Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Vertical Tasting of Château Cheval Blanc

Eight vintages of CHATEAU CHEVAL BLANC were presented in London recently by The Masters of Wine. Pierre Lurton, wine-maker at the estate since 1991, came over specially for the occasion and imparted a number of valuable insights. Needless to say, the wines confirmed the greatness and singularity of this fabled growth.


Cheval-Blanc, with 35,5 hectares of vines, is located at the western end of Saint- Emilion, on the very border of Pomerol. The wine is, in fact, more like a Pomerol in style than a Saint Emilion; but its innate character is so unique that it overrides the characteristics of either commune: it is more Cheval Blanc than anything else.


The terroir, Pierre Lurton says, “is a mosaic of gravel, sand, and clay, with the clay predominating in that part closest to Pétrus.” In hot years, hydraulic stress can stop the ripening of the skins at many estates. “But we don’t have this problem at Cheval Blanc because of the clay.” Clay, of course, retains moisture as well as being naturally cool.


Cheval Blanc is planted with 40% Merlot and a very high 60% Cabernet-Franc. No other right bank estate has so high a proportion of the latter. “A high percentage of Cabernet-Franc is essential to get a great Cheval-Blanc. Increasing the percentage of Merlot” – a variety that gives body and high alcohol – “is the easy way out.


”Hot years favour the Cabernet-Franc while the Merlot is the better performer in cooler years. The Cabernet-Franc, he points out, gives much less juice than the Merlot so in a normal year the actual proportions are about 50-50. They are diligent about picking the Merlot early, being wary of over ripeness and low acidity. “Low acidity is dangerous for the wine!”.


The average age of the vines is a high 45 years, with one plot being close to a century old. In this connection Pierre Lurton alludes to the great frost of 1956, which destroyed vast areas of vines all over Bordeaux. Many old vines survived, because of their deep roots, which explains why such great wines could be made in 1959 and 1961.


But the quality of Cabernet-Franc vines available for replanting was low at that time, and many wines suffered over succeeding years as a result. Cheval-Blanc is currently developing its own high-quality stocks of this variety.


This vivid black-purple wine has a fine, structured nose, still a bit rigid, of black fruits, cinnamon, cigar box, and menthol. The wood’s a bit obtrusive to begin with, faintly resinous, and the overall impression is of austerity, depth, and great tensile strength. As with all top wines the aroma grows apace, soon showing a touch of raspberry. The flavour is firm and austere, with the Merlot imparting maltiness, and the middle palate shows old-vine mellowness before submitting to a very purposeful aftertaste that is mineral and has no loose ends. It goes on and on – and has a long, long way to go. A masterful wine, medium-full, that needs 12-15 years to open and will evolve fascinatingly for another 20.


Deeper in colour, richer and riper on the nose, the ’00 emits gusts of damson with stone, violet, pomegranate, and black cherry. There’s lots of minerality and a faint almondy bitterness. Big and brooding, with an austere side, it’s firmly focused on the distant future, showing a strict discipline that reminds me of the de Vogűė wines in Burgundy.


The voluminous flavour is rich, dense, complex, and full of energy, with a bedrock of concentrated fruit that recalls Latour. The long gritty aftertaste conjures up damson, blackberry, iron filings, and pencil, and is very mineral. Rounder than ’01 (I could imagine snatching a gulp of it even now!), it will nonetheless last longer, showing ever-growing complexity up to mid-century and possibly beyond.


Revisited 90 minutes later: lovely rich, chewy texture, but closed, weighty, mineral, and very firm.


“The 2000 was great both for Merlot and Cabernet-Franc,” comments Pierre Lurton.


As dark, but with a faint brown tinge, this has a firm, slightly evolved aroma of pencil (Cabernet-Franc), sloe, prunes, and camphor. Contact with the air brings additional scents: raspberry, caramel, fig (from the Merlot). There’s an intimation of sumptuousness, of Cheval-Blanc richness.


The flavour fills the mouth with fruit, which has considerable volume and depth. More refined, and more precise, than the ’00, the flavour, if still in bud, goes on forever. As solid as granite and immeasurably rich, it has a long, faintly clayey aftertaste of pronounced minerality. This needs 12 years to open, after which it will evolve beautifully for 25 or so more.


