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’47 Cheval Blanc a precursor of today’s Napa style? And other Xmas Eve thoughts

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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!

  1. STEVE,

    I ENCOURAGE YOUR READERS TO SEEK OUT THE FULL ARTICLES.

    I WILL “SPOT” THEM THE FIRST FEW PARAGRAPHS.

    ~~ BOB

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (December 26, 1999, Page F4ff):

    “Top o’ the Century: The best wines of the 1900s.
    Journey back with us to 1978, 1959, 1945, 1921 . . .”

    [Link: http://articles.latimes.com/1999/dec/26/food/fo-47589

    By Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine

    I hate having to choose my favorite anything, but because I'm not likely to have to choose the century's top wines again, here is my list:

    1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc (St. Emilion)

    What I go for in a wine is not mass or power but harmony, subtlety and entrancing nuances. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild is a classic but, on the occasions I've been lucky enough to taste it, it has been just too big and too rich for me (though I'm prepared to revise my opinion as it ages). Of course, there are no great wines -- only great bottles -- and the very best bottle of Cheval Blanc '47 I tasted was in fact a magnum served boldly at a dinner party in a restaurant in Burgundy by the Hong Kong connoisseur Henry Tang in 1994. It was the best representative of this fabulous wine I have ever come across; sweet, beguiling, yet beautifully balanced. Just one whiff was enough to establish its credentials.

    -- AND --

    Excerpt from Slate
    (posted February 13, 2008):

    "The Greatest Wine on the Planet:
    How the 1947 Cheval Blanc, a defective wine from an aberrant year, got so good."

    [Link: http://www.slate.com/id/2184371

    By Mike Steinberger
    "Drink: Wine, Beer and Other Potent Potables" Column

    . . . the 1947 Cheval is probably the most celebrated wine of the 20th century. It is the wine every grape nut wants to experience before he dies, a wine that even the most jaded aficionados will travel thousands of miles to taste. Curious to know more about this iconic Bordeaux, I spent some time last year exploring how and why it acquired its exalted reputation. I was also eager to make sense of one puzzling aspect of its legacy.

    The 1947 Cheval is often spoken of as a benchmark wine, a yardstick against which other Bordeaux should be measured and a standard to which contemporary winemakers should aspire. But the château itself describes the 1947 as a "happy accident of nature," which it was: Born of aberrant weather and vinified under primitive conditions, it is a wine full of technical flaws that turned out delicious in spite of itself. Is there any reason to think that producers today could emulate such a wine, and would they be wise even to try? In addition to seeking answers to these questions, I was hoping my research would yield something else: my first taste of the 1947 Cheval.

    Château Cheval Blanc, which dates back to the 1830s, is located in Bordeaux's Saint-Émilion appellation, on the right bank of the Gironde River. Although Saint-Émilion is mainly Merlot country, Cheval Blanc normally contains a high percentage of Cabernet Franc, which has always made for a very distinctive wine.

    Like every other right-bank château, Cheval Blanc was omitted from the 1855 classifications, which established the five-tiered ranking system of Bordeaux 's top wines. The list was compiled on the basis of price, and in 1855 the most sought-after and expensive Bordeaux all came from the left side of the river, where Cabernet Sauvignon reigns. By contrast, Saint-Émilion and its neighboring appellation, Pomerol, were seen as viticultural backwaters, producing rustic, unremarkable wines. Cheval Blanc was the one right-bank property that occasionally transcended this marginalized status: Its wine won a bronze medal at the London World's Fair in 1862 and took the gold at the Paris World's Fair in 1878. The 1921 Cheval Blanc was the first right-bank wine to garner strong international demand. Even so, Cheval Blanc continued to trade at a discount to left-bank kingpins like Latour and Lafite, and the château itself remained a small-time operation. Indeed, it sold much of its annual production in bulk to French and foreign merchants, who bottled the wines themselves. (In what quantities and bottle formats this was done was not always clear, an information deficit that wine counterfeiters are now gleefully exploiting.)

