LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault bought Château Cheval Blanc with Baron Albert Frère in 1998. Fears that the two billionaires would turn the revered wine into a vinified version of the Louis Vuitton bag have not materialised. Instead, it has improved, and is being groomed for perfection with a new 15-million-euro winery.
Those who criticise Bernard Arnault’s stealthy pursuit of Parisian luxury fashion house Hermès, including members of the Hermès family, might want to pay a visit to the new Château Cheval Blanc chais, which has been designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Christian de Portzamparc. The innovative winery is shaped like a double-hulled boat; yet viewed from Cheval Blanc’s vineyards, it looks more like a space ship from a distant galaxy that has been carefully moored next to the chateau. The latter’s elegant honey-coloured building has been the home of one of the Saint-Émilion region’s two premier grand cru classé A wines since this historic classification was introduced in 1955. De Portzamparc’s futuristic edifice does not diminish its majesty. Instead, besides being beautiful in its own right, it seems to highlight the old chateau’s classical sophistication. It’s a bit like the effect the young Jacqueline Roque had on Pablo Picasso’s image when she walked arm in arm with the octogenarian artist. Yet, it is the interior of the chais that should impress the members of the Hermès clan. For beneath the roof of de Portzamparc’s design – which doubles as a garden offering views across the vines to Chateau Pomerol – the most advanced wine-making facilities in Bordeaux are at work. The objective of this major investment is not to turn Cheval Blanc into a Bordelaise Coca-Cola, but to refine and enhance the brand so that it more fully justifies its prices (for instance, 900 euros for a bottle of the 2011 vintage). “Cheval Blanc is a luxury brand like Hermès,” says Pierre Lurton, the chateau’s estate manager, who also oversees Château d’Yquem, Arnault and Frère’s other great wine investment. “The wine’s quality has been constantly improving ever since 1832. The new winery will enable us to boost Cheval Blanc’s consistency and complexity.” The means of bringing about this improvement are primarily 52 new vats, all of them made with a special type of concrete and crafted to an optimal size and shape. The vat room’s ceiling is very high, which enables the grapes to be placed directly inside them. Cheval Blanc’s 37 hectares are divided into 52 plots devoted to cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, and cabernet sauvignon. Compared to the old winery, which had only 20 vats, the new chais has a vat for each plot. That allows the winemakers to cope with variations in the length of time it takes for each grape variety to mature.
“With many more smaller vats, we can deal with the heterogeneous ripening. We can pick small plots in small parcels, then put them in appropriately shaped vats,”
explains Lurton. “If we wish, we can also refrigerate some of the grapes until the others are ready to pick, then ferment them together.” No wonder Lurton is obsessed with making Cheval Blanc perfect. The wine has an illustrious history, and to celebrate the completion of the new chais, a select band of people was invited to taste twenty of its vintages, from 1919 to 2000. We started on Saturday morning, in the old chateau’s beautiful dining room. Yet the beginning was inauspicious. The 1918 had the odour of blocked drains and the colour of old blood. It tasted like a shaving cut. At least that’s how it seemed to me. Down at the other end of the table, some French wine critics were comparing the wine’s odour to “the aroma of the saints”. I began to suspect my nose wasn’t working until the eminently sensible Serena Sutcliffe MW, head of Sotheby’s International Wine Department, who was seated at the middle of the table with Lurton, spoke up. “I am hearing a great deal of nonsense talked about this vintage from the right-hand side of the table,” she said, pointing a patrician hand in the direction of the French. “And a great deal of good sense from the British contingent on my left-hand side.” Being British and on Sutcliffe’s left, I was suitably pleased. I was even happier when I tried the 1938. Pierre Lurton’s own tasting notes for the event, which we were given in an envelope sealed with wax and instructed not to read until we were finished, said, “look at your own notes for the 1938”. All the other wines, including the 1919, received at least a sentence (“Soft and elegant, this is a wine for pleasure” was the misleading 1919 entry) but the ’38 was a linguistic orphan. That was a pity, because I found it had great depth and complexity. Given it was made as the western world prepared for war, I was surprised to discover its optimistic aroma of freshly cut grass. The next vintage to be poured was the 1947, a legendary wine that is on the wish list of every Mainland Chinese billionaire. Some time after the tasting, I discovered that an Imperial (six litres) of Cheval Blanc holds the current world auction record for a single bottle, at US$304,580. That’s about 36 glasses of wine, so the half-glass I had been poured was worth about US$4,000. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time, for I might have been too intimidated to enjoy it. After all, Cheval Blanc is about so much more than money. As Lurton likes to say, “If it was a work of art, Cheval Blanc would be the music of Mozart and Camille Saint-Saëns; its tannins would be like cashmere silk.” For me, the ’47 was an exceptional experience, one to use as a benchmark for all wines in future.Anyone who is serious about wine should taste it, for how can one adequately measure the defects of a lesser wine without having had this celestial spirit in one’s mouth? In the glass, the ’47 has exceptional colour and its aroma is sharp with the scents of alcohol and fruit. There are elements of port about the taste, with accents of spice and chocolate combined with soft tannins. The final notes last on the back of the tongue for what feels like forever, yet without any hint of dryness. The extraordinary part of the ’47’s story is that it was an exceptionally difficult year for making wine. The season was extremely hot, and some chateaux, including Figeac, the estate Cheval Blanc was originally carved from, dumped ice into their wine to keep the fermentation process going. To Lurton, the ’47 Cheval is a miracle. It should have been crippled by heat, acidity and an off-the-charts alcohol content of 14.4 per cent. Yet, somehow, it has survived to become an ageless wine. “All the faults became qualities”, he says. “All the excesses of ’47 were tamed to produce an exceptional wine.” That isn’t to say that everything since 1947 has been an anti-climax. The next 18 vintages proved that. The 1948 vintage is also profound, with bitter chocolate accents and the scent of dried figs. Lurton describes 1949 as having “an incredible balance of fruit, acidity and tannins”, despite the fact it was a year of terrible fires in the southwest.