Both colour and nose show some evolution. The Cabernet-Franc dominates on an aroma of damson, coffee, pencil shavings, and blackberry, with many other components in the background. Truffle and damson emerge, and the aroma grows in volume and smoothness, with lots of Cabernet-Franc finesse and grace.


Though the nose is more open than the flavour, the latter pulses with energy and is full of concentrated fruit. The long, gritty aftertaste has plenty of minerality. A full, homogeneous wine, slightly malty, with a masterful finish. There’s less acidity than in the previous wines but it is balanced and will improve steadily over the next 25-30 years.


A deep brown-purple colour with orangey rim, this wine has a soft, round, fleshy scent of orange peel, sweet ripe plum, truffle, fig, and chocolate. And that’s not all: carnation, cigar box, and saffron can also be picked out. There’s an entrancing sweetness, a disciplined voluptuousness, to this nose.


The flavour is sensuous too – ripe berries and truffle – though there’s a sternly mineral aspect to the aftertaste. A smooth, viscous wine, vibrantly fresh despite the extreme ripeness, with a pomegranate and fig finish. Very hedonistic! Approachable now, but will improve over the coming 15 years or so.


This has an evolved, mature look, with noticeable browning. The nose is gorgeous: opulent and expansive, it emits truffle, menthol, pencil, fig, and chocolate – all at once, all in perfect harmony.


The chocolaty flavour is fat and gently clayey, with tannic density without asperity. While very much a hot-vintage wine there is plenty of Cabernet-Franc freshness and lift and the masterful aftertaste has a lot of minerality. One of the great Cheval-Blancs, this dynamic wine still needs a decade to open fully, after which it will evolve brilliantly for another 15 or more years.


This wine – which I have enjoyed with Christian Moueix of Pėtrus in his riverside home – is one of the greatest I have ever drunk. Perfectly balanced, full yet aerial, immensely long and as complex as can be. But the actual sample now in my glass is closed up and uncommunicative. True, the nose is fabulous, hinting at camphor, rose petals, plum jam, carnation, and orange peel; but the flavour is perversely light and a bit mean, even if it breathes an unmistakeable elegance and distinction. Clearly the bottle that has reached me is out of sorts. Others are luckier, to judge from the appropriately rapturous comments being made. As the French say, there are no great wines, only great bottles. Knowing this to be one of the greatest Cheval Blancs of all time, I put five stars within brackets.


1971 CHATEAU CHEVAL BLANC ***** (from a magnum)
The colour is extremely evolved (tasting blind, I might have guessed it to be from the 1950s), with an orange-khaki rim. The nose is entrancing. Smooth, spicy, gently smoky, conjuring up plum jam, truffle, and brown sugar. A gentle aroma, complex and inviting, that gives off tantalising wisps of scents that hover above the glass.


The flavour is round, viscous, and full of sweet, refined fruit, so soft it seems to be weightless yet utterly dominates the palate. Dried fig, prune, and marron glacė intermingle, with orangey acidity giving rigour. Delectable! This would be memorable with a veal cutlet with truffled brown sauce. Or Bresse chicken with morels…Absolutely mature but not in decline: good for another 15 years or so (in magnum anyway).


Six hours later I am on my way home by train. Lunch had consisted of excellent tapas accompanied by a superlative manzanilla sherry. Despite the lapse of time, and the food and drink, Cheval Blanc is still physically with me. A subtle perfume hovers around my lips and nostrils, a ghostly aromatic presence which conjures up truffle, glazed fruits, rare minerals. They are powerful enough to trigger a clear recollection of the bouquet and taste of several of the vintages sampled several hours earlier. A testimony to the discreet power, and unforgettable personality, of one of the world’s greatest wines.


My cellar contains very few bottles of this great claret and none from the very top vintages. There are, though, a few examples of the 1979, purchased many years ago. Those uncorked every two or three years have given only moderate pleasure. I reach for corkscrew and decanter…


The wine has gained considerably over the last two or three years. The colour is dark and glowing, the aroma big, round, and dense. Medium full on the palate, but long, it is full of specifically Cheval Blanc fruit and has a velvety texture. The dish we eat with it raises the wine to a still higher level: corn-fed chicken with a sauce périgeux – cooking juices blended with dry Madeira and flecked with morsels of a black truffle purchased by me, only a few days ago, in a tiny village in the Périgord.


Thus the day that began with Cheval Blanc ended with Cheval Blanc. Few days could have been more well-rounded and complete.


© Frank Ward 2006

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