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Petrus - Figurehead on the Prow nealmartin.jpg

Opening to chapter on Petrus, page 356 of "Pomerol" by Neal Martin

Under the blank enamel sky a chugging Citroën 15 gambols with childlike glee around potholes and puddles. Two gentlemen occupy the front seats, both wrapped in thick woollen herringbone overcoats and paisley scarves, voices raised over the rambunctious engine; their words vaporising as they meet frozen air. The driver is the taller of the two, large in frame with jowly cheeks and heavy eyelids, his waxed black hair flecked with grey and his large hands tucked in his warm camel-skin gloves. His two sons, wrapped in matching duffel coats and navy woollen scarves are perched on the back seat, peering out of the frosted window at the snow-draped vines as if Mother Nature had decorated the landscape with icing sugar.

Pomerol is recovering from a severe cold snap. The first fortnight in February had been relatively warm, but the wind had turned on its heel and a viscous tongue of Siberian air had pushed the mercury as low as -24°C (-11.2°F). The snow had drifted two or three feet deep in places and rendered some lanes impassable. And yet it is not unprecedented and local vignerons take solace in the fact that their vines were dormant and that the talons of this pernicious freeze has sunk its claws into the land before their sensitive buds could be burnt.

"Can we stop here?" requests the passenger by the name of Maurice Malpel, an agronomist visiting from Toulouse. "I would like to take a quick look at the vines. I promise I will not be too long."

"They are the same as last year," quips the father of the two boys at the wheel. If truth be told, he would prefer to remain inside the car and continue their discussion on a promising artist that had recently caught his eye.

"Hold on. I'll pull over here at La Fleur-Pétrus."

The brakes squeal as the Citroën reluctantly skids to a halt and startling silence momentarily floods the car. The father leans around towards his sons and with a single raised finger, orders them to sit quietly ignoring the wails of protest. They have a burning desire to escape the confines of the vehicle, stretch their skinny white legs and run between the rows. Just like the vines, they need to expend their pent-up energy that has accumulated through the winter.

Maurice crouches down on his haunches, extracts a small silver scalpel from his breast pocket and makes an incision into the trunk as deftly as a surgeon cutting open his favourite patient. Meanwhile the father winds down the window and lights a Gauloises, exhales a plume of smoke and surveys the languid rise of the land. In the distance he espies the figure of Marie Robin attired in her black apron, scattering corn for her chickens that cluck around her ankles. Above, on the skeletal branches of a dying elm is perched a solitary crow, envious and ravenous, desperate for his own food after the long harsh winter.

The father conjectures on the forthcoming season and wonders what it will bestow since he has heard idle chatter that 1956 will be an abundant crop like 1955, perchance a "vintage of the century" like 1945. Who knows what tomorrow may bring.

After a couple of minutes Maurice stands up to attention as if a sergeant major has hollered his name. He rolls a cutting between his fingers and scratches his head, a vexed expression on his face. Leaning down towards the driver's window, he stutters as he grapples for the right words. In the end, he comes straight to the point.

"This vine is dead. I am certain."

Maurice is taken aback by the father's incredulous guffaw, the kind reserved for jokes in bad taste, of which this is a prime example. He takes another long drag on his cigarette before speaking in his inimitable low timbre that seems to resonate through the air around him.

"That is impossible, Maurice. I know you are an expert but…."

"It is dead," he interjects. "I am certain. And if this vine is dead, then look around you and fear the worst my friend."

The father's face suddenly becomes stoic and pensive, as if unexpectedly eclipsed by the moon. He looks across the land as far as the eye can see and wonders whether he is looking at a vineyard or a graveyard. Maurice gets back into the passenger seat and irrationally feels like a harbinger of doom, culpable for the fate that has befallen everything within sight. Part of him wishes he had kept his thoughts to himself. What if he is wrong? What a fool he feels. He places a consoling hand on his friend's shoulder.

"You'll know what to do. You always do."

Without a single word, the father turns the ignition and the noise of the engine banishes the silence. For the remaining journey he is laconic and distant, lost in a deep train of thought….

If Pomerol is a galleon crashing through the waves then Petrus is the figurehead carved on its prow. There, on the gallery with one hand on the wheel and an eye to the telescope, stands its "captain" Jean-Pierre Moueix, charting a course towards fame and recognition. Petrus was the catalyst for change and a standard bearer for Pomerol. It's a wine whose ambition and destiny lay far beyond the confines of its appellation, a growth that sought the acclaim previously exclusive to the aristocratic First Growths. Yet achievements would have been impossible if the wine had been anything less than profound and it took two individuals with the vision, tenacity and fortitude to convince the rest of the world that Petrus was a wine like no other. One was Jean-Pierre Mouiex and the other, Mme Edmond Loubat.

Nowadays Petrus is one of the most coveted and expensive wines in the world, the Holy Grail for aficionados, an enigma beyond the financial means and wildest dreams of many. But where did it come from? What was Petrus before fame beckoned? Where does the future lie?

In order to find out, I spent time with its long-time ambassador Christian Moueix at his offices in Libourne and at his home on the banks of the Dordogne. I met his reclusive elder brother Jean-François, de facto the proprietor of Petrus. I met the self-effacing magician Jean-Claude Berrouet, whose vinous midwifery over five decades has given birth to more legendary Pomerols than anyone past or present, and I talked to his son and heir, Olivier Berrouet. I sought to disentangle fact from mystery and apocryphal stories from truth. Perhaps I could fill in missing pieces of the jigsaw? Perhaps I could discover more about this unique wine, because the truth of the matter is there is no Pomerol like Petrus.


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