Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Tasting Château Pétrus with Christian Moueix

April 2004

 

Few would contest that Château Pétrus, the most famous of all Pomerol wines, is one of the eight greatest of all clarets, the peer of the five official First Growths of the Médoc as well as of Ausone and Cheval-Blanc in Saint-Emilion. It is certainly the rarest of the eight, with a yearly production of only 30,000 or so bottles. It is also the dearest by far: the mature 1982 ( for a description see below) costs around £1400 the bottle while older top vintages like 1964, 1947, and 1945 are infinitely more expensive. As a result, sadly, the only people who can afford to drink them are billionaires and their friends.

 

Which is why I went to great lengths not to miss a vertical tasting of eight vintages of Pétrus hosted in London earlier this year by the Institute of Masters of Wine.

 

Pétrus first came to my attention over 30 years ago when the late Anthony Goldthorp, a wine taster of genius (he was head of O.W. Loeb, in those days the most quirkily brilliant of wine merchants) urged me to keep my eyes open for wines from this exceptional property. By pure chance, a few bottles from various vintages in the fifties and sixties got opened in my presence over the next few years and I was able to form a clear notion of the wine’s very distinct, not to say unique, traits. In due course I had the chance to sample a really old vintage, the 1917. It was served blind. I declared right away that I had no idea of the vintage, only that it was a very old one, but was able to say without hesitation: “this has to be Pétrus!” The deep, glowing colour (that of an aubergine without the bloom), the sweet and voluptuous bouquet, the rich truffly flavour and velvety texture, and the long, weighty finish ensured that the wine was as instantly recognizably as Pétrus as Beethoven’s works are as pieces of music by him.

 

If the 1917 was the oldest Pétrus I have ever tasted, the most complete bottle of the wine that has come my way was the 1964. Served by Christian Moueix himself, in his riverside house near Libourne, it was one of the mere two dozen or so bottles I have sampled in my lifetime that have represented sheer perfection. Deep and lustrous in appearance, richly scented and vibrantly fresh, it was a wine of almost unfathomable complexity.

 

Why do I believe that Pétrus deserves to be rated as a First Growth? It is not just a question of sheer excellence, which is why I personally would not elevate even such superlative clarets as Léoville Las Cases, Cos d’Estournel, and Palmer to that exalted level. All three of them can occasionally achieve perfection; but all lack one quality that marks the true First Growths apart: an utter uniqueness of style, the quality of being wholly inimitable. If a great painting by Rembrand or Vermeer needs no signature, neither does a top vintage of Lafite, Mouton – or Pétrus.

 

Pétrus comes from a mere 10.9 hectares of vineyard on the eastern rim of Pomerol, a short walk from that great Saint-Emilion estate, Cheval Blanc. The two have certain traits in common, even if they are nonetheless very distinct: sumptuousness, smoothness, great homogeneity, exceptional length. The terroir consists of gravel topped by blue clay, with a bed of crasse de fer (clumps of degenerating iron-rich rock). It seems to be the latter which confers a special truffly quality on Pétrus and certain other right bank châteaux.

 

The London tasting was led by Christian Moueix, who did the job with great aplomb and plenty of elegant humour. The grape mix is 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet-Franc but in some years, he said, not a single bunch of the latter goes into the blend. The final assemblage is decided in the course of the frequent tastings that Christian does with the man responsible for vinifying Pétrus, Claude Berrouet. “We begin with pure Merlot, to get the balance right, and only then try blending in some Cabernet-Franc. Only after we judge the blend of fifty or so barrels of Merlot to be right do we start to add any Cabernet-Franc. First one barrel, then two, then three…. Even a half-barrel can make a noticeable difference. The odd thing is that a barrel you might find less good than others can actually result in a better blend – better than other barrels that seem better in their own right.”

As the harvest approaches, the Pétrus team takes to tasting the ripening berries on a daily basis. In recent years they have even started tasting the very pips. The greater or lesser harshness exhibited by the latter can speak volumes about the true state of maturity – or lack of it – of the grapes themselves. Christian Moueix stressed that, once the Merlot is fully ripe, it needs to be picked as quickly as possible, for once it becomes overripe it can start to impart a “farmyardy” character that would be highly inappropriate in so refined a wine as Pétrus. With a meaningful look at Clive Coates, who moderated the tasting, he said that “for some mysterious reason” a myth had grown up to the effect that, at harvest time, the bunches of grapes at Pétrus were only partly destemmed (Clive Coates had in fact stated this in one of his books) “In fact, this only happened in the difficult 1973 and 1974 vintages, decades ago, when the crops were especially big.” Ever since all stems had been removed in their entirety.

