Cheval Blanc, the secret’s in the…
Cheval Blanc. To those unfamiliar with the wines of Bordeaux, it was the fine wine that Miles gloomily drank from a styrofoam cup with a burger in the movie Sideways. To Bordeaux wine afficionados, it’s one of the two wines that stand head and shoulders above the rest in St. Emilion, being designated a Premier Cru Grand Classe (A) wine (the other being Ch. Ausone) in the Classification of St. Emilion in 1955.
Having seen “Sideways” and being something of a wine afficionado (I adore French wines although Premier Cru is a whole new world for me) I was beyond excited to be visiting such an iconic vineyard. The first thing you notice about Bordeaux is how boringly flat it all is, they consider a very slight incline to be a hill and an irrigation ditch is most certainly a river in their eyes. It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?
I wasn’t there for the scenery though, I was there for what was under my feet, for terroir is the most important thing to Cheval Blanc and it’s unique mix of gravel, sand and clay in the vineyards, (which covers 37 hectares) the lack of limestone and the fact that the vineyards are at the limit of the demarcation between St. Emilion and Pomerol is their secret. As Pierre Olivier Clouet, Technical Director, told me over lunch, “there are no secrets in the winemaking, all the secrets are in the ground.”
What does he mean by that exactly? Pierre Olivier wanted to convey the fact that by the time they pick the grapes off the vine, they will already know how the vintage will turn out. Cheval Blanc are firm believers in vineyard management and 80% of the hard work done to produce their wine is done in the vineyards. Be it quantity control, management of maturity, picking when the grapes have reached their maximum potential, winter pruning-which is very important to guard against too much vigor, and protection against disease in amongst the vines.
Many of these steps are taken oftentimes even before the first tiny green berry arrives. Management of maturity is the single most important thing to Cheval Blanc because they are seeking “purity and freshness in the fruit, silkiness in the tannins and aging potential” all of which comes from the fruit, sugar and tannins reaching maturity simultaneously. These are the qualities that allow wines to age well after 10, 15, 20 years or more and “great terroir reaches all 3 maturities at the same time”, according to Pierre Olivier.
So the next step was to to try the wines. I was tasting with Master of Wine Richard Bampfield which made it quite an illuminating experience. Here is a man who knows all about Bordeaux and it was great to hear his views alongside Pierre Olivier’s. The Cheval Blanc ’09 was first up and although young, was already showing quite well. Looking back there is something about the freshness these wines possess but also the wonderful ripe round tannins, the pure fruit and, yes, the silkiness of the wines. Really, once you try these wines, it’s hard to look at other wines the same way again.
A I was there right before the release of the 2010 en primeur, we asked Pierre Olivier how the ’10 compared to the ’09. He said although ’09 was a very good wine, the ’10 was by far the more exceptional wine. He compared the ’09 to the ’98 vintage and the ’10 to the truly stunning ’05 vintage, the ’10 promising to age well with it’s dense, strict yet ripe tannins and acidity that will keep it tasting fresh and young for years to come. The ’09 by contrast was already a fuller, lusher wine,long and rich on the palate, voluptuous even, I kept thinking of Goya’s The Naked Maja to describe the wine, lazily seductive with curves in all the right places.
After the tasting, it was time for lunch. This being Cheval Blanc, the aperitif was Dom Perignon 2002 with some nibbles of caviar on toast…such is the life at a grand French chateau. Following on, we moved into the dining room where we had a very light lunch of scallops to start and fillets of John Dory for the main. The former matched with the ’03 Petit Cheval and the latter with the Cheval Blanc ’00. A word about the Petit Cheval, although it is their second wine, the grapes that go into the making of the wine still receive all the care and attention that the first wine does and come from the same plots as Cheval Blanc. I was a bit surprised to be having fish with a red wine but the John Dory is such a meaty fish that it was able to complement the wine, which allowed it’s full fruit character to come out.
With the cheese course we jumped back a bit in time to Cheval Blanc 1989, while not a truly fabulous year, the wine was still going strong, although we all agreed that this wine was probably at it’s peak now. Tertiary aromas and flavours seeping out of the glass – coffee, leather, aniseed, very complex with the fruit coming out on the attack but then settling in to give way to truffle, tobacco and cedar on the back palate. All the wines had this amazing smooth silkiness to them, they certainly know how to treat their tannins right.
Dessert ended with the ’95 Chateau d’Yquem. Really after that lunch, I could have happily died and gone to heaven. Chateau d’Yquem, another iconic wine of Bordeaux. I have written another post on that which you’ll just have to wait for but let me just say that the wine had rapier like wit and was beautifully balanced between the sugar and acidity, luscious and creamy while still having that late blossoming acidity to wash away the sweet honeyed orange marmalade and nutty notes.
Miles may have been shown despondent drinking his ’61 Cheval Blanc by himself in “Sideways” but I like to think that in a some small way he was still able to savour and appreciate his wine. I know I savoured every moment of my visit.