Thursday, 6 December 2012

Pétrus: a postsript


Back in 1990 I was a customer of Pétrus. I bought 24 bottles of 1989 en primeur, and sold them when the price doubled to £1000 per case, cannily entering the market before the Bordeaux bubble burst; only it never did.  At around the same time I visited the Château. After a short tour, my colleague was asked his birth year, and was either honest or stupid enough to reply “1967”.  A magnum of 1967 was summarily opened. I have drunk 64, 67, 70, 71, 82, 85, 88(twice), 90, 95, but the 67 remains the most memorable. What that says about me, storage, vintage, format and terroir I haven’t fully worked out yet.

Twenty years later I returned to Pétrus, this time by bus. The Domaine had immodestly bolstered its fortifications. Like an Edgware “semi” whose owners think erecting 2 tons of ornamental railings somehow re-configures their house as a palace, the old maison of Pétrus just seemed diminished by its new wrought iron defences. There’s an obvious need to keep unwanted visitors out (somebody from our bus was trying to get through the gates in a tangerine Wolves strip), but you would feel pretty foolish if you’d travelled across the World on a pilgrimage to Bordeaux, only to spend your time viewing the top châteaux off the tarmac. I know this because I was on the road with a group of angry Texans, who up to that point had roamed through the region’s petits châteaux drunk and unimpeded. Exclusion hadn’t figured in their plans, as it hadn’t mine. Since my last visit I’d become an MW and written a few scholarly papers on marketing, Burgundy and terroir. Wine related employment had at long last shoved holiday jobs, platitudes and lies off the bottom of my résumé; yet despite all my attempts to turn this short list of achievements into a persuasive case for entry, I couldn’t get through the gates of Pétrus for a second time. Schmucks like me and the Wolves fan needed to find satisfaction in life’s lesser extravagances, like air-conditioned coaches, on board toilet facilities and window seats.

My psycho-analyst wife told me (in a tone that sounded like a threat) that after divorce, one partner normally does well whilst the other struggles. Pétrus’s fortunes were clearly in the ascendancy, and mine had taken a dive. Once the Belgians had the Domaine to themselves; now the rest of the World was at the party. Pétrus has become a global signifier of good taste, and demonstrating this level of discrimination and discernment was never going to be cheap; too many buyers, and one seller: prices went north, and the wines went West, then East.

Good taste is enduring, built upon myths of perfection and imperishability, whereas the merely fashionable is transient. It’s hard to think of a future in which we’d say of Picasso’s les Demoiselles d’Avignon “It has had its day”. By contrast, the orange-and-blue-check Kenzo trousers I bought as a student had already had their moment when I resuscitated them off the £5 rail. Worn around college they singled me out as a guy with poor dress-sense and short legs. The durability of taste is bound-up with the imperishability of its objects, and the persistence of our desire for them.

Similarly, Bordeaux’s reputation is founded on its long-lived Crus Classés; in fact, a disproportionate part of the wine business seems dedicated to representing and projecting this particular dimension of clarets’ personality. In his excellent book “The Billionaire’s Vinegar”, Benjamin Wallace accuses the fine wine establishment of hubris. In a memorable passage, Wallace reports a Rodenstock tasting where the moderating Michael Broadbent MW dismisses one taster’s scepticism of what turned out to be blends of dud 60s vintages as inexperience with pre-phylloxera clarets. Wallace relentlessly depicts Broadbent as a posh spiv intent on blurring the boundaries between hauteur mercantilism and expertise.

Broadbent sued Random House for deformation and won, though the moratorium on the books publication only applied to the UK. The Rodenstock affair reminded us that wine is mortal. Nineteen forty-seven Cheval Blanc will never be the liquescent equivalent of Seurat’s sublime study of infinite perspective le Port de Gravelines, because wines’ chemistry is fundamentally unstable, and its pleasures perishable, albeit it an interesting way.

Those who have had a dog die on them know it’s a tough call. On the way to the vets you’re looking for those vital signs - a wet nose, a wagging tail, licks - which mean you can turn the car round. Tasting old wines is pretty much the same thing. I have attended confréries when some very old wines have been poured; and I would be honoured if Michael Broadbent chastised me for being “green” in the presence of pre-phylloxera bottles, because I have only ever drunk one: Lafite 1858. Afterwards I wrote of the wine: “We eulogised it; gave it a wake; and were careful not to say it was long-dead”. Just like an old dog kept alive for too long, we urge knackered old wines onwards into ever more decrepit futures. Wallace beat-up Broadbent because he was pompous, but like most of us he just proved fallible when faced with yet more evidence of the mortality of things. Not once in those confrérie tastings did anybody stand up and say this wine is finished, even though we often read it in each other’s eyes. 

One consequence of Pétrus inflation is that I drink less of it. The last bottle I drank was 1988, which was mine; unmistakeably mine as I’d ripped the label and botched its value. Today’s Pétrus owners are a disparate international bunch, often separated from their bonded cases by thousands of miles or on-going court proceedings, so I suspect the trend for less rather than more Pétrus in my life is set to continue. On the radio the other day I listened to a programme about Gaelic dialects dying out. Less than 100,000 speakers, and a language risks terminal decline; on this basis, I just wonder how many people in the future will have drunk enough vintages of Pétrus to pass meaningful judgements upon it. The fate of Pétrus might be like that of pre-phylloxera clarets where all the intellectual property became tied-up with too few people, and we know how that story ended-up. With this in mind, perhaps now is the right time for me to pass my verdict on Pétrus, based upon the limited number of vintages I have tasted, which is, perhaps, more than you. It’s certainly more than those I met outside the Château’s gates in 2009. Consequently, I am dedicating the remainder of this text to the drunken Texans and the Wolves supporter who in his tangerine football strip reminded me of one of those tropical birds cruelly carried away from its familiar habitat by a freak storm.

