One of the most celebrated wines of Bordeaux, Pétrus wines are at the very top of most wine drinkers’ wish lists. The Kennedys were vocal fans. Pétrus was served at Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding. Even James Suckling can’t help but describe it as his all-time favourite wine, noting that it “has taken my breath away so many times over my more than 30 years as a wine critic.” Unfortunately for the average afficionado, Pétrus is produced in such small quantities, and is so beloved around the world, that getting one’s hands on a bottle can be a difficult endeavour. Fortunately, Waddington’s Fine Wine auctions consistently offer various vintages of this Bordeaux beauty, helping collectors gain access to this rare wine.
From Table Wine to World’s Best
One of the earliest established vineyards in Pomerol and records date the Pétrus vineyard back to the mid 1750s. The vineyard takes its name from the hill on which it is located, which some say is named either after its early Roman owner, or simply comes from the Latin root word “stone” or “rock.” The famed Pétrus wine label, implemented in the 1940s, features St. Peter (the anglicised form of Pétrus) holding the keys to heaven.
In the 1800s, Pétrus held a reputation for producing quality wines, alongside producers Vieux Chateau Certan and Trotanoy, though all were considered well below the Premier Cru wines of the Left Bank of Bordeaux, and were not officially classified.
When the phylloxera crisis of the late 19th century devastated the entire Bordeaux region, Pétrus’ old vines were ravaged and destroyed. The estate was replanted with Merlot grapes, with a small allotment for Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc has been used sparingly in older Pétrus vintages, added in low quantities perhaps every 3-4 years. Over the decades, the amount of Cabernet Franc vines has dwindled, and by 2011, Merlot has comprised the entirety of the estate’s crops and bottlings. As history would prove, Pétrus’ gamble on Merlot was a sound one.
In 1929, Madame Loubat, the well-connected and savvy owner of Pomerol’s l’Hotel Loubat, became the owner of the Pétrus vineyard. In the 1940s, Madame Loubat enlisted Jean-Pierre Moueix, a local wine merchant, to distribute her wine. The two were convinced that their wine was equal to any other French wines on the market and accordingly raised Pétrus’ prices to match.
Interestingly, Pétrus’ superstar reputation was established abroad rather than at home in France. After the Second World War, the best of French wine was considered to come from the Médoc region, on the Left Bank of Bordeaux. The Right Bank, where Pétrus is grown, was seen as a sort of lesser cousin. Moueix decided to take Pétrus abroad, intuiting that foreign consumers would need less convincing about the merits of one side of a river versus another. Moueix was quickly able to build a market in the United States and the United Kingdom. The wine was served to John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, noted Francophiles, who declared that they loved this special wine. The “who’s who” rushed to try the President’s choice, Pétrus’s reputation had liftoff.
Moueix and his family would consolidate their control of the Pétrus estate by 1969, buying out the remaining heirs of Madame Loubat. They would also expand the vineyard with a strategic addition of five neighbouring hectares. Moueix’s heirs would come to form one of the most important wine management firms (what is known in France as a négociant) as well as adding other vineyards to the family portfolio.
By the 1980s, Pétrus was receiving rave reviews from top wine critics, including Robert Parker and James Suckling, sending the wine stratospheric—with the prices to match. Pétrus, which had been available by the barrel only a few decades earlier, began selling for prices equal to the famous Premier Cru wines.
The Blue Clay Button
Located on a plateau in the eastern portion of Pomerol, Bordeaux, the 11.5-hectare (28.4-acre) Pétrus vineyard is located at the highest point of the Pomerol appellation, some 40 metres above sea level. The vineyard is positioned on a unique rise of iron-rich blue clay. This hill is sometimes referred to as la Boutonnière Pétrus, or Pétrus “button.” This 40-million-year-old blue clay is entirely unique to Pétrus, and does not exist in any other wine-producing region in the world. Indeed, it is even exceptional within Pomerol, with surrounding plots of land containing far less of the special blue clay.
The clay subsoil is so robust that it prevents the roots of the grape vines from penetrating deeper than 60-80 cm into the ground. Vines must instead grow in a shallow, sideways fashion. When blue clay absorbs water, it becomes rock-hard, trapping moisture within. This provides the Petrus vines with access to water during the dry summer months. The resulting fruit contains the highest level of tannins in Pomerol, yet interestingly, these tannins are some of the softest.
Pétrus produces about 30,000 bottles a year. About 35-40% of the annual production is sold domestically, with the remainder sent around the world. Unlike many Bordeaux estates, there is no second, more accessible, wine produced by Pétrus. Any grapes not worthy of the year’s vintage are discretely sold to other vintners. Preserving the integrity of Pétrus wines is of central concern, which means that the producers will skip a vintage if the majority of the grapes are not up to par. The last skipped vintage was 1991.
Characteristics and Style
Famed for its rich, silky texture and arguably the most aromatically complex wine from Pomerol, Suckling refers to Pétrus as a “wonderous wine with soft and velvety tannins and a unique character of dark fruits, black olives, dark chocolate, and earth. It’s a wine that can be amazing straight from the cask as just a baby wine or 50 years later as a mature red.”
Pétrus is an extraordinarily long-lived Merlot, often best 20-30 years after bottling. If opening a younger vintage, it is suggested to decant the wine for 2-4+ hours. Older wines should be decanted only to remove the sediment. Pétrus is best served at cooler temperatures, around 15.5 degrees Celsius.
ABOUT THE AUCTION
We are pleased to offer several lots of Château Pétrus in our upcoming Fine Wine auction.
Our Fine Wine auction will be available online from Monday, September 13 at 9 am ET until Tuesday, September 21 at 6 pm ET.
We are always delighted to answer any questions you may have about current offerings, how to buy, build a collection or consign wine and spirits.