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Groundwork vital for good grapes

I’VE been learning more about what makes great wines special, and in particular, one of the world’s most exciting red wines, Château Cheval Blanc.

Harvest at Cheval Blanc. Photo by F Poincet
Harvest at Cheval Blanc. Photo by F Poincet

I’VE been learning more about what makes great wines special, and in particular, one of the world’s most exciting red wines, Château Cheval Blanc.

For the first time ever, the owners allowed samples of the unfinished wine, drawn from the casks in which they were maturing, to leave the château for a special seminar in London. They were brought by Cheval Blanc’s technical director since 2008, Pierre-Olivier Clouet, who led the seminar.

Cheval Blanc is legendary and very expensive. Its vineyards lie to the north of Saint Emilion, near Bordeaux, on a mostly gravelly terrace that extends into the neighbouring appellation of Pomerol.

The 39-hectare vineyard is divided into 44 discrete plots. In each there is a combination of vines of a certain age, variety and rootstock, all grown on specific soil, of which there are three main types.

A little over 40% of the vineyard is on clay soils with a shallow topsoil, 40% is on deep gravel and the rest is on sandy soil over clay.

As every good gardener knows, rain, wind and sunshine apart, the kind of soil you have is fundamental to what will grow successfully. Commercial viticulture is no different.

And so it is that at Château Cheval Blanc the grapes grown on the three different soil types each have a very different character.

Pierre-Olivier brought barrel samples from each soil type and from each of the two grape varieties grown on the estate: Cabernet Franc, a Cheval Blanc speciality, and Merlot. It is clear the secret of Cheval Blanc’s success lies in what the soil makes possible and how this is exploited to make the best possible wine.

The sandy soil over clay is fairly warm, but with reserves of water from the clay, it is very productive. The vines continue growing right the way until harvest, the crop is generous and the size of the berries is large. Their wine is simple and fruity.

The deep gravelly soil is warmer still. The free-draining soil can be a problem if there’s not enough rain. The crop ripens first on this soil and the grapes are richly flavoured and aromatic. The skins become thick and give the wine colour and tannin.

Clay is Pierre-Olivier’s favourite soil. “We thank God every day for it,” he told us. In the warm sunshine of South West France it holds just enough water to allow the vines to grow perfectly, but also to stop growing at the right time.

“The grapes are small, with thick skins and give an intense, but much fresher flavour than that of grapes grown on the gravel. They have plenty of tannin, alcohol and complexity, and seem to last longer in the mouth.

The cask samples, all from the 2012 harvest, bore out Pierre-Olivier’s analysis perfectly. Some soil types emphasised the strengths, or indeed weaknesses of the two varieties.

For example, the deep gravely soil tended to bring out the minty, green pepper aromas of Cabernet Franc. But what was more striking was the wine from both varieties was marked more by the nature of the soil than by the character of either of them.

“The grape variety is just an expression of the soil,” insisted Pierre-Olivier, and this French-sounding assertion made perfect sense.

It was a superb illustration of what the French love to call, ‘terroir’, a concept easier to explain than to translate. It tantalises quality-minded winemakers everywhere, but is underpinned by hard science.

Pierre-Olivier insisted there’s a simple empirical basis to soil quality. “Ninety per cent of the value of a soil,” he said, “is its ability to retain water in the right way for the plant, “10 per cent is its nitrogen content.”

Wine sold as Château Cheval Blanc, rarely if ever includes wine made from the sandy soil and not much of it makes its way into the estate’s subsidiary label wine ‘Petit Cheval.’

It’s usually sold off in bulk, but as Pierre Olivier explained, “we always try to make wine that also expresses the character of each vintage.”

The rules are not hard and fast. What remains the same is an unrivalled attention-to-detail in the vineyards and the winery. The finished wine must speak for itself.

If you are lucky enough to taste it, it is immediately evident Cheval Blanc, in a subtle understated way is unlike any other top red wine from the Bordeaux region and is quite different from that made in the neighbouring vineyards.

Earlier that day I’d been lucky enough to taste vintages from one of them, Vieux Château Certan.

The two 2001s are glorious wines at their peak. Vieux Certan is wonderfully elegant and perfumed, with juicy red fruits, especially raspberry, evident on aroma and palate; Cheval Blanc is a big, rich, brambly wine with spicy concentration, and silky texture.

We tasted 2004 and 2010 Cheval Blanc. The latter is stupendous, though I don’t think it justifies a price tag that has approached £1,000 a bottle.


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