Friday, 15 February 2013

Cheval Blanc: the making of a thoroughbred

Warning:  arcane French wine labelling discussion alert.

In the rather stolid rubric of the St Emilion wine classification system, Château Cheval Blanc is a Premier Grand Cru Classé A.  Some French regions have Grand Cru as the very top of the quality tree; over in the Médoc in Bordeaux’s left bank, it is the five Premiers Crus who reign supreme.  In St Emilion, however, it looks as though a committee of strong-minded people couldn’t agree which way to jump and so went for both.  Then, because so many producers ended up being given the highest accolade of Premier Grand Cru Classé, they had to divide this top tier into the very top producers, of which Cheval Blanc is one of four, who are awarded an A rather than an ignominious B, to round off their official nomenclature. 

There are 14 Châteaux on the Premier Grand Cru Classé rung of the quality ladder, with another 64 properties at the next level down, Grand Cru Classé.  If you are sipping a bottle of red Burgundy labelled Grand Cru Classé, your nose (if not your wallet) should tell you that you are at the top of the tree, quality-wise.  But if you find the same thing on the label of your St Emilion, then  you are not supping such rarified nectar (and have not happened on the bargain of the century either).

If you, probably very wisely, skipped over those first couple of paragraphs, here’s a quick summary:  Château Cheval Blanc is a bit special.

Like most St Emilion producers, their wines are made from a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc – but unlike most of their neighbours, they have no limestone in their soils.  Instead they have plots with a mosaic of soils based on sand, gravel and clay – in this they have more in common with their near neighbours in Pomerol.

Cheval Blanc’s vineyards are made up of slightly more Cabernet Franc (58%) than Merlot, which accounts for the remainder.   This high proportion of Cabernet Franc also sets them apart from most of their St Emilion cohort, where Merlot tends to take the lead role.
Now, you might think that it was a pretty straightforward task to blend just two varieties to make a wine, but of course it rarely is.  

At Cheval Blanc grapes can end up in one of four destinations – as part of the “grand vin” Cheval Blanc; second wine, Le Petit Cheval; their 3rd wine or, finally, sold off in bulk to be subsumed into generic St Emilion wines.

Château Cheval Blanc covers 39 hectares (that’s around 100 acres) and is made up of 44 different plots, each of which represents one of the two grape varieties, growing on one of three soil types:  sand, gravel or clay.  At a recent tasting in London, guided by Pierre-Olivier Clouet, the impossibly youthful-looking Technical Manager at the Château, I was able to taste samples from the different parcels from the 2012 vintage:  Merlot and Cabernet Franc from each of three soil types.  Now these wines are a long way from being finished and still have another year or so to age in barrel before their final fate is decided, from grand vin to bulk sell-off, so we were not really getting a sneaky peek at Cheval Blanc 2012 – but it did sort of feel that way.

It was instructive to taste how the same grape variety can perform so differently on the different soils.  Merlot grown on sand is earthy and metallic with a touch of green stalkiness.  Yet on clay and gravel soils that unripe, green note disappears and there is a rush of ripe berry fruits instead.  Cabernet Franc followed the same pattern, with the sandy soils producing the poorest wine, and clay proving to be the perfect growing medium.

Before we moved on, I couldn’t resist having a go at blending my own Cheval Blanc 2012 – the core being Cabernet Franc grown on clay, plus a proportion on gravel, with Merlot from clay soil completing the picture.  Pretty delicious I thought – I wonder if I’ll get the chance to compare it with the real thing?  Of course my slapdash sloshing of wines from one glass to another is a world away from the minute deliberations that actually determine the final make-up of the wines.  Pierre-Oliver told us that they have never made a perfect blend of Cheval Blanc, showing what a complex mixture of art and science go into the blending process.

Having looked at the bones of an as-yet-to-be-born wine, we then went on to taste the final result from previous vintages of Cheval Blanc and second wine Le Petit Cheval.  We were comparing wines from 2004 (a cool and wet vintage) with 2010 (a cool and dry one).  Incidentally it’s good to know that it isn’t just the UK that has had so much lacklustre weather in recent years.  I digress.

Le Petit Cheval 2004 was a beguiling wine, its tannins beginning to soften at nine years old.  Cheval Blanc from the same year was more imposing, with a solidly built structure underpinning the fruit, obviously a wine with a long future ahead of it.

The 2010 wines are clearly close to Pierre-Olivier’s heart and show great freshness and elegance, but it would be a crime to drink them any time soon.

And if you would like to squirrel a few bottles away for some special occasion in the future, what will they set you back?  It is both a blessing and a curse of those in the wine trade that we are often treated to tastings of wines which we could never afford to drink (or at least I couldn’t).  Deep pockets are required in this game:  Cheval Blanc 2010 is available for upwards of £750 a bottle.  My favourite wine from the tasting for current drinking, Le Petit Cheval 2004 is a snip at around £120.

