Above: Old meets new at Château Cheval Blanc
Earlier this week, whilst visiting Bordeaux with an American client, I enjoyed the opportunity to return to Château Cheval Blanc and watch the inaugural vintage going into the newly constructed, state-of-the-art winery that is adjacent to the historic Château buildings.
This was my first trip back to the Château since their celebratory Grand Opening of the new winery during Vinexpo some three months ago.
The sight of the newly-installed cement tanks – with their distinctive pod shape - now full of fermenting grape juice is both memorable and impressive. One cannot help but notice the immense attention paid to absolute cleanliness here. The entire new facility resembles something between a clinical operating theatre, an opera house and a food processing plant.
During our tour, I also observed a number of small but important new details. For instance, not only does each vat now display the relevant reference information about the specific parcel from which the grapes contained within were harvested, it also shows the age of the vines from the relevant plot, often dating back between 50 and 100 years. It is clear that the ability to carefully track each individual plot has become absolutely vital to producing a successful modern vintage.
The 2011 growth cycle in this area of France has been one of continual challenges. Incredibly however, after months of inclement weather, during our particular week in Bordeaux (as was the case across much of Europe), a wonderful Indian summer had arrived.
I have no doubt that my friend Pierre Lurton, who spreads his talents between here and Château d’Yquem, will be especially excited about the prospect of another magnificent vintage. Thus far, it certainly looks to be something very special for the sweet wines of Sauternes.
However, here at Cheval Blanc, I couldn’t help but notice that the Cabernet Franc and Merlot berries coming into the winery required the strictest of selections during triage – a process that the many St. Emilion Mesdames and Messieurs on hand were approaching with both concentration and vigor. This harsh selection was necessary even though a significant part of the crop had already been dropped earlier in the summer during what is known as the green harvest, when unripe fruit is taken off the vines after a poor or uneven flowering period.
As I head back to London, my reflections are that, despite such a massive investment by LVMH, ultimately it is nature that still plays the leading role in making great wine. Surely my worst fear of further rising prices due to low yields (reduced from 35hl to 25hl per hectare) will not materialize this year!
By happenstance, en route back to the airport, I noticed Jacques Thienpont (Le Pin) and Alexandre Thienpont (Vieux Château Certan) messing about with a few final bunches in one of their roadside vineyards. I pulled the car over and we spent a few minutes casually talking about the past En Primeur sales campaign and the prospects for the next one. Candidly, Jacques explained that, “the little thing that holds children money in it, the savings, it is broken. The piggy bank,” he said, “it’s broken.” Jacques is a smart guy!
It seemed to me that this marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the marketing!