The Epicurean's Atlas: Cheval Blanc 1947
Region: Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux | Variety: Merlot, Cabernet Franc
“When a bottle has become part of the mythology of a region, it can be hard to remember that it was born from a harvest just like any other wine”
E mmanuel Despujol, owner of Château Nenin in Pomerol until 1973, was known for declaring, with a good-humoured shrug: “There’s no point in fighting the Cheval Blanc 1947. It’s by far the best of all.”
The reality is that 1947 Cheval Blanc would never be put in the bottle today. It breaks all the winemaking rules, and yet it has survived – excelled – for more than 75 years. How do you explain the brilliance of a dry red wine that clocks in at almost 15% in alcohol, with more than 1g of volatile acidity and 3.5g of residual sugar per litre? How did the cellar team wrestle with all that abundance at a time when there was no temperature control to tame it? And how is there such concentration in a wine from a vintage that was so abundant that yields were 75 hectolitres per hectare, easily double the yearly volume the estate makes today and way higher than is allowed in Saint-Émilion’s winemaking rules?
The clock is ticking to find out for yourself. There are vanishingly few verified bottles left in the world and only 16 left at the Château itself. None are ever likely to leave.
When a bottle has become part of the mythology of a region in the way that Cheval Blanc 1947 has done, it can be hard to remember that, once upon a time, it was born from a harvest just like any other wine. Or not exactly like any other, as Saint-Émilion in 1947 was still recovering from the deprivations of the war years, when the town had been occupied by Nazi soldiers who arrived in 1940, with the officers mainly stationed in Saint-Émilion and the troops in the neighbouring town of Libourne.
In the 1940s, Cheval Blanc – which lies on the Saint-Émilion/Pomerol border almost exactly between the main church of Saint-Émilion and the quays of Libourne – was owned by the Fourcaud-Laussac family, as it had been since the mid-19th century. Its vines covered almost exactly the same footprint as they do today, planted even then in narrow rows. As the earliest adopters on the Bordeaux Right Bank of extensive drainage to ensure regular water supply to the vines, the quality of the vineyard and its exceptional gravel soils would have helped the vines weather the political storm of the war years but, even so, by 1947 there would have been missing vines among the rows, with very little money to replace them.
The real secret was in the cellar. Jacques Fourcaud-Laussac (who had no children and who gave himself “body and soul” to Cheval, as Thierry Manoncourt, owner of Château Figeac, described him), welcomed Gaston Vaissière as Cellar Master in 1943. Vaissière would eventually stay at Cheval Blanc for 44 years, until 1986. By his fifth vintage in 1947, he would have been an expert in using intuition, improvisation and common sense to navigate the difficult 1940s.
In many ways, the deprivations of war were more acute in the years following the Allied victory. Bottles, labels and corks would have been hard to come by. Oak barrels were almost impossible to find and the young 1947 would have been aged in barrels from the pre-war years, almost certainly up to 10 years old, repaired as best they could by Gaston himself. The iron hoops that held them together were changed more often than the barrel staves, hoping to keep any rust at bay.
To add to the challenge, the 1947 vintage was abnormally hot and dry. Harvest began on 15 September, two weeks ahead of the usual schedule, and finished on 4 October, all under a “torrid sun” as Madame Fourcaud-Laussac wrote in her memoirs. To manage the high sugar levels, Gaston threw ice cubes into the vats – when he was able to get hold of them, as they were a precious commodity that year, with local fishmongers competing with winemakers for a supply.
As the grapes – many of which had shrivelled under the heat – were taken by ox-driven carts from the vineyard to the cellar, many people feared the vintage would be a disaster. Yet within a few months, it was understood to be something exceptional and rare – if an insider’s secret, because the economy was so wrecked that there were no buyers lining up to discover the beauty that had been captured in this magical corner of Saint-Émilion.
“The 1947 was a vintage that almost made itself. It was miraculous, and delicious from the very beginning. But it was not a signpost for the future of Cheval Blanc,” says Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Managing Director of Cheval Blanc. “Its character is not in the DNA of our wines. Its success was rather an alignment of the planets but we would never again let nature be so wild, without intervention.”
Clouet is one of the few people in the world who gets to taste this wine on a regular basis, usually while reconditioning the bottles at the Château, and he has described how moving this rare opportunity is, calling the wine an explosion of flavour and a crazy mix of richness and concentration. He has likened the circumstances of the wine’s creation to the early years of the Tour de France, when the competitors were riding their own bikes and sleeping in hedgerows. Today, those cyclists at the very peak of their abilities have a full team behind them, protecting their every move. And similarly, Cheval Blanc today has the equipment and knowhow to shield its premium grapes from the vagaries of weather or politics. The 1947, however, captures the spirit of those early days, the exuberance and the potential, and the beauty that nature can deliver.