unique to Bordeaux, particularly over at the Right Bank where Chateau Petrus sits. Blue clay is not visible from the surface, as it lies several feet beneath. However, it seems that at the site of Chateau Petrus, blue clay actually reaches up to within a foot of the soil surface. dsc_8981Blue clay is extremely hard and impermeable, preventing the roots of the vines from penetrating deeply, forcing them instead to spread sideways in search of nutrition. Being impermeable, moisture also tends to remain on surface clay such that the roots of the vines remain relatively dry. To demonstrate this point, Elisabeth picked up a handful of clay which, truly, is moist. When the summer months arrive, this surface moisture prevents the vines from developing heat stress. This unique quality helps to separate Chateau Petrus from the rest when it comes to so-called “off vintages” as its vines are capable of fending off extremes of heat as well as wet conditions. In fact, Elisabeth pointed out that the best value wines of Chateau Petrus come from less vaunted vintages and I certainly can vouch for this, as memories of a glorious 1994 Ch Petrus came to mind (tasted in 2009).

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These factors unique to the terroir contribute to the minerality of the wine as well as high levels of quality tannins in the merlot which, in turn, confers tremendous power and structure to the wine, yet retaining the silkiness of merlot. It is precisely because its merlot offers such optimal qualities that Petrus does not plant anything else, since cabernet is redundant. Nobody really knows when the first vines were planted at Chateau Petrus, but the merlot from American rootstock (after the Phylloxera devastation of the mid 19th century) was planted sometime between 1880-90. Presently, the oldest vines in the estate were planted back in 1952. Vine density is quite low at 7000 per hectare. Like other estates elsewhere, its current merlot hanging from the vines are ripening well but the skins are still chewy and the pips yet to turn sweet, indicating that it is not yet time to harvest.

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These furry ones peer down at the fermentation vats of Ch Petrus

From the vineyard, Elisabeth led us to the chai, which is modest is size since the quantity of wine produced is relatively limited. With harvesting due to happen very soon, the sorting tables, pumps and pipes are all in place. Vinification at Chateau Petrus takes 15 days within its concrete vats. The ripest grapes are extracted first, starting at 14 °C, finally reaching around 28 °C at the end of the process. Prior to this, the vats are lined with tartrate to facilitate the natural environment when the berries are crushed. The wine is aged in 50% new oak for 12-16 months. Before being filled with wine, these barrels are actually steamed with water for 16 days to avoid the need for topping off during elevage. Racking takes place every 3-4 months with fining.

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Not much to go around…only 2500 cases annually

After this, we moved to the chateau’s elegantly decorated tasting room to sample the wine of 2015 which we had just witnessed resting in barrel in the chai, where we were joined by M. Olivier Berrouet, the current winemaker at Chateau Petrus who had taken over from his father Jean Claude since 2008. dsc_9043While both Olivier and Elisabeth are fully aware of soothsayers declaring ever so often “vintage of the century” over and over, they are in agreement that 2015 Ch Petrus is the best wine that Chateau Petrus has ever made. Fragrant aromas of earth, red and dark berries dominate on the nose, quite resplendent, with further notes of ripe raspberries amidst a ferrous trace on the palate where the wine is quite full, displaying great acidity and tannin structure, already very harmonious in its subtle layering and drinking beautifully at this stage, finishing with great persistence. This is truly a wine of great sophistication, power and elegance. Indeed, it is rare to come across a wine already so complete while still in barrel. We stood around in stunned silence as we took in the beauty of this wine, quite the perfect way to start a Monday morning. The folks who work at Chateau Petrus must surely be some of the luckiest people in the world.

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M. Olivier Berrouet; 2015 Ch Petrus brings tears to Dr Ngoi:))

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This has been a most satisfying visit. Contrary to its forbidding veneer, Chateau Petrus turned out to be warm, gracious and very welcoming, and I have certainly come away understanding more about this great estate and its famous product. I must thank Elisabeth and Olivier for their time and generosity, and to FICOFI for making this visit possible. Merci beaucoup!

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