The whole is greater than the sum of its parts….
As the saying goes ‘the way to get a small fortune is to start with a large one and buy a vineyard’; the reason being, winemaking, like many art forms, is about perfection – or getting as close to it as possible.
Of course, perfection will always be just around the corner; as Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Technical Director of Chateau Cheval Blanc, put it so well at a Masterclass tasting in early February, conceding that though they had been making wines at this venerable Chateau since 1832 as yet they were not sure they had ever got the Assemblage as good as it could be!
Using cask samples from the new 2012 vintage, Monsieur Clouet provided a brilliant insight into Assemblage, the French term for the process of selecting which barrels are destined, in his case, for the three different wines the Chateau produces. M. Clouet and his team scrutinise samples obsessively (such fun), from the different barrels, grading them in quality. The best will go into the first wine, Chateau Cheval Blanc itself, the next best into the second wine, Le Petit Cheval. These individual barrels contain wines made from the different plots in the vineyard. There are three separate soil types, sandy, gravelly and clayey, planted with two different grape varieties, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. We were invited to taste six samples revealing the noticeably different styles of the Merlot and Cabernet Franc grown on the different soils; the Merlot from the clay and Cabernet Franc from the gravel standing out for me. Of course the Clouet team would have to decipher the best-blended formula from dozens of different examples and though as he explained, the team could spot the differences in the grape varieties at this pre-bottling stage, it was the expression of the soil, which shone like a beacon after several years in bottle. And so their job is not just to select based on the profoundness of the wines on show at the time of tasting but to predict how the wines will evolve with time, to express the Chateau’s philosophy of purity, precision and complexity.
Pierre-Olivier’s conviction that the soil was far more influential and significant to the make up and style of each vintage than the grape variety, was fascinating – you were effectively blending the terroir, the grape variety merely a tool of expression. He explained that how the soil reacts with the water supply is key. Sandy soils perhaps the least complex, were particularly effective in years of high precipitation, due to their excellent drainage. Gravel being a little more retentive, encouraged deep root penetration, high tannins and small concentrated berries with fine aromatics. Clay with its built-in water regulation, eking out just sufficient to optimise the slow berry maturation.
It is an amazing feature and surely one of the most endearing of this and many other of Bordeaux’s top wines is that they do not work to a strict formula. Instead, those cuvees, all tasted blind, which have performed best in the set of conditions offered by the climatic nature of the vintage are chosen and blended for the first wine. For instance 1998 (one of my favourite vintages) includes 65% Merlot, whereas the brilliant 2010, which we were fortunate to try, only includes 42% Merlot; two significantly different wines, both definitely Cheval Blanc!
First flight – 2012 cask samples
2012 Merlot on sand – Perfumed nose, raspberries, intense and kirsch like, intense but focused too, touch grilled and smoky, reminds me of a fine Ribera? Palate is full, creamy with good grip and acidity, long finish.
2012 Merlot on gravel – Quite different – tighter nose, subtle elegance monolithic, fuller more black fruits, tannins greater grip broody, spicy finish.
2012 Merlot on clay – Perfumed again, between the two, floral, this is complex – more layers, a touch more bitter, austerity edginess perhaps again long.
2012 Cabernet Franc on sand – Leafy earthy notes maybe hay, the acidity is more pronounced silky mid-palate much more foursquare; good freshness more masculine.
2012 Cabernet Franc on gravel – Tobacco, lovely nose, this has extra weight really impressive very ripe tannins a beauty.
2012 Cabernet Franc on clay – This is quite dumb with round generous palate, balanced, finishes shorter a smidgen of cedar and soy. Opulent.
Second Flight – 2001 Vintage, single varietals and Final Blends.
2001 Merlot – Mature, brick red rim, beautifully heady nose, figs, soy, cool palate, sweet chocolate edge, hoggish acidity, finishes quite quickly, delicate.
2001 Cabernet Franc – Darker colour here less obviously mature, again the balsamic edge, spicy richer concentration, palate is more serious seductive, delicious palate again finishing quite quickly.
2001 Le Petit Cheval 70% cf 30% m – The colour is a point just on the turn, earthy notes, lots of cherry fruit cake notes, well endowed and balanced palate, tannins almost resolved with an attractive spicy edge on the finish 90/100
2001 Cheval Blanc 36% cf 64% m – The nose is quite heady exotic with Asian spice. Biscuity, really sexy and charming, again fig biscuits, good freshness, the palate has an unctuous, lovely generosity definitely has the benefit of the blend, very silky here. 94/100
Third flight – 2004 & 2010 vintages
2004 Le Petit Cheval 70% m 30% cf – Nicely evolved, medium concentration, an elegant pretty nose, good density and texture expressive, nice balance for me, touch of mint in the jammy finish. Attractive. 89/100
2004 Cheval Blanc 47% m 53% cf – Massive green harvest only 40% in Grand Vin. Deeper, still quite youthful, much more richness and intensity, almost salty soy, with lovely black cherry, the palate has a dense cool fruit fully evolved, no real unresolved tannin, touch of bitter cocoa powder 92/100
2010 Le Petit Cheval 72% m 28% cf – Lovely lifted palate of violets, really fine, rich merlot, polished with good freshness, very long grip powdery tannins. 93/100
2010 Cheval Blanc 42% m 58% cf – Good deep colour, vanilla white chocolate, still very primary, with purity and precise red fruits undulating through. Really beautiful expression of perfumed elegance here; on the nose, coconut, the palate is super polished, creamy dense a real blockbuster but so elegant. The alcohol? This is profound, probably the finest I have ever tasted. Very long 98/100