I returned home and came down to earth with a bump and a glass of a 10 quid Argentinian red – very delicious it was too.

Friday, 1 February 2013

From Bordeaux to Burpham: Neal Martin

“Kraftwerk,” says Neal Martin, “I’m going to see them.” in reply to my question of which live band he’s going to see next.  No big surprise there, perhaps, as the series of concerts by the Teutonic techno pioneers at Tate Modern has created an excited ruffle of feathers among (mostly, it must be said) men of a certain age.

As a regular-looking bloke of a certain age, Neal may pass unremarked by Guildford residents on his way up the High Street on a head-down bitterly cold day, but his is one of the most well-known faces in the wine business.  He the UK contributor to The Wine Advocate, creation of the world’s most famous, arguably the most powerful, wine critic of them all:  Robert Parker.  And he lives in Guildford.

He has been here for over five years now and, in between trips to London to be wined and dined at Michelin-starred restaurants (that’s all wine critics do, right?) he has written his first book, a hefty tome on Pomerol. 

Pomerol, the place, is something of an enigma.  Geographically it is firmly embedded within Bordeaux, but it is somehow not of it.  Textbooks usually slot it in alongside its neighbours, the other appellations of the Right Bank, such as Saint Emilion.  Merlot is the lead variety, with Cabernet Franc most often seen in the “Best Supporting Actor” role. But Pomerol doesn’t play the wider Bordeaux game – there is famously no classification here, no official attempt to grade the relative quality of the many, mostly tiny, producers.  The area is small, with little in the way of geographical features to delineate it, no palatial Châteaux worthy of the name – easy to overlook, hard to grasp.

And yet Pomerol is home to Petrus, Bordeaux wine royalty, a First Growth in all but name, and among the most expensive wines in the world – a bottle of the 1982 is currently £6,900 from Berry Brothers. Though as my 9-year-old son was quick to point out, it’s “much cheaper” to buy by the case of 12 bottles, which is a mere £68,427.36.  Good mental arithmetic there, son.  So there must be something special about the place, something that will reward digging deeper.

Neal Martin has spent much of the past three years of his life digging deeper into the soils, vineyards and lives of the vignerons of the area.  And what kind of book is Pomerol?  Thorough, comprehensive, informative:  you’ll find details on proportions of Merlot planted, size of vineyard holding and vinification techniques as you might expect.  But it’s also personal, sometimes fanciful and often entertaining. Throughout you are reminded that this is a book that could never have been written by committee – Neal’s voice is ever present, describing not just the vineyards and their wines, but telling us of his best ever goal at football (aged 9), or his fondness for KFC (yes the Colonel’s finest).  His focus on the people behind the wines reminds us that the human element is what makes places – and wines – special.  Do not go looking for scores out of 100 here.

Music is, as you might have gathered, important to Neal and he peppers his narratives with mentions of the songs he was listening to on his many visits to the area.  In fact, he has even produced a soundtrack (available on Youtube:  search for Pomerol soundtrack) of songs matched to each winery featured in the book, and more, so that you can listen along as you read.

We are not the same people as our parents or grandparents, but much wine writing doesn’t seem to recognize that fact and has a preserved in aspic feel.  This book, however, feels like it’s written by somebody alive and in the world now, someone we can recognize as one of us, who grew up doing the same things we did, informed by popular culture as we were. 

So although Pomerol is meticulously researched and written by someone who clearly has spent more time tasting the kind of rarified (and just plain rare) wines than most of us will ever do, it retains a personality, never straying into textbook territory.  Neal told me that he likes to read with a dictionary by his side – and it shows, as I had to fetch mine from the kitchen shelf a few times to check definitions.  His writing is lively and idiosyncratic, honed over his years as an online writer of his own blog,

Neal has self-published Pomerol, meaning that he has been (and continues to be) fully involved at every stage of the book’s production, from the photography to the design and even the paper that it’s printed on.  His lack of a budget to pay a cartographer to produce maps for the book was turned, by a stroke of genius, to his advantage.  Instead Neal spent a fiver on a sketchbook and some pencils in WHSmith and asked the winemakers to hand draw maps of their estates.  The maps add to the handmade feel of the book and it’s a ruse that I fully expect to see turning up in other wine books in future.

Neal was even there when the book was coming off the printing presses, signing off pages.  At the same time, the adjacent press was printing copies of Pippa Middleton’s learned tome, Celebrate – though apparently Ms Middleton herself was not there checking progress. And something tells me she didn’t deliberate over the type of paper it was printed on either.

Pomerol costs £50 and is available from - or from Neal’s front door.