Vertical Tasting of Chateau Cheval Blanc

Château Cheval Blanc is quite simply one of the most famous wines in the world, the object of desire of collectors, wine lovers and investors everywhere.  And yet this storied property has a relatively recent history:  it was founded in 1832 (and not 1852 as reported elsewhere), when Figeac's then owner Countess Felicité de Carle-Trajet agreed to sell 16.3 hectares of her vineyard to the Ducasse family (and another 15.4 in 1838).  In 1870 Cheval Blanc attained its definitive appearance (with the building of the main chateau and the cellar now completed) and size (37 hectares). And when Henriette Ducasse married Jean Laussac-Fourcaud, Cheval Blanc became and remained a property of the latter family until its sale in 1998 to Bernard Arnault (of LVMH fame) and Albert Frère, ending what had been one of the longest-running single-family Château ownerships in all of Bordeaux.  Curiously, when Albert Laussac-Fourcaud took over in 1893, he switched his family's last name to Fourcaud-Laussac.

It may be argued that Cheval Blanc is many different things to many different people:  a huge status symbol, the source of the world's single greatest red wine ever made (many experts consider the Cheval Blanc 1947 to be just that), a movie star (remember Sideways?), or a beautiful property with a very pretty name.  Above all, it's just a great wine--and a somewhat atypical one for Bordeaux, given its rare blend of as much as two-thirds cabernet franc and one-third merlot (depending on the vintages). Actually, many older vintages also included small percentages of very old-vine malbec and even smaller ones of cabernet sauvignon; these small additions notwithstanding, Cheval Blanc embodies all that is great about Right Bank Bordeaux wines, and Saint-Emilion in particular, in its own highly specific manner. 

In fact, it is very different from most wines of Saint-Emilion, for three reasons.  First, its mainly gravelly-clay terroir (there are in fact three main soil types at Cheval Blanc:  gravel, heavy clay and sand, with specific sub-areas featuring varying mixtures of each, such as sandy-clay over compact blue clay) is situated next to La Conseillante, Pétrus, and Vieux Château Certan, and so it actually has more in common with Pomerol than with the rest of Saint-Emilion.  Indeed, Cheval Blanc is located closer to Pétrus (less than one kilometer away) than to Ausone (five kilometers away), the other very famous Saint-Emilion estate.  Through the years, when strolling aimlessly through Cheval Blanc's vineyards, I have often found myself walking right into plots of  vines belonging to L'Evangile or La Conseillante (estates in Pomerol), vineyards separated from those of Cheval Blanc by nothing more than a little ditch or dirt path. 

Second, Cheval Blanc's blend usually contains by far the highest percentage of cabernet franc of any other major Bordeaux wine (with the possible exception of Château Lafleur in Pomerol).  The cabernet franc gives Cheval Blanc a unique set of exotic aromas and flavors unlike those of other Bordeaux, and allows for truly extraordinary, one-of-a-kind wines that can be remarkably forward when young but still capable of incredible longevity. 

Last but not least, because of its strong cabernet franc content (the vineyard is planted to 58% cabernet franc and 42% merlot), Cheval Blanc is undoubtedly the most elegant Saint-Emilion wine of all, with a refinement that is often mistaken by inexperienced critics and wine lovers, or those simply equipped with wooden palates, for a lack of concentration.  In this respect, it is telling that some of the highest scoring and most acclaimed Cheval Blancs of recent times are those with inordinately high proportions of merlot--a huge mistake, in my opinion.  And even though Cheval Blanc's terroir is also suited to merlot (after all, one might say that VCC and Lafleur-Pétrus are only a stone's throw away, if you'll pardon the pun), and although the wine is excellent even when generously endowed with the latter variety, it seems a shame to me that one of the world's best (if not the best) cabernet franc or mainly cabernet franc wines should be otherwise.

"In reality," explains Kees Van Leeuwen, Cheval Blanc's viticulturalist and winemaker, "our aim at Cheval Blanc is always to produce the best possible wine of the year, without sticking to a given formula.  If that means that in some vintages, such as 1998 or 1999, we find that the final blend is better with more merlot in it, then so be it."  Pierre Lurton, Cheval Blanc's technical director, adds, tongue firmly planted in cheek:  "After all, it's not as if some of our neighbors do poorly with merlot!  Once in a while, the merlot at Cheval Blanc is so amazing that the cabernet franc just has to take a back seat."

Lurton has been in charge at Cheval Blanc since the 1991 vintage ("Talk about starting uphill," he said), following Bernard Grandchamp's one-year reign (he made the excellent 1990) and the long tenure of Jacques Hébrard.   Lurton tells one of the funniest stories in Bordeaux.  When he first applied for the job at Cheval Blanc, the owners at the time, the Laussac-Fourcaud family, were a little perturbed by his family name, Lurton, which is well represented in Bordeaux circles (the extended Lurton family owns more than a couple dozen châteaux, such as Climens, Durfort-Vivens and Brane-Cantenac).  Asked if he might, in order to avoid confusion, perhaps use his mother's family name while working at Cheval Blanc, Lurton suggested that might not be a good idea after all.  Surprised, they asked him why.  "Because my mother's last name is Lafite!" he replied.

The following notes are from a tasting conducted at Château Cheval Blanc in May of this year in the presence of Pierre Lurton and 15 other wine journalists invited from all over the world.  I usually avoid these sort of gatherings (unless the invitees are true professionals, these get-togethers become noisy, completely useless encounters), but this was a thoughtfully organized and well-run tasting for which Pierre Lurton and his staff deserve the highest accolades.  The wines up to the 1990 were decanted two hours ahead, with older wines decanted prior to being served.  For this report I retasted a few wines from my own cellar, and I added a couple of more recent vintages from my own collection that may also be found in the cellars of IWC readers.

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--Ian D'Agata