The jury is hereby ordered to disregard the headline and answer the following question:
If you were going to purchase a ton of wine grapes from California, which varietal do you suppose would set you back the most? Nope, not cabernet sauvignon, whose culty catechumens are willing to spend thousands per bottle; not low-yield viognier, which is unforgiving even in idyllic seasons; not even trendy malbec, which has recently had Argentina crying for Argentina as Left Coast versions win top spots at competitions.
Bailiff, can you read the verdict? It’s Petit Verdot.
Generally used as a blending grape, petit verdot’s saturated color, hefty structure and exotic bouquet—often reminiscent of peach blossoms, violets and lavender—adds immeasurably to Bordeaux-style wines, and a little goes a long way. Typically, less than 3% petit verdot is required to lend a noticeable spice to merlot and floral shades to cabernet sauvignon. Hence, small quantities of the grape are extremely desirable to Meritage masons, and as John Locke pointed out in 1691, ‘The price of any commodity rises or falls by the proportion of the number of buyer and sellers’.
To put this into perspective, in 2008, grape producers in Napa were paid an average of $3,300 per ton for their grapes—(about $2,700 less than it costs to produce them, but that’s a different column). At $2,100, pinot gris pricing was balanced a bit by cabernet sauvignon at $4,700. In 2008, Merlot fell to $2,600, with spot market buyers able to pay as little as $500 for ‘homeless’ fruit at the end of the season. Other Bordeaux varietals like malbec and cabernet franc sold for around $4,400 per ton, while viognier—which you’d guess would be a top-earner based on Locke’s supply and demand maxim, took home a scant $2,700.
By contrast, a ton of petit verdot sold for $5,600.
So a non-farmer might naturally ask, ‘Why don’t wine growers just rip out the pinot gris and plant petit verdot? Of course, it’s because prices fluctuate, and in the five to seven years that it would take for your new grape vines to reach full productivity, trends, tastes and prices would have changed (but Murphy’s Law wouldn’t), so you’d likely find that your petit verdot is worth less than your pinot gris would have fetched had you left well enough alone.
Life’s a bitch, and then you farm.
The fact that petit verdot (a somewhat sissified varietal) is difficult to ripen and tends to go all PMSsy during late-Autumn rain plays into the equation as well, which is why it is now almost extinct in its hometown of Médoc.
New Red In Oh-Hi-Oh
Vinifera Relocation Program? Somehow, some way, petit verdot has found a comfortable landing zone in Ripley, Ohio. Kinkead Ridge—owned by Ron Barrett and managed by partner Nancy Bentley—was first planted to the French ex-pat in 2001. Prior to that, Ron and Nancy had been involved in wine operations in the Pacific Northwest, but they were ready for purpler pastures, and began a nation-wide search for potential new vineyard sites. As a native of Columbus, Ohio, Ron probably got a little syrupy when he discovered that the Ohio River Valley was perfectly suited for the ambitious game plan they had in mind: Planting glamorous grapes from Bordeaux and Rhône while establishing an experimental plot to test even more extrinsic rootstocks and scion woods.
A word on the Ohio River Valley AVA, and a couple of facts you may not know about it (I didn’t): First, it’s the second largest AVA in America, and second, it is the birthplace of American viticulture, having first produced wine in 1823. By the time of the Civil War, Ohio was by far the largest wine producing state in the nation. Its current obscurity is likely because the primary varietals grown there are baco noir, marechal foch, seyval blanc and vidal—hybrids not likely to make anybody’s Top 100 list.
According to Ron, “With few exceptions, these wines match up poorly with suitable vinifera grown on a good site. In the case of red wine, the contrast is stark. With the possible exception of Norton (Cynthiana), I know of no hybrid red varieties which rise above the level of California jug wine in quality.”
Yet Ron and Nancy recognized that the Ohio River Valley’s unglaciated limestone ridges, rife with wild vitis labrusca, could likely as readily support the noble varieties of southern France. Beside petit verdot, they have acreage planted to viognier, rousanne, riesling, cabernet sauvignon, cab franc, syrah, and have taken honors at numerous competitions, winning gold at the Finger Lakes International for 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and the Jefferson Cup for their ’08 Cabernet Franc.
These are worthy laurels to rest on, and indeed, The Kinkead web site indicates that Ron and Nancy are on the cusp of retiring to North Carolina, and includes a for-sale link to the winery. Ron indicates that in specific, he’s looking for an Italian millionaire—and fair warning, Silvio Belusconi is looking for something to do these days—but, should you make a fair enough offer (based on California grape futures), I guarantee you’ll be in the petit verdot business by this time next year.
Kinkead Ridge Petit Verdot, Ohio River Valley, 2008, about $20: Get the 2008 and get it now—only 76 cases were made and 2009 was a total climactic blow-out during which none was produced. (Like dutiful jurors, potential buyers are ordered to ignore this testimony and may not use it in deliberations over the purchase of Kincead).
Technically, the French would call it a monocépage (100% single varietal) and colloquially, le zèbre (an oddball) since I don’t think a single one of them makes—or would consider making—an unadulterated petit verdot. It must be a weather thing, since Kinkead’s offering is a fascinating textural smorgasbord, sweet and savory, dense with brambly blackberry, earthy mushroom, graphite, pipe tobacco and plum. Whether it shows varietal integrity is not in my place to call since I’ve never tried a pure one before; but I can speak to its big tannins, spicy perfume and extracted color. I found it a bit harsh on the finish; alcohol warm (it’s over 15%) and still clinging to new oak woodiness.
If these characteristics fade—as they should with a few more cellar years—and the wine holds its fruit, you’ve got a home run, not only for the winery, but for the AVA.