A few months back, we were invited to dine at Château Cheval Blanc — an unforgettable experience. Among the many wines we were lucky enough to sample was the newly released Cheval Blanc Bordeaux Blanc. The delicate minerality and unctuous, sensual texture literally left us speechless.
More recently, when we spoke with Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Managing Director for Cheval Blanc, we asked him about this promising new project and the estate’s plans for the future in general.
“I’m glad you enjoyed Le Petit Cheval Blanc,” Clouet tells us enthusiastically. “For me this has been the best project in the last 50 years! Previously, there had been a lot of discussion about a white wine — after all, we are the ‘White Horse.’ And, as you know, early in the history of Bordeaux white wine was more common than red. So, we began to imagine what a white version of Cheval Blanc would entail…something like our reds with complexity, freshness and aging potential.”
“To that end,” Clouet continues, “we acquired eight-hectares from Château La Tour du Pin in 2006. We pulled the Merlot vines and replanted with Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. We made mistakes initially but learned a lot from each attempt. Ultimately we realized that the best approach was to make a white wine with a red winemaker mindset — except that we pick the berries very early to preserve the freshness. After fermentation, the wine is aged 22 months in foudres on full lees. During this period, we constantly test the wine and adjust the proportion of lees.”
“It was a very risky venture, but it’s been such a success that we’re expanding the white vineyard from 7 hectares to 11. It’s proof that we have the capacity here to create something from scratch,” Clouet concludes emphatically.
A MYTHICAL PAST
Vines have been grown at Cheval Blanc for well over 600 years. Initially the property was a tenant farm called Le Barrail des Cailloux in a village named Cheval Blanc. Situated on an ancient river delta, the estate features one of Bordeaux’s most complex terroirs — 53 plots on 10 different soil types – clay, sand and gravel in varying proportions.
In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and newer plots of Cabernet Franc, the Château has Bouchet vines (the traditional French name for Cabernet Franc) dating back to 1920. The Bouchet still form the core of the estate’s vine propagation using massal selection to preserve the DNA of Cheval Blanc.
The Château itself was founded in 1832, when Jean-Jacques Ducasse, President of the Libourne Trade Tribunal, purchased property from Château Figeac, then a huge estate of 200 hectares. Eventually, Ducasse obtained 39 hectares, essentially creating the vineyard that exists today.
In later years, Jean-Jacques’ daughter Henriette, married Jean Laussac-Fourcaud, also a Libourne wine merchant. Laussac-Fourcaud replanted part of the estate in the 1860s with an unusual (at the time) proportion of grape varieties: half Merlot and half Cabernet Franc.
With its singular style and unique blend, Château Cheval Blanc quickly achieved success, acquiring medals at the London and Paris International Exhibitions in 1862 and 1867. These first medals were so significant the Château continues to portray them on their labels.
Later, two standout vintages clinched the international reputation of Cheval Blanc: the 1921 and the legendary, 1947 — considered by many critics as the finest wine ever made. (A six-liter bottle established a new world record after selling for $304,375 in 2010.) In 1954, the Château was classified as a Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé A and by 1960, the wines regularly attained the price level of the Médoc’s First Growths.
A HISTORY OF INNOVATION
In 1998, the prestigious Château was purchased by LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault and Belgian entrepreneur, Albert Frère. The two injected a dynamic new spirit, while respecting the Château’s history and UNESCO World Heritage status.
The most notable change brought about by the pair is the extraordinary winemaking facility and cellars designed by Christian de Portzamparc. At 6,000 square meters, the white concrete building is massive and ultra-modern. With just a bit of imagination, observers can envision a magnificent horse galloping through the vines (or at least, that’s how we describe the building to our clients!)
Particularly innovative at the time was the vat room, constructed with 52 concrete vats in nine different sizes — from 20 to 110 hectoliters. Each vat is assigned to a specific plot to assist with the final blend. A number of châteaux have redesigned their winemaking to include single vats per plot, but Cheval Blanc, with it’s hyper-attention to detail was the first.
