The first time I ever drank Château Cheval Blanc it was from a paper cup in McDonald’s….
It was a tip of the hat to Paul Giamatti’s character Miles in the film Sideways who drinks his prized bottle of 61’ Cheval Blanc in a burger bar from a polystyrene cup. The wine costs about £2,000 a bottle….
I was with a few mates on the way back from a big tasting in town, one of the girls had been helping with a master class and managed to liberate an almost full bottle of the 2004 vintage for us to enjoy. Walking past a McDonald’s and just couldn’t resist the opportunity. Ordering our burgers we asked for a few extra cups, found an out of the way corner booth and got stuck in. It was a great wine (even slurped out of a cup to wash down a Big Mac and French fries) and there was a mischievous thrill at drinking one of France greatest wines in a fast food joint. The two things I learnt that day were that wine should never be taken too seriously and whenever possible should be enjoyed with friends and a smile.
Let’s be Franc.
I love the grape variety Cabernet Franc. It’s the daddy (of Cabernet Sauvignon) and makes some of the most refreshing, savory, gluggable wines going, perfect served slightly chilled on a warm summers day while tearing through a rustic, al fresco meal with a load mates.
Mulberry and bramble fruit with a certain earthiness, sometimes pencil shavings but with a savoury balance that begs for another sip, once you fall for this wine you will never look back. My first stop for this grape would be the Loire valley; Chinon, Bourgueil, Saumur-Champigny and Anjou where you can pick up incredibly good bottles for a pittance or search out more serious stuff from domains like Charles Joguet and Clos Rougeard.
The other place Cab Franc smashes it (though this time in the mix with Merlot and to a lesser extent Cabernet Sauvignon) is on Bordeaux’s right bank in St. Émilion. It is often the dominant player in what many think to be the area’s best wine, Chateau Cheval Blanc, making up to 56% of the blend in some vintages. The estates second wine Le Petit Cheval has had up to 98% Cab Franc in the blend which is surpassed only by one of Bordeaux’s rarest wines; Les Vieilles Vignes du Chateau Trotte Vieille , a 100% Cab Franc bottling made only from old vines with only 135 hand etched bottles being produced each vintage.
Castle of the White Horse
So whats so special about Cheval Blanc then?
Sitting at the top of the overly complex and meritocratic classification of St. Emilion alongside three other Premiers Grands Crus Classés (A); Ausone, Pavie & Angélus, Château Cheval Blanc is a bit of an oddity. It’s location in the far North West of the appellation right on the border with Pomerol means it sits apart from all the other top wines of St.Emilion that tend to be on the limestone plateau near the town (except for its neighbour, the ancient Chateau Figeac).
The location along with the high level of Cabernet Franc in the blend gives Cheval Blanc a unique character that is part St. Emilion part Pomerol and one of the greatest expressions of Cab Franc on the planet. It is a stones throw from two top Pomerol estates; La Conseillante & L’Evangile, sharing a large percentage of its soil type (sandy clay over blue clay) with Pétrus. The wines are sublime to drink even in youth they show a ripe rounded texture and character that seems to only get better with age.
There’s something special about drinking a wine that was made in your birth vintage, even if the wine isn’t great, a certain je ne sais quoi exists when consuming a product that has been on the planet for almost exactly the same time as you. I was born in 1981 which wasn’t the greatest of years the world has known in terms of wine production but luckily for me down in Rioja they had a pretty cracking vintage and I’m a big fan of the wines, made to age they can often be found at incredibly reasonable prices.
1981 in Bordeaux wasn’t as fortuitous as it was in Rioja, plenty of rain up to May, a hotter than usual August with further rain at harvest diluting many of the wines that were produced, what the French might call a ‘classic’ vintage, the wines had good balance but were considered only for short term aging and are now thought to be well over the hill.
I’ve managed to dispose of a fair few in my time and none have been blown me away, I remember being particularly under whelmed by a bottle of 81’ Chateau Margaux (supposed to be one of the wines of the vintage) at a dinner about five years ago and had not really given them much thought since, until….