 

Following the malolactic fermentation, in which the powerful malic acid is converted into mild lactic acid, the wine is put into oak barrels for further maturation. In most years the barrels are completely new. But in lighter vintages – 1997 is a case of point – they make use of barrels that have already held one vintage. This prior contact between wood and wine “tames” the barrels, reducing their impact on the infant wine, which as a result is less oaky.

 

Christian Moueix reminisced about the great 1998 vintage. “For some reason, everything went absolutely right that year,” he said. This held true, not least, for the crucial harvesting of the grapes. At Pétrus they like to have an unusually large team of pickers so that, once the grapes are fully ripe, they can be harvested as quickly as possible, before there is any danger of overripeness. They were especially keen on this factor in 1998, when all the signs pointed to a very great vintage.

 

Having a lot of pickers on the payroll is, though, a very costly business. The combined wages of the large team at Pétrus came to about £2000-3000 per day. But Christian Moueix would rather have them standing completely idle, despite the daily outlay, than have them picking grapes that are not utterly ripe. On the day that had been chosen for the start of the harvest the fruit was found to be just a little short of full maturity. The weathermen predicted a further five days of perfect sunshine so it was decided that, rather than have the pickers sitting around twiddling their thumbs, the whole crowd would be bussed out to the coast, to the beach at Arcachon, for a picnic.

 

This turned into a truly joyous occasion, Christian recalled, and when the pickers arrived back in Pomerol they were in a cheerful, not to say euphoric, mood. At that very point the weather forecast was revised. Only three days of perfect weather could now be expected, in place of five. The grapes were checked anew and found to be in perfect condition. Picking began immediately. Buoyed up by the picnic, bursting with esprit de corps, the pickers set to with a will, choosing only the most perfect bunches and handling each one with the tenderness normally reserved for new-born infants. The musts were consequently of a perfection rarely seen before or since. “Which just goes to show the importance of the human factor,” said Christian Mouix with a broad smile.

 

In the informal rating system used below, five stars are meant to indicate a Pétrus which is as great as humans can make it.


 

One of the bottles from the fifties that enabled the author “to form a clear notion of the wine’s distinct, not to say, unique, traits”. 1954 was not a great year but low yields and careful wine-making gave a wine with pronounced Pétrus personality.

2000 CHATEAU PETRUS ****(*)

This has the look of a really great Pétrus in infancy: a solid black-purple with glowing crimson highlights. Despite the wine’s vast concentration, the nose, while ample, is at first restrained, even ethereal, and smells of sloes, violets, and blackcurrants. The wine is in its shell but one registers the vast density and power that lurks behind this first wave of scents. The oak is so well integrated as to be nearly unnoticeable. There is a strong truffly element. Very closed on the palate, but weighty, with lots of sinew; very structured. Indeed, the wine has so much power that I am reminded (despite the difference in grape-mix and terroir) of the explosive force of the 2000 Latour.

 

A lot happens to the stony, smoky flavour over the next hour, with an ever-increasing voluminousness. The strongly tannic aftertaste is as dense and bitter as espresso coffee. Then after another thirty minutes there is a rush of delectable ripe sweetness. From Christian’s comments, the wine, it seems, was even more massive a few months ago; but now it is in a “honed-down” phase. It will fill out again over the coming years, to become a spectacularly full-bodied, rich wine with a good 20-30 years’ of improvement thereafter. It will doubtless still be inspiring around 2050.

 

1999 CHATEAU PETRUS ***

In this vintage few Bordeaux châteaux achieved optimal concentration but nearly all well-run properties came up with well balanced, very fruity wines with enormous charm and the capacity to improve for 10-30 years. Like most of its peers, Pétrus is a lovely, polished wine though without the sheer weight and complexity of greatness. The solid black-purple colour shows a slight evolution and the nose is altogether oakier – not because more wood was used but due to the wine’s lighter structure. A hint of eucalyptus (from toasty oak) can be discerned, while the Merlot grape gives a suggestion of carnation.

 

In the mouth, damson, cocoa, prunes, and smoke. As the wine opens up, damson becomes the dominant fruit, with plum also showing. The noble ripe tannins are slightly bitter. After 90 minutes, there is a hint of raspberries on the middle palate. In the meantime, the nose gets more and more balsamic, even a little polleny. Very pure (you know that not a single unripe grape got into the vat). A wine for the medium term: 7-8 years to open then 15-20 of further development.

 

1998 CHATEAU PETRUS *****

A great wine from a great vintage. The darkest so far, the wine has a distinctly blackish look. The splendid nose, slightly exotic, is sweet and ripe and is full of the densest fruit. Today, at least, it seems even weightier than the 2000. Extremely firm and structured, the complex nose suggests damson, brown sugar, molasses, and smoke. The aromas have great nobility.