The first thing to say is that Pétrus is a serious wine; a little melancholic even; and it doesn’t always show well against other top growths – unlike Haut-Brion, say. Instead, it lurks in the shadows, and when every other wine has contributed it’s all to the evening’s merriment, it’s still there, brooding, like Mr Darcy in a glass. I once served the 1988 to friends, together with Vieux Château Certan 98. I’d bought a case of the Vieux Château Certan 98, and just one bottle of the Pétrus. Through the evening, everyone agreed that the Vieux Château Certan was much the better wine, and such great value in comparison; it was joyous, and just seemed to donate every last drop of itself towards the purposes of our pleasure. When all our guests had left, I cleaned up the kitchen, except for a pair of glasses that held a fraction of each wine. The Vieux Château Certan seemed spent (we really couldn’t have asked any more of it), but that damned meniscus of Pétrus, the wine I had underestimated to my cost before, was still smouldering away; resolutely knocking its point home; filling me with doubt.

And what does Pétrus taste of? Like wine; like Bordeaux; like Pomerol, really - though there is a difference. Fundamentally, it’s the same stuff: merlot, oak, plums, silk, and sweetness; the silty-scent of time’s passage; yet the elements appear bonded together into a unique configuration, as if to create a bolder and more robust allotrope of Pomerol; and it’s this statuesque quality that makes Pétrus such an enigma to me. Before the Rodenstock affair I thought all wine was mortal, whilst afterwards I knew it was; except it feels like nobody told the people at Pétrus that the game was up. In Disney’s telling of Cinderella, everything starts reverting back at midnight: the coach becomes a pumpkin again, and the fat mouse is back in his rags; but the slipper carries on, keeping the story alive. The palace ball is a preamble. Patience is rewarded: The Prince gets his princess, just as Mr Darcy turns out to be the good guy; and an hour after our dinner guests had left that night, I quietly admitted to myself, in a dark corner, that the 88 Pétrus was the better wine.

Psychoanalysts, my wife included, will tell you that the best stories don’t so much frustrate desire, as postpone satisfaction. The 67 Petrus I drank in Pomerol was the most compelling wine I have tasted from the Estate, because at 23 years of age it was ready to drink. If you are born in 1967, then the normal wine trade practice is to age yourself by a year, and make your hosts open a 66. But believe me you don’t need to do this at Pétrus , if you ever get in, that is.

Pétrus may stoke the embers of old wine trade tales about wine immortality, but it also slays one particular myth that has been doing the rounds for far too long.  I was always told Bordeaux’s best vineyards have deep roots, which somehow access a hidden trove of deeply buried minerals. The soil at Pétrus is predominantly clay, but incorporated into the clay is smectite, a volcanic mineral, that dramatically changes the soil’s physical and chemical properties. Conditions within damp smectite clays are so anaerobic that new roots struggle to grow, while old roots die. Consequently, the vines struggle to extract water from the soil despite the fact the clay feels wet to the touch. The expansion is so dramatic that after 10mm of rain, the soil self-seals at its surface, so in wet year like 1967, the vines can still be subjected to beneficial levels of water stress. Conversely in dry years, smectite clays shrink, and crack, encouraging water and root penetration, which in turn, maintain a restricted but valuable flow of nutrients and water to the vine. This is terroir, for those who were beginning to see it everywhere they looked.

Pétrus is, then, both icon and iconoclasm. It is the exemplar of terroir, and deserves distinction; but at what cost? For most drinkers the wine has effectively become priceless, and they’ve been out the game for a long time, which is disappointing. We sometimes need to catch a resemblance of a region’s best wines in more affordable bottles, so we can appreciate their qualities better. This inflation in value has made fortunes for some, and ruined the reputations of others, making the English wine trade look like a school for scoundrels at the same time. It was large Pétrus formats that finally exposed Rodenstock’s fraud, when Moueix audited their records and found they hadn’t made Imperials in the 1921 and 1928 vintages; though Rodenstock’s fraud now looks insignificant next to recent revelations of Asian warehouses full of counterfeit bottles. The prospect of spending fortunes on bottles and them not being authentic is very real; not that this will bother everyone. The only time I tried 1982 Pétrus, was after I’d listed it at a smart London hotel restaurant. A woman came into the restaurant alone. She ordered à la carte, and then picked a bottle each of Krug Rosé and Pétrus 82 off the wine list. She took a sip of both wines, paid the bill and left. We were all bemused, until the receptionist worked out that her husband was staying in the hotel that night, but he wasn’t alone, and he wasn’t with her. Ouch!


  1. Brilliant writing. Thanks for having shared your thoughts about a wine that I will likely never taste.

  2. Thanks, Tom. I'm never in a rush to write a tasting note; sometimes they come 3-4 years later. This was the case with Petrus. It was just so intimidating the first time I drank it. Hope you get your chance soon. John