It’s not every day you taste 100% Cabernet Franc. It’s not every day you taste 100% Cabernet Franc from three different soil types. Nor is it every day you do exactly the same with Merlot and with the wines coming from the Premier Grand Cru Classé A St Emilion, Château Cheval Blanc. It is in fact so out of the ordinary that it has actually never before been done outside of the château or by anyone other than the technical team, yet here was Pierre-Olivier Clouet, the château’s Technical Manager since 2008, presenting plot samples alongside finished wines to 75 of the great and the good (and me!) of the wine world’s MWs, student MWs, educators, journalists, importers and merchants.
This new openness is refreshing. Pierre-Olivier explained vineyard and vinification decisions which lead to Cheval Blanc being one of the greatest wines in the world, then gave us the evidence to prove it, without any PR patter, prices or bumptiousness. His down-to-earth, clear and hugely informative presentation was a welcome relief from the usual hype.
Initially we tasted 2012 samples – raw components, or ingredients, of the new wine to be blended, crafted, created at the end of the month. What a privilege to be able to make our very own 2012 albeit with just a fraction of the 44 plot samples the winemaking team will have at their disposal. As soil, (Pierre-Olivier tried very hard, and failed only once, not to use the word terroir) makes such a huge impact on the flavours, the grape variety being an expression of its soil, each plot in the 39 hectares Cheval Blanc farms, is vinified separately. Once fermented, and pre-ageing, the wines are tasted blind. No matter where the grapes originate – whether from the lesser sandy soils or those generally offering more complexity from the gravelly plots or the concentrated more structured grapes from clay soils – whichever are deemed the best in that year will fulfil their rightful destiny and make it into the Grand Vin, otherwise they will find their way into the second wine, Le Petit Cheval or even into the third wine. In this new spirit of glasnost, not only did we taste an expressive, concentrated, fine sample of Cabernet Franc 2012 from a clay soil plot but also one from sandy soils where the wine was not of sufficient quality, showing too many green pepper notes and with unripe tannins. Its final fate will be a less glamorous one.
I would not be inclined to argue with Pierre-Olivier having tasted the 2001 sample of Cabernet Franc, blended from the various plots which went into the Grand Vin, that in his opinion it is ‘the best variety in the world’. It and Merlot are the only two grapes used in Cheval Blanc and the ratio of each is totally dependent on the vintage – there is no set formula. The only rule they work to is to work ‘like monks’, traditionally, toiling in the vineyards: limiting vine vigour in the Cabernet Franc, controlling yields by green harvesting the Merlot. In the winery, they only ever add sulphur, yeast and egg white but there was no suggestion of letting the wine make itself. Why spend a fortune on a truly beautiful new winery if you never actually go there!
Making the perfect wine is more than a lifetime’s work. Pierre-Olivier admitted to not yet having made the perfect blend so the toiling and striving goes on. Already, over the course of fifteen years, they have developed their own Cabernet Franc clone through micro-vinification experimentation. Every vintage they retain 24 bottles of each wine which makes up the blend to assess its development over the years – there are now 6 fewer bottles of 2001 – so the research, decisions and planning continues.
The team at Cheval Blanc makes premium wine selling at stratospheric prices (approximately £900 a bottle for 2010 should you wish to buy a couple of cases!), yet is far from complacent. One feels sure that that perfect blend is within Pierre-Olivier’s grasp, and tasting the 2010, he’s certainly not far away, whether it will ever be 100% Cabernet Franc is anyone’s guess.
Thanks to Yvon Mau for organising such an enlightening (not to mention delicious!) tasting and to Pierre-Olivier for sharing his knowledge and insights with such candour.