Thursday, July 7, 2022

Wine Tip: Guenoc and Petit Verdot

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from author John Hailman’s book The Search for Good Wine which will be available for purchase September 2014 from the University of Mississippi Press. This particular chapter was written on July 11, 1991.
imagesWhen U.S. consumers think of red Bordeaux, or “claret” as the English call it, we think of the cabemet sauvignon grape. Most famous Bordeaux like Chateaux Lafite and Mouton rely heavily on cabemet sauvignon.
But Bordeaux are never made unblended. All have merlot, cabemet franc, malbec, or some other «minority” grape in them. Most also have a little of the ancient petit verdot grape, which predates the cabemets by centuries.
The small, tough, nearly black petit verdot (pronounced «put-tee vair-doh”) is hard to grow: In the early falls of Bordeaux it often fails to ripen; in spring it often drops its blossoms at the first cold snap and never develops any grapes at all. It is always the last grape to be picked.
When it does ripen, however, petit verdot makes a deep, dark, aromatic, concentrated, spicy wine, long-lived on the palate and in the bottle. Now, thanks to a handful of pioneering California winemakers, we at last have our own petit verdot. The finest petit verdot in California comes from 100-year-old vines in Lake County, above Napa, planted by actress Lillie Langtry. The site is the huge, 23,000-acre Guenoc Estate which now belongs to Renaissance man Orville Magoon. Guenoc Estate was the last land grant made in Spanish California, and named for a saint of celtic origin.
Winegrower Magoon, a native of Hawaii, now has over 3,000 head of cattle, 800 head of wild boar and 24lakes on the estate in addition to an 80,000 case winery. Lillie Langtry’s victorian mansion has been beautifully restored and is well worth a visit. Magoon’s favorite wine grape is the petit verdot. Both his 1987 and 1988 were deep, concentrated wines with a uniquely pleasing aroma. Most of Magoon’s petit verdot goes into his top red meritage (Bordeaux blend) called Langtry Red.
Try the gold-medal winning 1987, which strongly reminds me (perhaps I’m too suggestible) of petit verdot.
Another admirer of the underdog verdot grape is winemaker Bill Dyer of Sterling, who seems to be able to do no wrong whether he makes chardonnay, cabemet or pinot noir. I tasted three of his special bottlings of petit verdot from the ’80s, each of which is very different. Surprisingly, they tended to be on the ripe side, unlike what the French say about how hard it is to ripen this grape. Dyer’s Sterling petit verdot has complexity, especially in the aroma and the aftertastes, and should be a serious addition to his cabemet blend (as if it needed anything more).
The California wine that reminds me most of French petit verdot is the meritage blend from Napa’s Cain Cellars called “Cain Five,” named for the five classic Bordeaux grapes which compose it: cabemet sauvignon, cabemet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot. As if the name was not enough, to be really sure we get the point, the wine is released each year on May5, the fifth day of the fifth month.
hailman-150x150-1John Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at the University of Mississippi.

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