C hâteau Cheval Blanc at first appears to be a typical French estate – beautiful by most people’s standards if quotidian for Bordeaux. But move past the stone house and picturesque pond to find a small, unassuming entrance into what could be described as a large mound of a building with protruding grass and trees. Inside, you’ll find a provincial dining room and kitchen. Keep going, through a few traditional doors, and you’ll enter a futuristic marvel resembling the command center of a spaceship.
This is the 19th-century chateau’s new tasting room – all angles and curves with vibrant lighting, smooth wood and marble surfaces, carefully accented with mementos, maps and historical objects. There, the tank room – like a massive cargo bay – is visible through massive glass doors: 52 Italian concrete vessels are placed in meticulous mirror image of the 52 vineyard parcels, a testament to the chateau’s innovative spirit. Skylights flood the room with natural light, while a central stairwell leading to the barrel room emits the soft fragrance of French oak and fresh wine.
When I visited on a cold February day earlier this year, the 2022 and 2021 vintages were packed into their respective barrels, identifiable by the winemaker’s subtle markings – a mysterious language to the uninitiated. The cellar’s chilly embrace was warmed by anticipation of the wine tasting we’d planned. The 2011 was the first vintage produced in this state-of-the-art facility, and it showed exceptionally well despite the chilly weather. It was a touch too young, but signs of distinction were there: its vibrant acidity lent a backbone, while the typically overripe black-fruit flavor of Merlot was given new life with the freshness of Cabernet Franc.
The director of Cheval Blanc, Arnaud de Laforcade’s passion for the chateau’s legacy was palpable. He directed my attention to the 1980s, still in their prime. The 1995 and 1998 vintages were reaching their plateau, while 2001 and 2004 were showing excellently. 2005 was brimming with youthful exuberance; I considered buying a bottle as I pondered its aging potential. Arnaud steered me toward the 2006, which he said was “developing a beautiful secondary bouquet.” 2010 remained too closed for the time being, but it will blossom into something incredible over the next decade. The 2009 and 2013, while very different, were both approachable in youth. Arnaud’s insights revealed a tapestry of vintages, each with its own narrative and promise.
Château Cheval Blanc bottled its first wines under the Château Figeac name until 1832, when the Saint-Émilion producer received so many accolades that they decided to bottle under their own label. Over the next century, Cheval Blanc became one of the most esteemed winemakers of Bordeaux, and in 1998 it was acquired by Bernard Arnault, the founder and chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Recently, in 2021, Cheval Blanc removed itself from the classification system, a move that some say is emblematic of the chateau’s confidence in its legacy and the unquestionable quality of its wine. Other top chateaux have since followed their lead.
Sprawling over 39 hectares (just over 96 acres) on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, Château Cheval Blanc’s terroir is a medley of unique soils and grape varieties, with the three primary soils being 40% gravel and clay, 40% deep gravel and 20% sandy clay. Some of its vineyards border Pomerol, a stone’s throw from Petrus, where soil types are favorable to Merlot. Closer to the winery, they grow more Cabernet Franc vines. Metal plaques mark those venerable vines that have witnessed a century of harvests. The chateau has a storied legacy of innovative management techniques – in keeping with that, they’ve recently begun planting larger quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon to blend.
Back in the tank room, each parcel of land is represented by a concrete vat, whose wide bases and narrow tops allow for greater extraction and skin contact. This system of subdivision allows producers to have greater control of the final blend and more flexibility in winemaking as each vat facilitates a delicate alchemy. The grapes are allowed to settle in the tanks while fermentation begins. On the second day, the technicians begin the pump-over process, which they perform three times a day, each time reducing the number of pumps to achieve the desired density and extraction. Then the juice rests in contact with the cap at high temperatures, maximizing texture and elegance, before the free-run juice is separated from the grape marc and put into another vat to undergo malolactic fermentation. At last, the wine is transferred into new French oak barrels of various toasting levels for sixteen to eighteen months before the final blending and bottling.
Such meticulous attention to detail is evident in every sip. Indeed, Château Cheval Blanc is a testament to the enduring allure of Bordeaux’s winemaking tradition, artfully blending centuries-old techniques with modern innovation.