The Right Bank First Growth
Château Cheval Blanc is an icon of Bordeaux, considered to have created some of the region’s greatest ever wines. Robert Parker has called it “one of the most elegant and noble wines in all of Bordeaux”, and many consider it to enjoy the honorary status of the Right Bank First Growth.
However in many ways, there is much to set Cheval Blanc apart from its peers. We were delighted to host Arnaud de Laforcade and Pierre-Oliver Clouet of Cheval Blanc recently to learn more about the Château, their unique approach, and their wines.
The Cheval Blanc Approach
One thing that is especially striking when tasting Cheval Blanc’s range is the variation between vintages. While many Bordeaux producers strive for strict consistency above all else, the approach at Cheval Blanc is different, with a focus on embracing and maximising the best characteristics of each vintage.
Technical Director Pierre-Olivier Clouet explained it thus: “We believe the terroir and climate are the father and mother of our wine; we are just there to help deliver their child”. The result is a diverse range of bottlings, in which each Cheval Blanc is a product of its given year.
Mother Nature and Father Terroir
Clouet believes that their approach ultimately leads to better wines. “We believe we have a responsibility every year to present a version of Cheval Blanc, even if the vintage is challenging.” This compels the team at Cheval to work with each vintage as opposed to struggling against it, accepting with its strengths instead of fighting against its weaknesses to impose a house style. “2013 was a bad vintage, but that doesn’t mean we produced a bad wine; we believe it to be balanced and interesting with a good freshness.” Having tasted the 2013, we have to agree: it was beautifully light and Burgundian in style. Cheval Blanc also believes that it is difficult to predict how a wine will evolve: some lesser vintages have been re-tasted after several years and have performed far better than expected.
Cheval Blanc’s differences can also be attributed to its terroir, which Clouet believes to be one of the most individual in Bordeaux. While the estate is located in St Emilion, it also just a stone’s throw away from the border of Pomerol and encompasses a range of gravelly, clay and sandy soils across its 45 plots of vines. The difference between these different micro-terroirs can be significant; according to Clouet, the differences between plot 12 and 14 are on a similar scale to those between Malconsorts and Romanée-Conti. These variations are sufficient enough for Cheval Blanc to produce 100 bottles a year of single varietal Cabernet Franc and single varietal Merlot from specific plots with different soils. Currently these wines are just for employees, but Clouet acknowledges that Cheval Blanc believes their plots are good enough to withstand being put on sale.
So where does this leave the wines? Pierre-Olivier and Arnaud took us through four different vintages of the Grand Vin to demonstrate how Cheval Blanc’s approach in the winery affects what’s in the glass.
We were also introduced to a handful of vintages of Le Petit Cheval. The team at Cheval Blanc make it clear that Petit Cheval is ‘a Cru, not a brand’. None of the estates’ 45 plots are solely dedicated to Petit Cheval – rather, all of the grapes in any given year for Petit Cheval come from vines that have previously produced the Grand Vin. Some of today’s Petit Cheval is the same quality as past Cheval Blanc. This makes it one of Bordeaux’s most important second wines.
Quinault l’Enclos is a new wine in the Cheval Blanc stable – they acquired the estate in 2008 – but wine of this name was being made at this site in Libourne as early as the 17th century.
Finally, we had a chance to taste the 2014 Petit Cheval Blanc – the first ever release of Cheval Blanc’s ground-breaking dry white. The inaugural vintages were made after consultation with leading white winemakers such as Didier Dagenau, Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, and Domaine Vacheron. We were one of the only merchants to offer this when it was launched with a small number of cases in September 2016.
2011 Quinault l’Enclos
The Quinault l’Enclos comes from a pure terroir of gravelly soils. Impressive balance, soft palate and rich tannins. Rich blackberry and cassis match the vivd red-plum reflections in the glass, laced with a hint of vanilla. Pierre-Olivier calls it “classical and elegant” and we have to agree: especially given the price, this is a rather lovely wine. Check availability online.
2012 Petit Cheval
The 2012 Petit Cheval has the wine’s highest ever proportion of Cabernet Franc. Small dark red berries on the nose with ethereal cherry notes. This is medium-bodied wine that simply mounts and mounts in the glass, with warm hints of vanilla and a sweet eucalyptus note on the finish. Check availability online.
2011 Petit Cheval
The 2011 Petit Cheval is more Merlot driven and noticeably different to its successor. Dark fruit. Intense tightly-woven tannins match the inky ruby colour of this wine. This is impressively backward, with coffee and cinnamon spice emerging with some air in the glass. Monumentally precise for all its richness, this needs at least five more years in bottle. Check availability online.
2013 Cheval Blanc
Production was down by 30% in this vintage with less than 50,000 bottles produced. A tremendous wine by any measure, the 2013 Cheval Blanc sings with aromas of red cherry, almond flowers, acacia, and pine forest. The structure is coherent, light and Burgundian, with abundant chalky tannins. This seems almost Richebourg-esque. Tremendously well balanced, as the wine opens, the forest fruit aromas continue to unfold, with wild strawberry, and delicate candied violets emerging on the protracted, two-minute-long finish. This beautifully structured wine has all the elements in place for a very long life. Check availability online.
2012 Cheval Blanc
Black fruit shoots from the glass, building in waves with sweet black cherry and currant juice. Moreish, if still extremely young, this wine is clearly built for the long haul. Its dense and impenetrable tannins revealing a firm spine of liquorice and tar. There is boundless complexity in the glass, re-surfacing with dark plums and ripe, decadent fruits. As Pierre-Olivier commented, “this is going to be an impressive wine… but you can enjoy it now”. Check availability online.
2011 Cheval Blanc
This was the highlight of the line-up. Pierre-Olivier called it “a classic Cheval Blanc”, adding “if you like the 2011, you like Cheval Blanc… This is the one”. We were universally impressed by its striking palate of black velvety fruits coats and aromas of tar, currants and spice. Wafts of mint and fresh undergrowth pepper the palate, with creamy hints of espresso liqueur on the finish. Terrific. Check availability online.
2006 Cheval Blanc
This was the oldest wine we tasted, but it seemed far younger. Pierre-Olivier quoted his late mentor Denis Durbordieu, saying that “the sign of a great wine is one that tastes very young when it is very old” and the 2006 indeed has a remarkable freshness that belies its eleven years. Expressive and herbal and ever-so-slightly candy-glazed on the nose, there is a good deal of red-cherry and redcurrant spice here, which follows gradually into traces of menthol and moss on the finish. There is scintillating bite and energy in this wine. Check availability online.
2014 Le Petit Cheval Blanc
In creating the Petit Cheval Blanc, the estate’s aim was simple: to create a white Grand Vin. It is not an afterthought, but a carefully planned operation which has had help from some significant names in white wine. Cheval Blanc are so confident in the quality of their white –which had been made for five years before the 2014 was released for general sale – that they are looking to increase their production from the current 4,000 bottles to 30,000. Check availability online.
To buy these wines or find out more about Cheval Blanc, visit our website.