Inspired by Stephen Colbert and his genius “Better Know a District” segment, I’m kicking off an occasional feature profiling some lesser-known grapes. Nothing against Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and the other big celebs of the wine world, but there are thousands of other varieties out there. Many of them deserve to remain bit players, but some of them are unfairly kept out of the spotlight, marginalized because they offer unusual flavors, or they’re produced in tiny quantities, or even because their names are too hard to pronounce.
A great place to start is Bordeaux, where the red wines are a blend of up to five permitted grape varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the stars of this classic wine region, while Cabernet Franc and Malbec usually play supporting roles. Waiting in the wings is Petit Verdot. (It’s pronounced Vair-DOH). The grape has dark, thick skins, which add color and tannin to the Bordeaux blend. It also adds spiciness and and a firm intensity to the wine. The downside of Petit Verdot is that it ripens late in the harvest season, which, in temperate Bordeaux, means that in some years it doesn’t really ripen at all.
Some intrepid producers in warmer regions are trying their hands at making wines starring Petit Verdot, like this 2006 Deen De Bortoli Vat 4 ($13.99) from South Eastern Australia. I can see the potential here. There’s some good spice on the nose — cloves and nutmeg — and the firm tannins made it a decent match for the skirt steak I served it with. But the wine spent 12 months aging in American oak, and the wood clouds the taste of the fruit, like a film of dirt on a glass window. Petit Verdot sometimes has a hard, rubbery character that reminds me of a pencil eraser, a quality that’s in full effect here. In theory I support the idea of a predominantly Petit Verdot wine, but in this case I’m not loving the execution. Back to the drawing board on this one, guys — I promise that the next BKaG will feature a wine I actually like.