The Most and Least Important of Things: Petrus 1897–2011
BY NEAL MARTIN | JULY 21, 2020
What is the place for a retrospective on Petrus in a time of global pandemic and economic hardship? This article has been in suspended animation since January 2019, when London’s Hide restaurant witnessed one of the most unforgettable wine dinners in recent memory. I had eagerly looked forward to this tasting, organized by collector Jordi Orriols-Gil, for weeks, but when the day finally came, I had just learned about my ill health and my head was in a spin. A treasure trove of Petrus was lined up, sommeliers milling around making sure all bottles had been decanted according to instruction, attendees having flown in from far and wide. Yet I sat there taciturn and deep in thought. The tasting suddenly seemed so inconsequential in the scheme of things.
I was not in a drinking mood, and oddly, my self-imposed abstinence lent my tasting notes a sense of perspicuity because you can bet your bottom dollar that any professional critic would not be depositing mouthfuls of these wines into a spittoon. At one point I even turned to my Belgian friend and invited him to finish my 1961 Petrus – surely the first and last time that sentence was ever uttered. In the ensuing weeks, I tried to find the right moment to publish the notes, but I was never in the proper frame of mind. Now, with the world lurching from one crisis to another, I still found myself struggling to justify the article’s presence in a grim landscape. Composing it felt like drawing a smiling sunflower over Botticelli’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno.
But finally, after 18 months, I decided that these rare and precious wines should be written up. First of all, as the only journalist in attendance, I had a duty to formally record a tasting that might never happen again. Secondly, life goes on; you cannot put everything on hold forever. Reliving this evening reminded me how much I miss the socializing, bonhomie and laughter that few of us will take for granted once they return. Maybe it will remind you too. I hope it offers vicarious pleasure and, for those lucky enough to have Petrus in the cellar, an indicator of how those bottles are drinking. Lastly, as banal as it sounds, I could not justify leaving these tasting notes to gather dust indefinitely. The delay meant that by the time I began collating my notes, I had participated in a second dinner in December, and so it was that the most traumatic year of my life was bookended by Petrus verticals, more or less the first and last tastings of 2019. Life turns out funny sometimes. This second tasting took place at Épure restaurant, overlooking Kowloon Bay in Hong Kong, a few days before the first cases of a mysterious new virus were reported in Wuhan, China. The purview did not reach quite as far back in time, though it did include many gems, such as the 1967 Petrus, which, for reasons I shall explain, constitutes a significant wine in my career.
One or two glasses lined up for the Petrus dinner in Hong Kong. This was for the sommeliers to pour the wines – we were located on the outside terrace.
Later I contemplated how I should write it up. Not that I am complaining, but having composed a dozen or so articles on Petrus since 2003, it was a challenge not to repeat myself. If you want to review the history of the estate, click here for a concise timeline. If you want the minutiae, then there is the chapter in my Pomerol book, which I intend to start rewriting in the not-too-distant future.
So, let’s crack on with the wines. As always, this is not a case of genuflecting at the altar and garlanding every vintage with praise. No wine is immune from criticism, Petrus included. One of the enlightening aspects of this tasting is that it represented periods of success and failure. The inclusion of challenging vintages beset by overcast summers and/or rainy harvests gave a clearer picture of Petrus through the years, with all its highs and lows, instead of a “greatest hits” where every wine cruises at 100 points or thereabouts. I broach the wines from youngest to oldest and where possible inform readers of the provenance of bottles.
With regard to the youngest vintages, there is not much to add to what I have written before. The 1998 Petrus, which came directly from UK agents Corney & Barrow, remains a magnificent high point of that decade, perhaps presaging the more powerful style of wines that have marked the 21st century and the advent of global warming. Bottles are beginning to drink now because, unbelievably, this is already 22 years old, though personally, if I owned any myself, I would wait another four or five years. The 2004 Petrus proves it is acceptable to pop the cork on an off vintage with just a few years on the clock because this is an example of a Petrus that quickly reached its plateau and has no inclination to scale the peaks of other, more benevolent vintages. Often these off years provide entry points to those without deep pockets; however, that is no longer applicable to Petrus, where every vintage costs the price of a small used car. Ditto the 2011 Petrus, which I was surprised to find showed a bit of VA on the nose despite this bottle coming direct from the château for the Southwold blind tasting. Going back further in time, the 1995 Petrus, acquired from a Parisian cellar, is drinking beautifully at the moment; it is perhaps not as spectacular as the 1998, though it’s just a couple of steps behind, and it certainly warrants further aging if you are so inclined.
