Our wine correspondent Gabriel Wendler makes a pilgramage to Cheval Blanc, one of the world's great wineries ... Classification crisis and litigation ... Modernisation under Bernard Arnault ... 2006 drinking well
I WAS last in Bordeaux 15 years ago.
It is where Richard II was born, Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis V11, Montesquieu grew grapes, Goya died and WWII French resistance hero Jean Moulin was once Prefect.
Bordeaux is a city and a region described as the Gironde Departement.
Wine has been made there since Roman times. Eighteenth century Bordeaux saw the rise of a wine merchant class and the establishment of the opulent Haut Medoc. Trade and commerce flourished. International wine brokers such as Cruse et Fils, Calvet, Cordier, Barton et Guestier and Kressmann came to occupy the Quai des Chartrons.
In recent years the city of Bordeaux has undergone extensive restoration and a light rail system installed.
Many buildings have been classified UNESCO world heritage sites. The feel of the city is relaxed and easy because the Bordelaise are relaxed and easy.
Bordeaux is France’s seventh largest city and sits on a curve of the Garonne River, which flows into the Atlantic.
It's proximity to Spain makes it a convenient base from which to visit the Basque city of Bilbao, home to the astonishing Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art - Frank Gehry’s paean to architecture, engineering, cubism and sculpture, enveloped in a skin of titanium.
A couple of months before travelling to Bordeaux I wrote to the famous Chateau du Cheval Blanc requesting permission to visit the winery.
Overlooking the Dordogne Valley is the charming ancient village of St Emilion, 40 minutes from Bordeaux by regular and reliable rail-car.
Cheval Blanc is in the commune of St Emilion adjacent to the commune of Pomerol. The St Emilion district is planted to 5,500 hectares of vines and produces 25 million litres of wine annually.
The main grape varieties are Merlot, Cabernet Franc (Bouchet) and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The wine of Cheval Blanc is classified Premier Grand Cru Classe - "A".
Among some producers there has been vociferous dissatisfaction with the operation of the St Emilion wine classification system.
The system mandates a producer occupy either Classe "A", "B" or one of two grades below Classe "B".
Ch. Angelus and Ch. Pavie were elevated to category "A" joining Ch. Cheval Blanc and Ch. Ausone - formerly the only two in category "A".
Certain producers suffered demotion or failed to be promoted to a more prestigious category.
Last month Eric Pfanner, wine writer for the International Herald Tribune, reported:
"A fragile four-year truce among local producers was shattered this week when several chateau owners said they filed law suits seeking to overturn the latest official rankings of the wines of St. Emilion."
Cheval Blanc was established in 1832 on land belonging to Ch. Figeac.
Historically the Fourcaud-Laussac family were the owners of Cheval Blanc until it was sold in 1998 to LVMH luxury goods group chairman, Bernard Arnault and Baron Frere.
The 1947 vintage launched Cheval Blanc to stellar recognition. It is argued the '47 Cheval Blanc is one of the greatest red wines ever produced in France.
Maitre de Chais at the time, Gaston Vaissiere, thought the wine invulnerable. Wine critic Robert Parker Jr has described the '47 as, "one of the great success stories of the century".
The vineyard area at Cheval Blanc covers 37 hectares and comprises Cabernet Franc and Merlot - almost in equal measure.
There is also a very small amount of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Biodynamic techniques are employed in the vineyard. The output is usually 6,000 cases of the grand vin.
Fermentation takes place in specially designed temperature controlled concrete and stainless steel vats.
Maturation in new troncais barriques lasts 18 months. Fining is with egg white, two per barrique.
In 1988 a second label, Le Petit Cheval, was introduced - absent new oak treatment and short maturation en barrique its style is, and always will be, different.
Since 1998 there have been major improvements to the estate, in particular the addition of a modern winery.
Form, function and natural light unite the winery with the vineyard in a holistic expression. The wine-making philosophy is to maintain Cheval Blanc's impeccable reputation and produce, so far as nature allows, red wine of remarkable quality.
Bordeaux winters are not severe, so my wife and I took the train from Bordeaux to Libourne and walked the three kilometres to Cheval Blanc.
Rambling in French vine country on a dry, cold, clear afternoon we passed Ch. Nenin, Ch. Croix St. George and through the village of Catusseau.
At Cheval Blanc the affable public relations manager Stephanie Duhar conducted our tour of the winery concluding with a tasting of the 2006 vintage.
I thought the 2006 was drinking well - insinuating brambly fruit and cinnamon notes warmed by 14 percent alcohol.
However, for me, the 2006 is in the shadow of the more complex and attractive 2005.
As it happens, we had missed only by a few hours the Emperor of Wine, Robert Parker Jr, who had that very same day visited Cheval Blanc. Quel dommage.
G D Wendler