No. 1. No château, no second wine and sometimes no Pétrus:
Visitors to Bordeaux often ask to see the Pétrus château, but they won't find it. There was once a farmhouse on the estate, but that was destroyed about 10 years ago. Drinkers looking for Pétrus’s second wine will also be disappointed; there’s none of that either. Anything that’s not good enough to be used in Pétrus is sold as bulk wine.
There are also certain vintages where Pétrus itself is not produced.
“That gives the wine a great integrity – the fact that they [the producers] actually prefer not to offer it if it’s not good enough," says Adam Brett-Smith, managing director of U.K.-based merchant Corney & Barrow. The last skipped vintage was 1991.
No. 2. The Pétrus "button":
Discussions about Pétrus will inevitably include a mention of the so-called "button," or rise of blue clay, on which the estate's 11.5-hectare (28.4-acre] vineyard is planted.
“The soil is 40-million-year-old blue clay,” explains Pétrus winemaker Olivier Berrouet. "On the surface, the clay is darker because of all the organic material in it. Blue clay contains a lot of reduced iron. The vineyard is at the highest point of the Pomerol appellation, 40 meters above sea level."
No. 3. Burgundian purity:
Pétrus, which produces only about 3,000 bottles a year, is something that people can get a bit obsessed with, says Brett-Smith. He describes it as a high-quality, low-volume Bordeaux that’s doing very well, and says it “typifies a sense of place more than any other wine" in the region.
Bordeaux is about blends, adds Brett-Smith, while Pétrus is about merlot. “It has a Burgundian purity about it, a particular grape in a particular terroir. The wine is a translation of that; it has that specificity.” Although the vineyard was planted with some cabernet franc grapes, the Pétrus vineyard – which is on Bordeaux's right bank in the Pomerol appellation – has been 100 percent merlot since 2011.
No. 4. Domestic demand:
Unlike many other Bordeaux wines in this price range, the market for Pétrus is still significantly domestic. About 35 to 40 percent of production is sold in France, despite the sharp decline in local consumption that has driven other producers into export markets, notably Asia. The main export markets for Pétrus are the United States, the U.K., Germany, Belgium and Hong Kong.
No. 5. The turning point:
Berrouet says one of the key moments for Pétrus was the phylloxera vine-pest crisis, which hit Bordeaux at the end of the 19th century, decimating its vines. As a result, the Pétrus estate was replanted with merlot grapes. “Why exactly they decided to replant with merlot is not clear. What is clear is that it was a very good decision."
No. 6. A Kennedy wine:
Despite the fact that Pétrus’s main market is now domestic, its reputation was made abroad. “Before the Second World War, Pétrus was already gaining a good reputation, but it was after the war that things really took off,” recalls Berrouet. “Madame Edmond Loubat [the then owner] had great confidence in the quality of her wines.” Meanwhile, local wine merchant Jean-Pierre Moueix – who eventually took control of the estate – understood how important overseas distribution would be.
“In France, at that time, a ‘grand vin rouge’ was synonymous with the Médoc,” reports Berrouet. “People didn’t know much about the right bank. So Jean-Pierre, instead of trying to sell the right bank as a kind of second zone of Bordeaux, decided to go directly abroad – to the U.K. and the U.S. – to build a market for Pétrus there. He was very successful.”
In the 1950's and 1960's, the Kennedys became fans. “They were Francophiles and opinion leaders,” says Berrouet, which helped to cement the wine’s popularity.
No. 7. St. Peter:
The Romans gave the button of clay on which the estate's vines now grow the name Petrus, which means stone or rock. (During the summer, the clay dries and becomes as hard as stone.) A form of this word, Peter, is also the new name Jesus gave to Simon, the leader of his apostles, when he declared, "On this rock I will build my church."
When Madame Loubat became the owner of Pétrus in the 1940's, she commissioned a new label for her wine, showing St. Peter holding the keys to Heaven. A few years later, she also commissioned a statue of the saint, which takes pride of place on the estate.
No. 8. What to drink now and how much you’ll need to spend:
Pétrus vintages that are currently drinking well include the “on” vintages of 1975, 1982, 1990 and 1995. The so-called “off” or “lesser” vintages currently ready for enjoyment include 1981, 1992, 1993 and 2002. For Berrouet, the very best “on” one to drink now is 1995; from the "off’s" he recommends the 2002.
Retail prices for good vintages will range between 1,100 and 3,500 euros ($1470–$4670) a bottle. For lesser vintages, that price falls to a comparatively cheap 350 to 500 euros ($470–$670) a bottle. The Pomerol appellation, notes Brett-Smith, is known for its approachability, as well as its sensual quality. In his view, you get both in Pétrus, plus “a profundity, density and structure that mean it lasts a very long time.”
No. 9. Dried by helicopter:
In 1987, the weather was so wet that the vineyard had to be "dried" by helicopter. “It had been a very, very hot summer, and then, during the harvest, it rained non-stop,” recalls Berrouet. "They brought the helicopters out to try and dry the grapes enough to pick them."
No. 10. Tattoo you:
A wine-lover in New York is so enamored of Pétrus that he has its label tattooed on his upper arm. Daniel Sobolevskiy’s tattoo took three weeks to complete. Sobolevskiy, who lives in Brooklyn, said only prize-winning tattoo grand master Alexander Mikhailin could have done the job in such precise detail.