Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Château Cheval Blanc visit with Pierre Olivier Clouet, Technical Director: Decanter d"Yquem Weekend

We arose on Saturday morning and, after breakfast, boarded two vans for transit to Château Cheval Blanc.  Master of Wine James Lawther was especially helpful during the course of the journey, pointing out the landmarks and points of interest as we traversed this hallowed ground.

As we turned into the road on which Château Cheval Blanc is located, James pointed to a nearby château and identified it as Château l'Evangile, the producer of one of my favorite Pomerols.

After we disembarked into the château courtyard, three men came hurrying up to greet us.  The youngest of the three (barely out of diapers I would say) introduced himself as Pierre Olivier Clouet, Technical Director of Cheval Blanc and, he said, he would be leading the tour as well as hosting us at the subsequent sit-down lunch.

Prior to 1832, according to Pierre, Cheval Blanc was a part of La Tour Figeac, the vineyards of which lie northwest and west.  Cheval Blanc consists of 37 acres (35 of which are planted to vine at any one time) and is planted 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Merlot.  The Château is only one of two in the St. Emilion Appellation which is classified as Premier Grands Crus Classé A (the other is Château Ausone).  The Château has been in the hands of the Laussac-Fourcaud (later Fourcaud-Laussac) family continuously until it was acquired jointly by LVMH and Belgian businessman Albert Frère in 1998.  Pierre Lurton, of the famed Bordeaux Lurton family, was installed as General Manager after the acquisition (While at dinner at d'Yquem later that evening, M. Lurton regaled us with a funny story regarding his interview for that position.  I will recount that story in my post on the Yquem visit.).

Continuing the discussion, Pierre noted that St. Emilion was characterized by Merlot and limestone but that there was no limestone on the Cheval Blanc property.  Cheval Blanc stands at the limit of Pomerol (and at this time he points out l'Evangile, Petrus, Certan) and has huge dollops (my word, not his) of Pomerol soil. The Cheval Blanc soil composition is 40% clay, 40% gravel, and 20% sand.  This is important to the château because, in his view, 80% of wine quality potential lies in the soil; excellent wines come from good soil.  The soil at Cheval Blanc is poor in nitrogen and water -- very dry -- and this stresses the vines into producing lots of tannin, aroma, and acidity.

The factors that he focuses on in managing the vineyards are: quantity of grapes produced, maturity, and protection against diseases.  The château manages quantity through winter pruning, green harvesting, and soil fertilization.  Vines are pruned in the winter to retard development.  The goal is to have 7 buds/vine plant but the pruning is vine-specific and a particular plant may end up with more or less.  Using this process, vineyard workers can only prune 300-400 plants per day.  Green harvesting reduces the likelihood of rot and increases concentration in the remaining grapes.  The château sprays to protect against diseases but in decreasing quantities.  They are moving more to planting vetch (a flowering plant in the legume family) on fallow soil in order to purge and aerate the soil.

Pierre identified three types of maturity: technology, aromatic, and tannin.  He sees technology maturity as revolving around finding a good balance between sugar and acidity, with acidity being key to the ageability of wines.  Aromatic maturity strives for freshness, with greenness at one end of the spectrum and botrytization at the other.  Tannins flow between density and ripeness.  These three maturities need to be optimized on the same day in order to begin picking fruit.

After this discussion in the courtyard, we moved into the cellar to discuss vinification.  Pierre pointed out the heavy cranes overhead and indicated that they were in the midst of a major expansion project which would provide additional space for storage and small fermentation vats.

Château Cheval Blanc's vinification process is "classical."  Sorting is essentially by the pickers in the vineyard who select the best bunches.  These bunches are carried to the sorting tables in small baskets for additional assessment before being pressed.  Juice flows into concrete fermentation vats and when a vat is full fermentation is initiated by adding artificial yeast to the mix.  Artificial yeasts are used to guard against the risk of incomplete fermentation resulting from the exhaustion of natural yeasts during the process.  The juice is pumped over the cap three times per day and this pumping over continues until fermentation is complete.  Maceration continues for 15+ days until a 4-member committee calls a halt to the process. Malolactic fermentation occurs in vats because this yields, according to Pierre, purer fruit and greater elegance.  After malolactic fermentation, the wine is racked and sulfur is added.

Blending occurs 6 months after fermentation.  The wine is aged for 16 to 18 months in new French oak with racking every three months.  They protect against oxygen during racking by using nitrogen to force wine from a full barrel into a clean empty barrel through a connecting, air-tight rubber tube.  Using this process, 33 barrels are racked every day, with 5 weeks required to rack all of the cellars.  After 6 or 7 rackings, the wine is left to be clarified by gravity.

Barrel quality is assured by conducting blind tastings with coopers- and Cheval Blanc staff.  These tastings are done across all coopers and then for the barrels from a single cooper.  This process is utilized to select coopers as well as to improve the tightness-of-fit of the barrels sent to the Château.

At this point we concluded the tour and proceeded to a champagne reception and lunch.  These will be covered in a subsequent post.

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