    1947 was the second of three great postwar vintages in Bordeaux, a hat trick that began with the 1945s and ended with the 1949s. Two things distinguished 1947 from those other immortal years: It was a vintage that strongly favored the right bank, and the weather that summer was almost Biblical in its extremity. July and August were blazing hot months, and the conditions turned downright tropical in September. By the time the harvest began, the grapes had more or less roasted on the vine, and the oppressive heat followed the fruit right into the cellar. Because wineries were not yet temperature-controlled, a number of producers experienced stuck fermentations -- that is, the yeasts stopped converting the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol (yeasts, like humans, tend to wilt in excessive heat). A stuck fermentation can leave a wine with significant levels of both residual sugar and volatile acidity; enough of the latter can ruin a wine, and more than a few vats were lost to spoilage in 1947.

    [continued . . .]

  2. STEVE,

    THE HEAT WAVE ASSOCIATED WITH THE 2003 VINTAGE IN BORDEAUX MAY SHARE SOME COMMON CHARACTERISTICS WITH THE 1947 VINTAGE.

    ~~ BOB

    Excerpt from Decanter
    (May 24, 2013):

    “Red Wines May Have Premature Oxidation Problems, Say Bordeaux Researchers”

    [Link: http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/583929/red-wines-may-have-premature-oxidation-problems-say-bordeaux-researchers

    By Jane Anson
    Reporting from Bordeaux

    Denis Dubourdieu, professor at the faculty of oenology (ISVV) in Bordeaux and author of a leading study into premature oxidation in white wines, told Decanter.com, ‘Ten years ago, many people were aware of the premature oxidation problem in white wines, but didn’t want to talk about it. For me, it’s a similar situation now with red wines.’

    Dubourdieu points to the 2003 vintage as the most obvious example, although any very ripe vintages – such as 2009 – could be at risk. ‘And it is not limited to Bordeaux – any region that makes long-living red wines, from Tuscany to Napa, should be aware of the potential issues.’

    Red wines have greater natural protection against premature oxidation, as the tannins and phenolics are natural buffers against oxygen. ‘But I have seen issues with a number of classified wines that are potentially storing up trouble for later,’ warns Dubourdieu. ‘The Right Bank is the worst affected because Merlot is so vulnerable.’

    The warnings signs of premox in reds comes through the appearance of certain aroma markers such as prunes, stewed fruits and dried figs, and is often linked to a rapid evolution in colour, as with whites.

    Dubourdieu, along with Valérie Lavigne and Alexandre Pons at the ISVV, has found two specific molecules – ZO1 giving the prune aroma and ZO2 giving a stewed fruit smell – that develop rapidly in the presence of oxygen.

    The causes are numerous, Dubourdieu believes: harvesting later in a bid for riper grapes with low acidity, and winemaking practises including too much new oak barrels, or low doses of sulphur dioxide particularly when coupled with a high pH (over a pH of 4, SO2 loses almost all of its effectiveness).”

    . . .

    ‘These are practices that winemakers are doing with the best intentions,’ Dubourdieu said. ‘Riper grapes, new oak, low sulphur use – these are all things intended to improve the wine and to benefit the consumer. But I would prefer to warn winemakers now that it’s possible to go too far, rather than say nothing simply to be politically correct.

  3. The content on napa valley wines and their manufacturing are precisely defined. The practice is the best way to make best wine. Keep sharing your views.

  4. Thomas Kruse says:

    When you are supposed to make a big deal out of something you usually do.

  5. Thanks for the mention Steve, much appreciated. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog and and you make an excellent point concerning the anticipation of drinking a great wine. The wine’s reputation precedes it and adds to the excitement. However, as you rightly say, if we didn’t know what it was would we enjoy it so much? For me, the wine’s story is part of its enjoyment. The other part is, of course, drinking it ;-) Happy New Year!

    Cheers

    Nick

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