I was having a chat with a gentleman who is very much in the know when it comes to fine wine and he mentioned that the 81’ Cheval Blanc had been the wine of the night at a vertical dinner at The Ledbury in 2010. The 1981 was rated by many as the wine of the night. Writer Neal Martin noted ‘Surprisingly, it is the Cheval Blanc 1981 that proves one of the highlights of the dinner, more so than the rather soupy 1982.’ The following vintages all being rated lower – 70’ 78’ 79’ 83’ 86’ 88’ with only the 85’ & 89’ both far superior vintages coming close.
At an earlier Cheval vertical in July 2007 the 1981 again stood out and was noted as ‘the dark horse’ of the tasting, showing the real character of Cheval. It was rated 95/100 points beating off 89’ 93’ 95’ 96’ 99’ 01’ 02’ & 03’.
Parker Vs. 1981 Cheval Blanc
There is also a fantastic story in the book The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, JR., and the Reign of American Taste by Elin McCoy about Parker and the 1981 vintage.
With a reputation for high-quality wines, criticism doesn’t always go over well at Château Cheval Blanc. In the 1980s, Wine Advocate reviewer Robert Parker did a barrel tasting of the 1981 Château Cheval Blanc. The vintage in Saint-Émilion was a mediocre one that year, and Parker described the famous wine in his newsletter as “disappointing” and “mediocre.”
Displeased with this characterization, vineyard manager Jacque Hèbrard invited Parker to the estate to sample the wine again. Parker agreed. When he arrived at the estate, however, Hèbrard’s miniature schnauzer attacked, biting down on the critic’s calf and drawing blood according to Parker. Hèbrard stood and watched. Bleeding, Parker asked for a bandage. Instead, Hèbrard handed him a copy of the newsletter.
Jacque Hèbrard’s story differs from Parker’s, in that he claims Parker was not bleeding.
Parker did re-taste the wine and changed his assessment in January 1998 rating it 90/100 points and then again in December 2003 giving it 89/100 points saying: ‘This somewhat charming, lightweight Cheval Blanc is fully mature but elegant, with sweet red and black currant fruit intermixed with mineral, licorice, and a hint of herbs. Spicy, medium bodied and very pleasant, this wine’s harmony gives it considerable appeal. Drink up.’
As my tastes are not generally in line with Parker’s I had to hunt a bottle of the 81’ down and was eventually given a bottle as a gift from an incredibly generous client who knew what the wine would mean to me.
I was going to save it for my next birthday but that was over 9 months away and I just couldn’t do it. Two good friends of mine that work with wine, were both born in 1981 and soon to be leaving the country for Hong Kong & America were swiftly invited to a great little restaurant down in Battersea called Soif who allow you to bring your own wine an Mondays.
We got started with a glass bubbles from the legend that is Jean-Pierre Robinot – L’Opera des Vins, a sparkling PetNat that was full of wild strawberry funkiness on the nose with a firm red berry palate. If you want to buy his wines Roberson also sell a few. 88/100pts
Next up was a bottle from one of California’s top Chardonnay producers, the 2009 Kistler, Hudson Vineyard in Carneros. A wine of great concentration that although quite opulent has such an amazing acidic core, it manages to marry the clarity of a top Chablis with the opulence of a top Cali Chardonnay, great stuff! 93/100pts
Château Cheval Blanc 1981
This had been in the decanter for about an hour and a half and had opened up beautifully; the nose had a wonderfully sweet, wild berry fruitiness backed up by classy autumnal sous bois, espresso, moist tobacco leaf and bitter cherry. Unbelievably suave in the mouth, quite full with light tannin and an acidic lift still present to the lightly dried berry fruit, dainty, very attractive with an excellent finish, still very lithe and alive. The greatest 81’ I’ve ever had. Enjoyed with Onglet, Chips & Cafe de Paris Butter. 95/100pts
Drinking these wines with good friends in an un-stuffy atmosphere really did bring home the fact that one of the greatest pleasures you can derive from wine is in sharing it with others. I’m also glad that McDonald’s have never deemed to offer BYO.
My eternal thanks to Lucy, Paty, Guillaume & Ken. Sharing is definitely caring!