 

The flavour has both vitality and intensity, suggesting liquorice, truffle, damson, and espresso coffee. There is great sweep on the palate, with a lot of minerality, and a feeling of great dynamism. All the power one could wish for is there but it is understated and subtle. As tightly coiled as a watchspring, this great Pétrus should be left untouched for 15-18 years, with a plateau of perfection following over the next 20 years or more.

 

1995 CHATEAU PETRUS ****(*)

Like all top 1995s, this is in an awkward, closed-up phase, showing aggressive tannins which, despite their force, are of the ripe kind. With a dark, solid but faintly browning colour, it looks just about its age. The nose is big, broad, almost chunky, with very pronounced Merlot character (in fact, the wine seems more Merlot than Pétrus!) A hint of tea, lead pencil, and diesel fume suggests the presence of more Cabernet-Franc than usual. As well as weight, one also registers fleshiness, verging on voluptuousness.

 

The flavour is rich, smoky, and concentrated with a very firm structure. The tannins show on the stony finish, with plenty of dense damson and sloe fruitiness. Liquorice shows too. There is a lovely richness on the palate, with the first suggestion of the truffly quality that usually emerges in time. This quirky mixture of austerity and fleshiness seems to be typical of the best 1995s – witness Latour, Mouton, and Lafite. I would bet on the austerity receding as the years go by. To be forgotten for 8-10 years and drunk over 2015-2040.

 

1990 CHATEAU PETRUS ****

Solid blackish blue-purple colour with slight browning at the rim. The nose, full of black fruits, is strikingly luscious – not unlike Cheval Blanc in style. Black cherries dominate, but there are suggestions of chocolate, prunes, morels, and smoke. This is a superripe nose, combining ripe sweetness with great finesse. All of a piece, it is weighty yet somehow full of lift.

 

The delectable flavour is very Merlot indeed, and is full of damson and black cherry fruit. Silky in texture, it opens up in the glass, with hints of coffee, prunes, and liquorice. Though seductive in style, it needs keeping for a decade or so and should then stay on a peak for at least 15 years.

 

1989 CHATEAU PETRUS ****(*)

The dense blackish colour is like that of a ripe blackberry. The nose – very different from the glossy ’90 – is full, roasted, and with ripe sweetness, suggesting dried figs, molasses, truffle, and bayleaf. There could even be the slightest degree of overripeness. A really massive – but not heavy – aroma of maximum ripeness and weight. It smells burlier and earthier than the ’90, with a slight gaminess. One has the feeling of more “geological” depth here. I can sense the presence of some Cabernet-Franc.

 

There is a gush of lovely rich chocolaty fruit on the palate (especially when re-tasted after two hours) and the wine is much less evolved than the altogether more accessible ’90. Still very young, this assertive, powerful wine needs to be left untouched for a dozen years and should show great profundity over 2020-2040.

 

1982 CHATEAU PETRUS ****

The colour is dark and dense, with the browning of a wine roughly halfway through its life. Here, at last, we have a Pétrus that approaches maturity, with a bouquet – very Merlot – suggestive of dried figs, blackberry jam, truffle, liquorice, and chocolate. This is a warm, round, balsamic aroma, very velvety, full of the ripe sweetness of the totally mature fruit (I am reminded of a mature Chambertin from Rousseau!).

 

The flavour is full of seductive, sweetly ripe fruit and I think of plum jam complete with the fruit’s skins. Chocolate, truffle, and cloves show on the long, viscous finish. Lovely to drink now, the wine nonetheless closes up a little after two hours (the tannins start to show) and there is no hurry to drink up. There should be no sign of decline in less than 15 years from now.

 

1978 CHATEAU PETRUS ***

This fully mature Pétrus has an ageing, 30-year look with a telltale gingery rim. The winking highlights are a light vermilion colour. The nose is soft, smooth, and aromatic, with a degree of delicacy: plum jam, prunes, dried figs, chocolate. Not of maximum concentration, the bouquet has great charm and distinction in an almost Burgundian way.

 

But it is very Pomerol-like on the palate, tasting of prunes, chocolate, and plums. 1978 was not a top vintage, and the tannins are just slightly harsh and crunchy; but the round and spicy nose – which grows truffly in the glass – is a real treat. Not willing to pour out the last half-glass I swallow it. Despite the slight tannic rasp it was utterly delicious. Anybody owning one or more bottles of this lovely – if not complete – wine should enjoy it (or them) over the next half-dozen years.

 

© Frank Ward 2004

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