The 1989 and 1990 Petrus were paired at both the London and Hong Kong tastings and, as I have advised before, while they are undeniably monumental wines, the former now demonstrates more vigor and sophistication compared to its more hedonistic counterpart. The 1989 Petrus is a perfect wine that is amazingly consistent bottle to bottle, arguably the litmus test of a true 100-point wine. These two have always overshadowed the 1988 Petrus, which is conservative and correct, an unexciting Pomerol that nevertheless can be seen as a step back in the right direction after a perplexing period during the mid-1980s. Yet again, the 1985 and 1986 Petrus suggest that Petrus had a flat tire in the middle of the decade. While you might forgive the latter, since the growing season favoured the Left Bank, there are no excuses for the former given the splendid performances of Lafleur or La Conseillante, to name but two. In fact, poured side by side, the 1987 Petrus was perhaps the best of these three successive vintages. This was a vintage that I had never tasted before, and despite its leafy nose and oddly Left Bank cedar-tinged palate, I was not the only attendee who found it showed more freshness than the two preceding vintages. The 1982 Petrus came from a very reputable auctioneer in France. It is a very fine Pomerol, though the only occasion when it fulfilled its 100-point promise was a few years ago out of magnum. Both bottles in London and Hong Kong demonstrate that the 1982 is drinking well, but it has always lacked the ethereal precision and sophistication of the 1989 or the 1998. Nor does it have the sheer audacity of the 1982 Lafleur, which I can confirm since a bottle was opened at the Hong Kong tasting – it was only right the two should be compared. The Lafleur is incontrovertibly the better wine and shows more longevity, but since Christian Moueix and Jean-Claude Berrouet made that wine for the ailing Robin sisters, they can still claim to have made the best Pomerol that vintage.
The 1981 Petrus showed just a touch of TCA, although that could not disguise what has always been a rather ordinary Petrus. The last time I drank the 1980 Petrus was from a half-bottle in my shabby flat in South London, which must make it around 16 or 18 years ago. It was a very difficult vintage that was no great shakes, yet lo and behold, the wine was actually pleasant, with its peaty nose and (I suspect) chaptalized but surprisingly fleshy palate. The 1978 Petrus is simple compared to the heights of the following decade, presenting a leafy/mulch-tinged nose but a fine fresh bell pepper palate. Large formats warrant cellaring, whereas bottles should be opened in the not-too-distant future. The 1973 Petrus is another off vintage that can surpass low expectations, and while the example in Hong Kong lacked the charm of one served blind in London in 2016, its simplicity is a virtue, not a handicap. The 1971 Petrus in London was the best of what is now over a dozen bottles tasted, a fabulous Pomerol with an endearing, very complex nose and a thrilling truffle-tinged palate. Bottles are hard to find because Christian Moueix served this wine at his wedding to his many happy guests. As I comment in my note, I very much doubt that I will find another 1971 as good as this one, a wine that attests how supremely well Pomerol performed in an otherwise ordinary year. In London, to my surprise, the 1971 trounced the magnum of 1970 Petrus even though nobody could identify a particular fault with the latter wine; it was just a bottle that was having a bad day. Fortunately, the one in Hong Kong was a knockout: beautifully defined on the nose, delivering fine tannins and seamless texture.
