Vertical Tasting of Domaine de Chevalier Rouge

Domaine de Chevalier is one of the very rare properties in Bordeaux that makes not just one of the world's finest red wines, but one of the greatest whites as well.  Only Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion (significantly located in Pessac-Léognan, just like Domaine de Chevalier) enjoy similar reputations for both their red and white wines.  However, the area of Pessac (where Haut-Brion and La Mission are located) and that of Léognan couldn't be more different from each other, and so are the resulting wines.

Domaine de Chevalier's red wine is not in the rich, fleshy style of the wines of Haut-Brion, and is more subtle and even more mineral than the one made at La Mission Haut-Brion.  But although Domaine de Chevalier rouge rarely displays showy, plump ripe fruit when young, it unfailingly develops into a wine of real breed and finesse--in my view more classic Médoc in style than the two juggernauts of the appellation. 

Domaine de Chevalier is not an ancient estate by Bordeaux standards, dating back only to the 18th century (the property is indicated on a 1763 map).  The fame of its wines is even more recent, beginning at the end of the 19th century.  The estate takes its name from a man called Chivaley, and though it appears he may have been a nobleman, unfortunately little is known about him (chivaley is an old Gascon term for knight, or chevalier in modern French).  By the early 19th century the estate was referred to as Chevalier on the maps, but after a spell in which its wine sales were strong, it fell on hard times.

Enter the Ricard family, with which Domaine de Chevalier was to be closely associated for over a century.  Successful barrel manufacturers from Léognan, and owners of Malartic-Lagravière (bought by Arnaud Ricard in 1850), the Ricards acquired Chevalier in 1865.  Curiously, at that time the property's biggest value lay in agriculture and raising livestock.  It was only with Jean Ricard's arrival at the managing helm that vineyard acreage was increased, but it was under the stewardship of Ricard's son-in-law Gabriel Beaumartin, by all accounts a gifted winemaker, that the modern-day reputation of Domaine de Chevalier's wines was established.  Beaumartin took control of the estate after Ricard's death in 1900, and remained in charge until 1942.  With the help of his estate manager Marcel Doutreloux, both the estate's vineyards and wines were greatly improved. 

Claude Ricard followed in Beaumartin's footsteps in 1948, and he was to be just as important for Domaine de Chevalier.  While one of his main contributions was the less-than-glamorous installment of an extensive system of field drains, many of the estate's greatest wines were also made under his tenure.  In 1983, Ricard sold Domaine de Chevalier to its present owners, the Bernard family of the eponymous distilling company of Cognac, but happily Ricard was retained to train Olivier Bernard, who still runs the estate with class and charm today, aided by estate manager Remi Edange.  Just this year, in fact, Bernard also became the new President of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. 

Situated on the southwest outskirts of Léognan, Domaine de Chevalier is one of the more southerly of the Pessac-Léognan estates; certainly, there is no noteworthy Bordeaux chateau to its south.  Just to the east lies Château de Fieuzal, while Château Latour-Martillac is also relatively close by, near Martillac.  The area is a windy one, and is also plagued by spring frosts and hail: Domaine de Chevalier's crop has often been ravaged by the latter, and a walk through the vineyards reveals the presence of frost protectors.  The estate owns 80 hectares, 45 of which are planted with vines:  this represents a noteworthy increase from the 14 hectares that were originally under vine when Bernard bought the property from Ricard.

Clearly, this means that Domaine de Chevalier's vineyard is not particularly old; average vine age is 25 years and the vines are planted at the modern-day high density of 10,000 per hectare.  Of the 45 hectares under vine, 5 are planted to white varieties, sauvignon blanc and semillon, while the remaining 40 hectares are red grapes--roughly 63% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, 5% petit verdot (planted in 1995) and 2% cabernet franc.  "The petit verdot is like a great press wine, but it doesn't have the flaws of the press wine," said Remi Edange, who likes to use a little in the blend whenever possible for added perfume and spice, "but on its own, it makes for a very dull wine."  The soil at Chevalier is pale grey-white in color, mainly gravel up to a meter deep in places, with patches of clay and ferrous sandstone.  Certainly, the wines can be some of the more minerally of Bordeaux.

Winemaking is classic, with fermentations in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats for up to three weeks at maximum temperatures of 30 to 32 degrees C.  The wine is aged for 18 months in as much as 50% new oak, depending on the vintage.  To improve the quality of the grand vin, there is a second wine called L'Esprit de Chevalier and even a third wine, which is usually sold off in bulk.  In recent years the team has benefited from the involvement of consulting winemaker Stéphane Derenoncourt.

As with many other Bordeaux properties over the centuries, things haven't always run smoothly for Domaine de Chevalier, with some wines perhaps less good than they might have been (particularly in the late 1990s), even in very good vintages.  For example, while the 1978 is a fantastic wine, the 1982 is very disappointing in the context of the vintage.  In some vintages, the wine can seem a little light (natural alcohol levels here are always moderate), while in others Domaine de Chevalier is a classic wine of charm, balance and refinement.  If anything, I find that the wines have gained in flesh and structure during Bernard's tenure, but they have never been turned into ultra-dark, high-pH, vanillin oak bombs, a fate that has befallen many a Pessac-Léognan estate over the last 20 years.

I have always greatly admired the wines of Domaine de Chevalier.  However, given their lack of showy ripe fruit when young, these wines typically require 10 or 12 years of bottle age to show their best.  At Domaine de Chevalier both the red and white wine are usually outstanding; experts argue at length over which is the greater of the two wines.  If only all the wine estates of the world had a similar problem.

I tasted all of the following wines at the domain last spring, from pristine bottles taken from the estate's cellars.

Show all the wiens (sorted by vintage)

-Ian D'Agata