In the world of wine, seven “noble” grapes top all others for quality and desirability.
However, the list of “secondary” grapes seems to grow all the time as more local fruit is used to produce wonderful quaffs that are gaining the attention of oenophiles. There are grapes that historically have been given the name “petit” because of the physical size of the fruit on the vine. Modern winemaking has changed many opinions about the use of such small berries, emphasizing the fact that we live in a golden age of wine.
Petit verdot is one of the blending grapes allowed in the Bordeaux region where cabernet sauvignon and merlot are the reigning “noble grapes.” Petit verdot means “the little green one” in France, where it did not always ripen fully and, in some vintages, does not develop its dark purple color. It often would be added by Bordeaux wine makers to increase tannin, body and spice to a vintage lacking in character, keeping the personality of the chateau consistent.
But verdot has found a home in hotter climates around the world, as well, where the fruit develops jammy, spicy flavors and a long finish. If you think such an obscure grape can become a sensation, carmenere has become the darling of Chile and malbec is an international star in Argentina—both are Bordeaux blending fruit.
Petit manseng is a white grape found in southwestern France and is a well-kept secret that needs to be shared more widely. A remarkable fruit that can be fermented for a dry quaff or a dessert wine, it has wonderful personality in each version. The berries are so small in the bunches that late harvesting of shrunken grapes, with rich sweetness, is possible. The best wines are from the Jurançon region of France, where it is often blended with sauvignon blanc or its big brother, gros manseng. The big surprise is that this Gallic grape has taken the vineyards of Virginia by storm. The wine starts with the fruit and racy acidity of chenin blanc and finishes with the palette-scrubbing ability of sauvignon blanc. Well worth the trip.
Petite sirah was discovered in France by Francois Durif in 1880, when pollen from a syrah vine fertilized the flower of a peloursin noir plant. The cross was soon found to have a high resistance to downy mildew. Today, 90 percent of all petite sirah is grown in California, where it is blended with successfully with zinfandel, as well as bottled individually. Some blends are of the “kitchen sink” variety, mixing together five or more grapes, and are best avoided. Petite sirah, however, is a popular and widely grown varietal, yielding a wide range of taste profiles based on vineyard, age and blend.