In addition to the new facilities, Arnault and Frère also brought in new staff: Pierre Lurton became the Estate Director and Pierre-Olivier Clouet assumed the role of Technical Director. Originally from Normandy, Clouet attended Caen University, where he received a degree in agronomy, and later the University of Bordeaux for a degree in oenology. In 2004, Clouet served his internship at Château Cheval Blanc, then later became Technical Director in 2006. Currently he supervises all three estates at Cheval Blanc: Château Cheval Blanc, Le Petit Cheval Blanc and Château Quinault l’Enclos.
MORE OF OUR CONVERSATION WITH PIERRE-OLIVIER CLOUET
Cheval Blanc has always been at the forefront of vineyard management and oenological innovations — implementing single vats per plot long before other properties is just one example. Moreover, the estate continues to become more organic in approach. What’s next?
For awhile now, we’ve been transforming out vineyards into “permaculture” — planting fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers to add biodiversity. We also have animals grazing within the vineyards and beekeeping. All of this is to ensure the soil’s fertility and to capture carbon. And we’ll continue to enrich the soils with these methods.
How are you preparing for the future with regard to climate change, water shortages and the environment in general? Do your Cabernet Franc plots and mixed soils give you a built-in advantage in dealing with climactic issues?
There’s no doubt our job will become more and more challenging, but Cabernet Franc is not the solution to climate change — even though many producers are replacing their Merlot with Cabernet Franc. It’s a great varietal in the right soil, but in average soil the results will be disastrous.
In 2022, we were incredibly lucky. In spite of the fact that we were dealing with one of the hottest and driest years on record, the vines adapted to the stress. They adapted because the weather was hot early on. By July, the canopies had stopped growing. Harvest began on August 29 — the earliest ever, with 80% of Merlot brought in by the end of August, then Cabernet Franc in by September 20.
Now, in 2023, things seem to be ok. We had some rain in May and so far the vines are growing and the berries are fine. We’ll see how things progress.
Would you ever change or modify your winemaking processes? Have you ever considered full cluster vinification, for example?
If we make any changes, it’s more likely to be in the vineyard than in the cellars. We are always concerned with vegetal issues and we believe in freshness. So, full cluster would not be our style. Picking at precisely the right moment is our focus. That exact timing is what gives freshness, complexity and elegance. We don’t need to extract too much.
You added to the estate holdings in 2012 and again in 2022. Any plans for additional acquisitions?
I believe the production of white wine (Petit Cheval Blanc Bordeaux) might increase. It’s currently at 7 hectares and we’ll add an additional 10 to 11 hectares.
After pulling out of the Saint-Émilion Classification, would you ever consider re-entering? What changes in criteria would you expect to make that happen?
We feel strongly that the recent criteria were not in line with our philosophies. Marketing, communication and social media are important. But, for the final classification, the only important considerations should be terroir and the quality of the wine. If the criteria were changed to reflect those main elements we would review participating in the classification again.
In addition to being one of the world’s most sought-after wines, Cheval Blanc is now a very famous brand. There are Cheval Blanc luxury hotels in Paris, Saint-Barths, Saint-Tropez, the French Alps and the Maldives. The Château has become a part of the entire LVMH mythology. Does that impact the public perception of the wine or your decisions with regard to management of the wine?
Yes. That’s all true. But I can assure you, here in the vineyards, we’re in our own universe. Believe me, I’m not thinking about what’s going on in Saint-Barths. We are focused on our identity — our DNA — our style. Here we have our own story and we’re working for the long term — always to produce the best wine possible.
Speaking with Clouet was enlightening and also very reassuring. At the end of our conversation, we agreed… fashions and trends will come and go, but there’s no doubt that the Château Cheval Blanc vineyards, with stewards like Pierre-Olivier Clouet in charge, will always endure.