When considering the unofficial lists of “First Growths of the Right Bank” in Bordeaux, Chateau Pétrus must be included. Pétrus is located in the tiny commune of Pomerol on the right bank of the Gironde River. The wines of Pomerol have never been classified, but there is no doubt that Pétrus is in the highest echelon of wines produced there. It is also one of the most expensive wines sold anywhere in the world. While the name of the estate is Chateau Pétrus, there is no grand Chateau on the premises. There is a modest two story house on the property. Perhaps because of that, or perhaps just due to its reputation, the wines are often just referred to as Pétrus. The name is homage to St. Peter whose picture appears on the label.
Pétrus does not have the long history of many of the great Bordeaux wines. Thomas Jefferson most likely never drank it. The estate property was originally owned by the Arnaud family since the mid 1700s. At that time, the estate was 17 acres. The name Pétrus can be found in records dating back to 1837. In 1868 Chateau Pétrus was ranked in quality behind two other Pomerol estates: Vieux Chateau Certan and Chateau Trotanoy, as listed by Cocks and Fèret, one of the leading Bordeaux reference’s of its day. In 1878, Pétrus won a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition. Although its pricing was not yet at First Growth pricing, it was equal to that of the Second Growths and the highest price wine from Pomerol.
In the early 1900s, the Arnaud family offered shares of Pétrus to the public under the Societe Civile du Chateau Pétrus. Mme Edmond Loubat, the owner of Hôtel Loubat, began to buy some of the shares, starting in 1925 until 1949, when she became the sole owner of Pétrus. With the end of World War II, 1945 also brought a sensational vintage to Bordeaux and the right bank in particular. It also brought Jean-Pierre Moueix to the estate.
Moueix owned a nègociant house in the Bordeaux commune of Libourne. In 1945 he acquired the exclusive rights to sell Pétrus. It proved to be a fruitful partnership with Mme. Loubat. Moueix marketed Pétrus worldwide, eventually adding it to the US market. The wine was served at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. It was also a favorite of the Kennedys.
The 1956 vintage was devastating in Bordeaux. A killer winter frost destroyed two-thirds of the vineyards at Pétrus. Any surviving vines were regrafted with new vines. That was also the last year that some of the production was sold off in cask. Selling off by cask and letting the customer (usually a nègociant or distributor, but sometimes a customer) bottle the wine at their leisure was historically often done. As wineries wanted better control over the finished product, this practice was eliminated. Of course, it required more resources to bottle and then store the wines until they were ready for market. Today, almost all wineries bottle their own wine.
Mme. Loubat passed away in 1961, one of the greatest vintages ever for Pétrus. The estate was divided between a niece, Lily-Paul Lacoste-Loubat and nephew Monsieur Lignac, with Mouiex being given a share to serve as a tie breaker (if needed) and to keep his influence for the estate. In 1964 Moueix bought the nephews’ shares. That same year, Jean-Claud Berrouet became the oenologist. In 1969, the estate was expanded when twelve acres were purchased from Chateau Gazin. In 1970, Christian Moueix (Jean-Pierre’s younger son) took control of the operations at Pétrus . Eventually Jean-Pierre Moueix was able to buy Mme Lacoste-Loubat’s shares, leaving him firmly as the sole owner of the company.
Jean-Pierre Moueix died in 2003 and his older son Jean-Francois Moueix was left control of Pétrus. As part of this, he controlled distribution within France. Christian Moueix continues to oversee the vineyard, winemaking, marketing and exports. In 2007, Jean Claude Berrouet retired as the technical director and was replaced by Eric Murisaco. Olivier Berrouet, Jean-Claude’s son, became the new winemaker.
The vineyards at Pétrus have 95% Merlot with 5% Cabernet Franc. Rarely is the Cab Franc used in the blend, however, making Pétrus almost always 100% Merlot. Prior to the 1961 vintage, Cabernet Franc was used more; sometimes as much as 20% of the wine may have been Cabernet Franc. In 2008, another great year for Pétrus, however, 1.5% of the wine was indeed, Cabernet Franc.
Today, there are about 28.5 acres at the estate. The soil is iron rich clay although the later purchased area is a mixture of sand and gravel. The original estate sits on what is called the Pétrus Boutonniere which is a rich clay mound about 40 meters above sea level, the highest point in Pomerol. Typically, Pétrus will be 60% from the original property and 40% from the vineyards acquired in 1969.
The average age of the vines exceeds 45 years. Harvest is done by hand and can usually be completed over the course of two afternoons thereby avoiding the moisture from the morning dew. They have, on occasion, used a helicopter to blow the grapes dry prior to picking Yields are usually just over two tons per acre. Selection is strict starting with green harvesting (cutting off green grapes early in the growing cycle to improve the remaining grapes) in the vineyard. Pétrus was one of the first Bordeaux chateaus to adopt this practice. The grapes are fermented in temperature controlled concrete tanks. The skins are allowed to macerate for 18 to 25 days. Most malolactic fermentation occurs in vats although some may occur in barrel. Blending is done in December before barrel ageing. The wine is then aged in new French Oak barrels for two years. It is clarified with five egg yolks per barrel but is never filtered. Production is at most 2,500 cases per year. No second wine is produced.
The resulting wine is one, which in great vintages, is as good as any wine made anywhere, and certainly deserving of First Growth ranking. Unfortunately, the production is so low, and the demand so high, that the price for this wine has become exorbitant. Even in a lesser vintage, such as 2002, the wine now sells for over $1,000 per bottle. The yet unreleased 2009 sells for $2,500 per bottle and the potentially perfect 2008 is well over $3,000 per bottle. The perfect (according to Robert Parker) 2000 will set you back $4,000 per bottle. Older vintages? Even more expensive. The 1961 is around $6,000 per bottle as is the 1945.
So who is drinking these? Well, certainly there are high rollers around the world who are. A lot of the wine, however, ends up getting sold and resold fueling the secondary and auction markets. This has led to a problem with counterfeits. Some bottles are refilled with lesser wine. Other times, the label is counterfeited and put on a different bottle. If you are going to buy these, make sure you can trust your sources and that you know their sources. Be wary of these in auctions or in vacation hot spots that cater to wealthy tourists.
Pétrus has had its share of fame in Hollywood as well. Apparently, Pétrus was the first choice for the mythical bottle in the movie Sideways. It was rejected by the Moueix family. The 1945 Pétrus also was featured on an episode of the television show Frasier. The point of the show was some bottles are so special they never get opened and that is a shame. So if you are the lucky holder of a bottle, I hope that you find an occasion and enjoy it.
Pétrus is Merlot at its finest. If you ever get the opportunity to try some, consider yourself lucky. You are sampling some of the finest wine possible.