For me, the wine’s most notable quality was a hint of toasted toffee in its final notes.
The vintage for 1953, the year Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, is a typical Cheval Blanc, complex and dry, with accents of figs, blackcurrant, vanilla and a hint of dried chillies. The strength of these vintages from the first half of the twentieth century began to increase after 1955, when Cheval Blanc received its premier grand cru classé A status. That was largely because the label’s winemakers began to refine the ways in which they mastered Cheval Blanc’s unique composition. Petrus, a distinguished competitor from Bordeaux’s Pomerol appellation, is 97 per cent merlot and three per cent cabernet franc. In contrast, Cheval Blanc is 57 per cent cabernet franc and 40 per cent merlot, with tiny elements of malbec and cabernet sauvignon. For Lurton, the proportions of the wine’s blend are the key to Cheval Blanc’s ascendancy since the Second World War. “The cabernet is like a coating of freshness for the merlot,” he says.
This was apparent during the third phase of the tasting, when we moved through the 1959 (complex flavours of lapsang souchong and eucalyptus), ’61 (a scent of Cognac and taste of gooseberry), ’71 (described by Lurton as a wine of “rare elegance”, it tasted of peaches and orange to me) and ’75 (an intense nose, those cashmere tannins and spice). The fourth phase brought us to the 1978, which currently sells for around US$400 a bottle. The year saw a very late harvest, which is evident in the echoes of vanilla and pistachio, scents usually found when the acidic balance is perfect. A nice wine, yet nowhere near as profound as the ’82 (intense, with supple and thick flavours), ’85 (full of cassis scent in a fat nose) ’88 (the scent of Emmenthal cheese and nutmeg) or ’89 (where liquorice seemed to be the dominant note in a wine that is just reaching maturity). On the home straight, we moved into the 1990s, the decade Arnault took control of Cheval Blanc and began his ascent from a mere millionaire to the untold wealth of the world’s fourth-richest man. Much of Arnault’s fortune has been built on perfecting the DNA of his luxury brands, especially Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton. Everything about the Cheval Blanc tasting was a practical illustration of his belief that a luxury brand must seek ways to become more refined, by combining heritage and innovation. During a break from the tasting, I watched some of the finishing touches being put to the new winery, and I realised that Arnault’s investment in Cheval Blanc has only one purpose. That is to supplant Chateau Lafite as the world’s most honoured wine – especially in China, where most of Bordeaux’s tiny production of premier grand cru classé A (less than two per cent of the appellation’s total output) is now sold. Lurton is well aware that this strategy carries risks. He bemoans what he calls the “crazy prices” that have resulted. He implies he does not envy Lafite’s success in China, which has created a flood of counterfeiting problems. Although he says he does not want to “bite the hand that feeds him”, referring to the new Chinese elite’s appetite for Cheval Blanc, he is unhappy about some of the consequences. “People in China are interested in buying luxury brands, and the great Bordeaux wines are very attractive because they are regarded as such,” he says. “But what concerns me is that we are going towards a mono-market in China. We are betraying the traditional market we worked in, a market of connoisseurs. They are leaving us because of the high prices.” Lurton says he grows “dizzy” when he looks at the gap between generic Bordeaux wine at one euro a bottle and the 900 euro price tag now placed on Cheval Blanc or Château Ausone, the other Saint-Émilion premier grand cru classé A. Yet, as long as China’s economic ascent continues, the price of fine Bordeaux can only rise, especially if the new winery at Cheval Blanc succeeds in making the brand’s exceptional quality even more consistent. The thought made me thirsty, so I returned for the tasting’s final phase.
In 1990, Cheval Blanc produced a wine that Lurton’s tasting notes describe as “an irresistible vintage”, and it’s easy to see that he’s right.
The year is famous for the chocolate, cucumber and pear flavours that seem to swim through the wine like fish flitting through oceanic currents. The ’95 tasted less powerful; it seemed like a much younger wine with enough potential in its hints of mocha, cocoa and dried bananas to become a great vintage in ten years’ time. The 1996 vintage has scents of lemon peel and gooseberry, and a very long-lasting taste of fruit. Meanwhile, the ’98 is much more intense, with tannins that are very expressive without being aggressive, a trait Lurton says will become more common as the new winery pursues greater consistency. Finally the 2000, the wine of the new millennium born in the old. It is a still-frothy blackcurrant confection that will probably be delicious in fifty years’ time, but it needs another decade before it emerges from adolescence. There is only one way for one’s palette to recover after it has climbed the Everest of a twenty-vintage vertical tasting. That’s with vintage champagne. As I sipped mine, I looked again at the new winery, its roof curving in the afternoon sunshine like a wave heading for a distant shore. There is no bling about it, nothing to offend the eye. Instead, it is all about sober harmony and gentle curves. Arnault must be pleased. De Portzamparc’s creation must be just what he wanted: a perfect winery for Cheval Blanc, the Christian Dior of wine. …Read more stories in Quintessentially Asia.