November 30 2011
Wine blogger Tom Harrow is coming to the end of his helicopter trip through Bordeaux wine country.
Next morning, on to Cheval Blanc – whose new winery and cellar complex (first and second pictures), designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc and completed this summer at a cost of €13m, has to be one of the most of the world’s most aesthetically engaging; futuristic, but confidently timeless – Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp or the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey (rather than immediately dated like most Dubai building projects or Demolition Man). Its arrival has been welcomed by the winemaking team, as the old winery building, which will be bulldozed soon, sits on a prime site for vines and they are looking forward to replanting as soon as possible. I commented that if land was at such a premium, surely the lawns next to the property contained the world’s most wastefully expensive roses and garden furniture, but I was told that geological studies showed these areas to be on less impressive soils – “good enough for ********* [a nearby competitor] maybe, but not for Cheval Blanc”.
The very morning of our visit, Cheval’s ’47 had topped the list in Fine Magazine of the greatest Bordeaux ever made, alongside the usual suspects including other ’47s – Petrus and Lafleur, Mouton and Haut Brion in ’45, Latour ’61 and various D’Yquems. It is a wine of staggering and unique personality thanks mainly to its unusually high percentage of cabernet franc, normally the third grape on the Bordeaux rostrum after cabernet sauvignon on the left bank and merlot on the right. We tried several vintages including 2001, which the winemaking team claim to prefer to the more heralded 2000.
Regarding the current vintage, 2011 is not a tour de force, thank God: the announcement of a third consecutive vintage of the century would stretch the credulity of even the most eager en primeur campaigner. Instead it’s hoped that we’ll see a much needed restaurant vintage – a drinker, not a keeper; to be enjoyed hopefully inexpensively while its swaggering predecessors develop in cellars the complexities that will one day justify their price tags. Where selection has been sufficiently stringent, there will be some very attractive wines – we tried several cabernets straight from the fermenting vats at Haut Bailly, our final stop, and they seemed charming and supple enough at this albeit foetal stage, but a long drought at the end of an unseasonably hot spring, a cool summer and then extended heavy rains into the harvest will make achieving a balanced finished article a job for an experienced craftsman in the winery.
Haut Bailly has some of the oldest vines in Bordeaux, directly behind the château – and unusually they are a mixture of all the region’s grapes (including the rarely seen carménère). The thinking follows the decidedly Burgundian notion that with sufficient age the varietal’s character becomes less important than its role as a vehicle for the mineral strata penetrated by its deeply delved root system. It’s a belief that echoed earlier conversations at Cheval Blanc.
Our helicopter pilot was staying with his parents who lived nearby, and calling him to delay our take-off afforded him more time with his family and allowed us to savour rather than hurry another bottle of very engaging Haut Bailly ’99 over lunch. Eventually, however, we had to make the short journey back to Mérignac and board our plane. I’d prepared the red wine stage of our altitude tasting (including Chateauneuf du Pape and a South African meritage blend) for the return leg, but everyone was saturated. Next time I’ll consider a sparkling water comparison for the journey home. It might save on costs too.