Saint-Emilion is as green and as beautiful as ever. Veraison just began a few days ago. The vines are alive and singing!
On Tuesday I met with Pierre Olivier Clouet, Winemaker at Château Cheval Blanc. Certainly no wine enthusiasts need this clarification, but for all ya’ll newbies out there, don’t confuse the name “Cheval Blanc” for a winery that produces white wine. Cheval Blanc, “white horse” in English, is merely the estate’s label and mascot, if you will. In fact, the estate is strictly focused on making red wine, blended from Cabernet Franc and Merlot. And for the past 50 years Cheval Blanc has widely been considered the Numero Uno in Saint-Emilion. It is after all one of two Premier Grand Cru Classé A (along with Château Ausone). Furthermore, the estate belongs to the Bordeaux “Big 8”.
Château Cheval Blanc was founded in 1832 by Fourcard Laussac. The estate is located just inside the border of Saint-Emilion, next to the Pomerol estates Château L’Évangile and Pétrus. The estate manages 37 hectares of vines, broken down into 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Merlot. The average age of the vines is 45 years; however the range is from 1 year to 90 years old. The current owners, since 1998, are Albert Frère and Bernard Arnault, President of LVMH. The same year Pierre Lurton jumped on as General Director. Mr. Lurton also directs the operations at Château d’Yquem, Château La Tour de Pin, and Château Quinault.
Pierre Olivier began my tour of Cheval Blanc with a stroll through the vineyards, discussing the importance of the estate’s terroir. This is the most distinguishing factor of Cheval Blanc. The absence of limestone in the soil and the comparatively high blend of Cabernet Franc make Cheval Blanc very unique, among its Saint-Emilion brethren. The vineyard is separated into three distinct soil types. 40% of the parcels are composed of sandy gravel. Another 40% of the parcels are composed of sandy clay on the top layer with a compact blue clay just underneath. Finally, 20% of the parcels are made up of sandy soil. All throughout the vineyard, there is an equal distribution of plantings of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, which provides for more complexity and flexibility in the wine making.
Pierre Olivier noted that at Cheval Blanc 80% of the resulting wine is a direct product of the terroir. The aim of the oenologist is to simply let the grapes do there job. Pierre Olivier broke down Cheval Blanc’s winemaking philosophy into three major focuses. First, in the vineyard the yields must be kept low, at around 35 hectoliters per hectare. The vines must be carefully scrutinized and tended to and not over nourished with fertilizers. This, along with the annual green harvest, is paramount in guaranteeing low yields at harvest. Second, the careful management of grape ripening is crucial. Cheval Blanc aims to produce an Old World style wine that is fresh and with a marked, yet balanced acidity. To achieve this the estate harvests its grapes when they are fresh, not when they are over ripe. Furthermore, a nice, healthy canopy must be maintained to ensure that the grapes are not overexposed to the sun. Third, the health of the vines is tantamount. Any type of rot must be avoided at all costs and during any given year, on average 35 of 37 hectares will be harvested. Approximately 2 hectares will be replanted each year, replacing over-aged vines with new vines.
Regarding vinification, Pierre Olivier went into detail on Cheval Blanc’s practices and philosophy. He noted up front that there is nothing unique about wine making at Cheval Blanc and reiterated that the real magic happens in the vineyard. Nonetheless, winemaking certainly is taken very seriously at Cheval Blanc. There is no pre-fermentation maceration. After a 3-stage sorting process, the approximately 4-week fermentation and maceration begins. The estate uses both concrete and stainless steel vats. Pierre Olivier likes the cement vats because they are porous, allowing for the wine to breathe ever so slightly. Furthermore, the natural temperature change is more subtle than with stainless steel. Although it’s not a perfect science the Cabernet Franc is preferred for the concrete vats and the Merlot, for the stainless steel vats. The Merlot goes through one initial déléstage, and both the Cabernet Franc and the Merlot receive 3 pump overs per day with a progressively lower volume of wine pumped over each day. As the alcohol level increases, the extraction grows harsher. Avoiding the unwanted extraction of the pips becomes more and more critical. Thus the amount of pump over drops as the alcohol level increases throughout the initial stage of fermentation/maceration. Following the maceration, the malolactic fermentation is carried out in the vat and upon completion the free run wine is transferred to 100% new oak barrels (80-100% for the second label). The pressed wine is separated and most likely will not find its way into a first or second label barrel. The wine is aged for 17 to 18 months in oak (10 to 12 months for the second label). During the first 6 months each individual parcel (and varietal) ages separately. After 6 months the wine is blended and left to age for approximately one more year in oak.
Toward the end of the visit I asked Pierre Olivier about his entry into the wine industry. He completed a degree in agricultural engineering in Normandy and then transferred to Bordeaux to complete a degree in oenology. He began working at Cheval Blanc in 2006 and also oversees the winemaking at La Tour du Pin and Quinault. I asked Pierre Olivier if he had any favorite vintages and he responded that 1990, 1998 and 2001 are for him the most representative of the quality that Cheval Blanc can achieve. Regarding the 2008 vintage, Pierre Olvier compared it to 2001, characterizing the 2008 as ripe, fresh, and structured. Then I asked Pierre Olivier to reflect a little bit more on the recent top vintages at Cheval Blanc. He explained that what makes a great vintage is two fold. A great year is dry and temperate (not too hot, not too cold), like the 2005 for example. A bad year, in relative terms of course, is hot and humid, like 2003 for example. Despite the overall consensus regarding the high quality of the 2003 in the Left Bank (and for many in the Right Bank as well), Pierre Olivier considers that the heat and humidity over ripened the grapes. As a result the wine did not reach the ideal level of acidity.
Regarding future endeavors, everyone get ready! Château Cheval Blanc is constructing a brand new winery, just behind their current facility. Pierre Olvier did not go into much detail, other than to confirm that 2011 is the first vintage destined to be vinified and bottled at the new facility. I’m really curious to see what changes will be made, especially after visiting Chateau Cos d’Estournel’s brand new state-of-the-art winery. Again Pierre Olivier did not confirm anything but I’m assuming that Cheval Blanc will stick with the blend of concrete and stainless steel vats. Then again, Cos d’Estournel vinified in a combination of concrete and stainless steel vats before going 100% stainless steel with their new winery.
Here’s what Pierre Olivier and I tasted after the visit …
2008 Le Petit Cheval
Tasting Notes: Blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc. A rich and robust nose, showing notes of fresh black fruit, chocolate, and minerality. This wine is big with a rich palate, balanced acidity and strong tannins that make this wine’s texture a little course in its young age. There are flavors of dark chocolate and fresh black fruits.
Rating: 14-15/20 (WS 87-90)
2008 Château Cheval Blanc
Tasting Notes: (in barrel) Blend of 50% Cabernet Franc and 50% Merlot. A rich nose with nice minerality and notes of menthol, red and black fruits, cherries, and spice. Less acidic than Le Petit Cheval but well balanced, showing bitter yet sweet tannins and flavors of red fruits. A little astringent on the finish. Plenty of aging potential.
Rating: 15-16/20 (WS 92-95)
2001 Château Cheval Blanc
Tasting Notes: Blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc. Amazing complexity and expression on the nose showing a lively richness and fleshy undertone. What a great bouquet of earth, game, musk, and truffles and sweet aromas of cassis and raspberries. An unforgettable velvety and silky texture on the attack with supple tannins, a full body, great acidity, great freshness and dynamic flavors of plums, black berries, cedar and leather.
Rating: 18/20 (WS 92)
Price: $210 USD, current auction price @ Wine Spectator