In London we had two bottles of 1969 Petrus, the last vintage from the original vineyard before Jean-Pierre Moueix scythed away just under four hectares of conjoining vines from Gazin. The first bottle was riddled with TCA (boo!), and the second smudged and bucolic, rather ersatz but not undrinkable (meh). The 1967 Petrus, poured in Hong Kong, is a wine that means a great deal personally since a) it was the first Petrus I ever drank at b) my first-ever meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant (the now deceased The Square). In fact, this marked the first time I had drunk the 1967 since that fateful evening. A lot of water has passed under the bridge between these two bottles, and yet the wine itself remains constant: pure and refined on the nose, offering raspberry coulis and truffle, supple tannins, and a fresh, tensile, grippy and slightly saline finish. Maybe it has just begun to fade; nevertheless, it still demonstrates how the appellation bucked the difficult growing season to produce a cluster of oft-overlooked gems. The 1966 Petrus came from the same very reputable French auctioneer as the 1982. Always eclipsed by the 1964, it is nevertheless a fabulous Pomerol that should not be underestimated. This was one of the best bottles I have encountered, presenting an earthy, ash-tinged nose and a palate that showed a little more corpulence than expected given the vintage’s tendency toward a more conservative and austere style. This was a wine that really responded to aeration and just got better and better in the glass. There is little I can add about the 1964 Petrus that I have not said before. This vivacious and flamboyant wine exploited a growing season that favored the earlier-ripening Merlot on the Right rather than the Left. It is the maiden Petrus crafted by wünderkind Jean-Claude Berrouet just weeks after graduating from Bordeaux University, and it ranks among the top Petrus of this era. The only caveat is that it can be inconsistent from bottle to bottle; however, this one, bought from Sotheby’s in the UK, was one of the best examples I have tasted in a long time.
The 1961 Petrus is now extremely hard to find and often faked. This magnum came from Bordeaux négociant Daniel Querre via the château to check authenticity. In 1961, owner Mme Loubat’s health was ailing, though her indomitable spirit never faded. She was confined to her home at Latour-à-Pomerol and consequently, in those pre-consultant days, her handyman had to oversee the picking and the vinification that was hampered by a stuck fermentation. Half a century later this remains an awe-inspiring Pomerol that alluded to a mature Californian Merlot. Mme Loubat never saw the final wine – she passed away in November that year.
Moving back to the 1950s, we enter the final decade when Petrus was owned by the grandiloquent grande dame and distributed by Jean-Pierre Moueix. It is worth remembering that the 1959 Petrus came predominantly from vines that three years earlier had to be cut to a nub in the hope that they would regenerate after the devastating late spring frosts of 1956. This recépagement worked, thereby preserving Petrus’s mature stock of vines, whereas others had to make do with young and immature vines for many years. It is a fantastic wine, and this bottle, which came from a French cellar, exhibited spellbinding precision and clarity. The 1955 Petrus was the last vintage before the spring frosts and one I had not encountered for many years. Again acquired from a cellar in France, this was a little riper and more vivacious than I recall, finishing in a refined style more typical of that growing season. It was a fecund vintage for great Pomerol wines and alongside Trotanoy this represents the pinnacle of the appellation. It puts the 1953 Petrus in the shade. I remember discussing the latter wine with the late John Avery, whose family imported Petrus from the 1940s and whose son, Richard Avery, attended the London tasting. John opined that it was never a great Petrus, and that was borne out by this bottle, bought from Bonhams, whose algae-tinged nose and slightly enervated palate suggest that bottles ought to be consumed sooner rather than later.
Now we enter hallowed territory – the immediate postwar period. Moreover, we have the unique chance to juxtapose two bottles of the 1949 Petrus, one bought from Sotheby’s in the Loubat auction and the other direct from Avery’s private cellar. Interestingly, Richard Avery suggested that the capsule implied this bottle might well have been bottled in Pomerol instead of Bristol. We will never know, since there are no records. It is a remarkable Petrus, and to my surprise I found myself leaning toward the Avery bottle, which was slightly deeper in hue and fine-boned, with haunting balance on the palate. By comparison, the bottle from the Loubat cellar inexplicably never quite took off, and that was shown in sharp relief by the Avery bottle. Next came a vintage that I assumed I would never taste (having missed a golden opportunity to do so when I chose to catch the last train home rather than join Jean-Claude Berrouet and members of Christie’s up in the boardroom for a cheeky 1945 Petrus nightcap). This was bought from a French cellar and served blind as an “extra,” instantly putting every other “extra” in the shade. Deep in color, it conveyed a sense of rusticity that Pomerols of this era often do, not intense or powerful but very pure, offering hints of cough candy on the finish. It had an almost Burgundy-like allure, undeniably rather elegiac, yet utterly profound.
