’47 Cheval Blanc a precursor of today’s Napa style? And other Xmas Eve thoughts
On this day before Christmas I was transported down Memory Lane after reading this blog, from the English wine merchant Nick Stephens, on “the world’s most expensive faulty wine–Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947.”
That is a wine I have some familiarity with, having written about it back in the early 1990s, and, a little later, having the good luck to taste it. I wrote about it, for Wine Spectator, when I was in charge of The Collecting Page (which I referred to as my ghetto: it always was the last page in the magazine). Through that gig I met many wealthy collectors, and I would always ask them about the greatest wine they had ever tasted. Invariably, the answer was “1947 Cheval Blanc.”
I remember the hassle of getting through to the chateau’s cellarmaster, in order to interview him for my article. I do not recall much of what he said, and I no longer have the article, but I do remember him telling me that the alcohol level was very high on that wine–in excess, I think, of 15%. My luck in eventually tasting it occurred when I made the acquaintance of young Billy Getty, who, with his friend Gavin Newsom (now California’s Lieutenant-Governor), was anxious to have their new wine shop, PlumpJack, written about. As part of that effort, Billy invited me with some frequency to parties at his parents’ Pacific Heights mansion. These were experiences that, for me at that early point in my career, when I wasn’t used to such attentions, were heady and flattering. (The effect wears off after a while, though.)
One day Billy called to tell me his mother had bought “an amusing little wine cellar” from a New York collector. He invited me to the mansion to taste some of the selections, including–gasp!–’47 Cheval Blanc. Needless to say I raced across the Bay Bridge, drove up Fillmore Street and parked in front of the mansion. Rang the doorbell–it was answered by the Gettys’ old butler, who formerly had worked for Joe Kennedy, JFK’s dad, when Joe had been ambassador to the Court of St. James. I walked into the livingroom [if that’s what it’s called: maybe it was a drawing room, or a ballroom, or a parade-ground; at any rate, it was bigger than my condo], where I saw Billy and a few others, plus lots of bottles. I asked for the Cheval Blanc. Billy found the bottle: Empty! My heart sank. He saw my disappointment and made some sort of signal, whereupon somebody appeared out of nowhere. “Bring us another Cheval Blanc,” Billy said. Within moments the functionary appeared holding the bottle, with the cork pulled. He handed it to me. I was alone, with my crystal wine glass and a full bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc!
The wine was, as Nick Stephens (quoting Robert Parker) writes, as “unctuous” and “thick…as motor oil.” It was almost as sweet as Port, yet it was a dry sweetness, with no trace of the cloyingness of a poorly-made wine with too much residual sugar. Looking back, in retrospect, I can say it anticipated the modern, cult style of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blend: something like, say a Blankiet or Shafer Hillside Select. I take Parker’s word that the Cheval Blanc was “appallingly deficient in acidity,” with “volatile acidity [that] would be considered intolerable by modern day oenologists.” These charges also have been made against certain Napa Cabs. The difference between a young, fresh Napa Cab was that the Cheval Blanc, when I tasted it, already was more than 40 years old. It was showing bottle bouquet, and the fruit was drying out, yet it was remarkably fresh and clean.
I don’t think that wine would have blown my mind had I not known what it was. The fabulousness of tasting it was nearly 100% connected with knowing its identity. Tasted blind, it would “merely” have been a very rich, interesting, complex old wine, not necessarily the one I would have reached for at the table for repeated glasses with, say, lamb or beef.
But I did know what it was, and that made all the difference. Which leads to a theme we’ve explored many times here at steveheimoff.com. And that is the influence of seeing the label of a wine you’re tasting, as opposed to having it hidden by a paper bag. As my readers know, I consider this a very important topic to discuss, and not an easy one to arrive at definite conclusions. It is true that blind tasting eliminates all factors except for the actual organoleptic experience of the wine, whereas an open tasting expands the parameters of the experience in psychological and intellectual and even emotional ways. It is a pointless debate as to which is preferable. It all depends on the purpose of the tasting. In the case of that Cheval Blanc at the Getty mansion, my purpose was not to rate the wine, or to review it in any formal way. It was instead to experience the wine up close and personal. And, in that instance, having an entire bottle, and all the time in the world, made it possible for me to get to know that wine as much as I’ve ever known any wine.
Tasting wine for formal reviewing purposes is a job, and a rather unnatural one, at that. The kind of people who do it are wine reviewers, winemakers, sommeliers, merchants and others involved in the wine trade. We do it, not for enjoyment, but because it’s part of our professional standard of excellence. For the ordinary wine lover, blind tasting can be an educational diversion–you certainly learn about the palate’s shortcomings! But it’s not really the best way to understand and appreciate wine. The anticipation of knowing about a wine–the experience of savoring its history and, particularly with a wine like ’47 Cheval Blanc, knowing that so many people with access to the greatest wines in the world have declared it be the best they’ve ever had–those are integral to the enjoyment of the wine. It gives you something to think about, and thinking about wine is part of its enjoyment.
By the way–isn’t it funny that a wine like the ’47 Cheval Blanc, that by all rights shouldn’t have aged well, has? It makes me wonder about my own aging prognostications, not to mention those of all other wine critics, no matter how famous. I have friends and relatives who think that critics have crystal balls that provide perfect clarity into the future, but guess what? We don’t. As I’m sure the best critics will happily concede. All that an aging prediction amounts to is an educated guess. As with all guesses, however, they can be wrong.
Anyhow–Please accept my heartiest wishes for a merry Christmas and a Happy 2014!