One of the most prestigious of all Bordeaux estates, Château Cheval Blanc in Saint-Emilion lies in the north-west corner of the appellation on land that bears many similarities to its very near neighbours in Pomerol, some of them separated by little more than a track or a ditch.
Established in the 1830s by Monsieur Ducasse, the then owner of Château L’Evangile in Pomerol, Château Cheval Blanc was carved from land bought from Château Figeac. Following the marriage of his daughter to a member of the Fourcas-Lassac family the estate went with her and stayed in that family's hands until 1998 when it was purchased by Bernard Arnault, then chairman of luxury goods group Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy and his partner, Belgian businessman Baron Albert Frère. By then, Cheval Blanc was established as being at the top of the Saint-Emilion tree as a premier grand cru with wines that fully matched its hierarchical status. For that reason the new ownership retained the services of the incumbent régisseur Pierre Lurton, who had been in post since 1991 and who had instigated a number of initiatives to continue to improve quality.
The detailed soil analyses which Pierre Lurton initiated showed that the estate sits on three distinct soil types over the 36 hectares under vine. Perhaps the most important are the sandy clay overlaying blue clay (the latter being the famous soil of the best sites in Pomerol, such as Château Pétrus) that composes 40% of the land under vine, with gravel making up a further 40% and then sandy soils the final 20%. The clay, it is believed, provides concentrated berries, small in size, which give flesh and ripeness, particularly to the tannins, while the grapes from the gravel soils provide a firmer tannic backbone. The fruit of the sandy soils are considered to be too light to go into the grand vin.
Château Cheval Blanc is unusual in Saint-Emilion in that cabernet franc provides the bulk of plantings (58%) and usually makes up about 50% or more of the final assemblage, though merlot can just dominate in those vintages that particularly suit it. The cabernet franc contributes perfume and freshness and is particularly suited to the terroir in which it is planted, thanks to the foresight of the founder Monsieur Ducasse, who planted it in the 1830s simply because he liked it!
Vinification is fairly traditional. After sorting in both the vineyard and at the cellar the grapes and must are gravity fed throughout the winemaking process, helped by a grand, state-of-the-art winery which was completed in 2011. The must is fermented in concrete tanks with pumping over for extraction. The wine then spends 16-18 months in 100% new oak before bottling.
There has been a good deal of fine tuning over recent years to ensure Cheval Blanc maintains its position at the top of the tree, as other Saint-Emilion estates have upped their game and are challenging Cheval Blanc's supremacy. For example, world renowned wine consultant Denis Dubourdieu has been advising Cheval Blanc since 2004.
A great deal of work is done in the vineyards to maintain the vines in optimum condition. For example, there has been the introduction of two green harvests, improved trellising and planting at a higher density and with better clones as old vines are replaced, a particularly important factor where some of the vines are nearly 100 years old.
Château Cheval Blanc is not going to cede its hard-earned reputation as the greatest wine of Saint-Emilion easily.