Pre-war vintages of Pomerol from any address are elusive simply because most were consumed a long time ago; they were deemed rustic wines for short-term drinking and made in far more rudimentary conditions than on the Left Bank. The 1928 Petrus predates the involvement of Jean-Pierre Moueix and coincides with a period when Mme Loubat was assiduously buying up shares to acquire complete ownership. Again, this is not a showboating wine bursting with fruit and fireworks. This bottle, bought from a Dutch cellar where most of the production is likely to have been originally sold, did not disguise its age, presenting a pale hue and a diffuse yet ethereal truffle and hickory nose that turned a little medicinal with aeration. The palate was mellow, light by some people’s standards, yet beautifully balanced, with an almost Rhône-like finish. I assumed that would be the final Petrus of the evening – but I was wrong.
The oldest Pomerol that I have ever tasted... possibly. The label was very darkened by the passing of time, so it took a while to obtain sufficient light to show it.
The final bottle is one whose provenance no one could vouch for, but by the same token, nobody could guarantee it was a fake. If it was, then why choose a poor growing season? This was not a château bottling, and if it had been, I would have doubted its veracity, since owners bottled little if any of the production in Pomerol. That would include the Arnaud family, who owned Petrus at this time. The 1897 Petrus – yes, you read that correctly – was bottled by Georges Gurchy, a notable merchant as well as owner of Clos de l’Angelus, which eventually formed the nucleus of the Château Angelus we recognize today. The bottle was unearthed by a member of the Christie’s team, present at this tasting, from the reserves in a German castle. The cork itself seemed commensurate with something that was decades old, given its length, branding and deep saturation. That’s as much as I can tell you. To date, it is the only 19th century Pomerol I have seen. So how did it taste? Again, as one would expect of an ancient wine from an era when Pomerol was designed for early drinking, it was simple, light, clean and drinkable, though leave it 10 minutes exposed to air and I am sure it would oxidize. It was a privilege to taste such a rarity.
So there is Petrus through a time span of 114 years. As always, when assessing an exorbitantly priced and rare wine, I endeavored to report accurately the showings of the bottles without being swayed by the privilege of tasting them or the fact that they could easily pay off my mortgage. It is worth remembering that a majority of them – up to maybe 1982 – would not have been originally sold at the high prices we are now accustomed to. Mme Loubat’s belief in Petrus and then in Jean-Pierre Moueix’s business acumen combined to make sure that it maintained a deserved premium over other Pomerols, but it was only in the 1980s that prices began to escalate. Yet extricating price from entity, what we have here is a marvelous and occasionally profound wine whose magic comes from blue clay soils and brilliant winemakers in the Moueix and Berrouet families. I do feel humbled to have participated in not one but two tastings last year, but my personal experience between them put everything in much-needed perspective. If I may quote from the greatest philosopher of our time, Liverpool football manager Jürgen Klopp, these Petrus tastings were the most important of the least important of things.
(Thanks to Jordi Orriols-Gil for organizing the London tasting, to a friend in Hong Kong for the second leg, and to the sommelier teams at both Hide and Épure restaurants.)
See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest
You Might Also Enjoy
Delivering Where It Counts: Meyney 1971–2017, Neal Martin, July 2020
Uncertain Smile: Bordeaux 2019, Neal Martin, June 2020
Château Siran 1918-2008, Neal Martin, June 2020
Hopes and Dreams: Canon Chaigneau 1998-2019, Neal Martin, May 2020