Pierre-Olivier Clouet was walking quickly. The young winemaker at Château Cheval-Blanc is energetic. We strode past rows of spotless new pear-shaped cement vats of varying sizes. The new showcase cellar was completed in time for the 2011 harvest, allowing Clouet to vinify the wine using all the cellar's new toys.
"Finally," said Clouet, beaming with pride. "We can now vinify every single different parcel we have individually. It gives us that precision we are looking for."
As for the 2011, Clouet is happy with the results.
"The vines stopped growing just at veraison, which is excellent, as the energy is stored for ripening at the end, which they needed with the lack of sun," said Clouet. "The only problem was with the plots on sand. They struggled to ripen and so they were left out of the final blend, after having been included in '09 and '10."
"But clay is exceptional in every vintage," continued Clouet. "It's like a sponge. In wet years, the water sticks to the clay rather than getting drunk up by the vines. And in dry years, there's enough retention for the vines to continue growing."
The second wine here is the Château Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion Le Petit Cheval (75/25 Merlot and Cabernet Franc) and it offers a plush, supple, nicely rounded feel, with creamy plum and cherry preserve notes and perfumy spice gliding in on the finish. It's still youthfully primal, but there are no angles or austerity here, just pure fruit (90-93 points, non-blind).
The grand vin Château Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion 2011 (52/48 Cabernet Franc and Merlot) is its typical blend. It's very perfumy, with lovely red and black fruit that is pure and refined. It has a creamy feel with hints of bergamot, cassis and toasted spice and is very long and suave through the finish. This has been well put together and it seems the toys in the cellar have been put to good use (93-96, non-blind).
"We did less rémontage (pumping over) on the little vats, such as the [2,000- and 3,500-liter] vats. In those we only moved 80 percent of the volume. But we never do pigéage (punching down) or délestage (devatting) at Cheval-Blanc. We are always gentle in the extraction, so we didn't have to change much for 2011. In the end, it's roses and violets—a very floral vintage," said Clouet.
Sharing the same owners, the en primeur sample of Château d'Yquem Sauternes 2011 is also presented at Cheval-Blanc. Its usual classic blend of 80/20 Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc captures the beautiful cut and freshness of the vintage, with blazing pineapple, white peach, yellow apple and melon flavors that are remarkably light on their feet. Blanched ginger root, cherry blossom and light citrus notes dance through the finish. The wine is already showing terrific range and purity in a very, very stylish frame. It should give the stunning 2001 and authoritative '09 a run for their money (96-99, non-blind).
The team at Cheval-Blanc also manages two other St.-Emilion estates. The Château La Tour du Pin St.-Emilion 2011 offers good damson plum and black cherry fruit, with a light sanguine edge threading the finish. The Château Quinault L'Enclos St.-Emilion 2011 has a touch more depth and length. It's pure and focused, with a nice underlying raciness to its plum, kirsch and violet notes. It's supple overall but there's good drive buried on the finish. Official reviews for both will appear following my full, formal blind tastings.
In St.-Emilion terms, Château Troplong-Mondot is on the other side of the earth. Cheval-Blanc is located on the gravel plain, bordering St.-Emilion. Château Troplong-Mondot is on the clay and limestone plateau at the other end of this large, sprawling appellation. And while Cheval-Blanc aims for an elegant expression of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, Château Troplong-Mondot isn't shy about producing a style that emphasizes more overt power and concentration.
Now owned by the Pariente family and run by Xavier Pariente (who took over in 2003) along with his daughter Margaux, who joined in 2010. Jean-Pierre Taleyson has been the maître de chai here since 1985, which is also the first year a second label was selected out of the crop.
The 82-acre estate has undergone a lot of changes in the vineyards since the early 1990s, with major replanting done in stages along the way.
"We have been changing the estate to move to higher density plantings and to make sure the right varieties and better rootstocks are on the soil types they are best suited for," said Xavier, noting they have worked with the soil specialist Claude Bourguignon throughout the replanting process. Consequently the average vine age is 25 years old. By 2016 the entire estate will be back in production; current production is 80,000 bottles annually.
In addition, row alignment has been shifted to maximize sun and wind exposure and the Parientes are now working their vineyards by horse, to avoid soil compaction (see the accompanying video where Margaux Pariente talks about her family's approach to the vineyards at Troplong-Mondot). It's part of a growing a back-to-roots trend in Bordeaux as the region is finally starting to take a closer look at more environmentally friendly farming methods.
"We believe we should work in a way that is beneficial for the environment," said Margaux, whose background is in biochemistry and plant pathology. "But we don't feel things are black and white. We want to be able to be flexible, rather than use one system that requires certain things all the time, whether its organic, biodynamic or whatever."
The Château Troplong-Mondot St.-Emilion 2011 (85/10/5 Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) is in an extracted style, with dark, gutsy plum paste and blackberry fruit and a slightly thick plum skin coating that holds sway on the well-toasted finish. There are beautiful ganache and fig notes melded nicely together and there's nice underlying freshness despite its hefty style, as this looks to be one of the top wines in the appellation in 2011. (The official review, based on a blind tasting, will appear with the full set of notes from my official en primeur tastings.)
Château Angélus and Pavie Macquin
To finish the day, I then spent several hours in the vineyards with two of St.-Emilion's most prominent vignerons, Hubert de Boüard de Laforest and Nicolas Thienpont.
Boüard de Laforest consults with over two dozen estates, almost all in St.-Emilion.
"I live here," he said matter-of-factly. "I want to work here. I like to work here."
As the owner of Château Angélus, Boüard de Laforest already sits atop the appellation's hierarchy. He's also the owner of La Fleur de Boüard in Lalande-de-Pomerol, "my baby," he calls it. It's the weekend, but the cellar at La Fleur de Boüard is anything but quiet. The official en primeur week starts Monday and a workers are rushing to and fro to put the finishing touches on the suspended cellar, which features vinification tanks hanging from the ceiling. With a few hundred guests set to begin arriving in less than 48 hours, there's still a lot to do.
And it's not the only project that will be taking up a lot of Boüard de Laforest's time. The cellar at Angélus is being redone, along with the offices. And the recently acquired Château Bellevue is also undergoing some renovations. All told, Boüard de Laforest figures he has 18 months of scaffolding, workers and dusty tarps to deal with.
Despite the controlled chaos at his own estates, Boüard de Laforest is still very active with his clients around town. We made several stops during the tour, checking in at Château Laroze, which is experimenting with vineyards of 8,000 vines per acre (double the normal density), Clos des Jacobins, which has cleaned up its cellar and seems poised to return to its full potential, and Clos La Madeleine, a small jewel-box vineyard at the top of the town that screams potential but has been rather quiet, qualitatively, in recent years.
"I think we are going to do some very interesting things here," said Boüard de Laforest, who started working with the estate in 2010. A sample shows piercing violet aromas and a pure, racy beam of cassis.
Nicolas Thienpont doesn't have as many estates under his guidance, but he does have quality. Along with his son Cyrille and production manager David Suire, Thienpont has taken on management of Château Larcis-Ducasse (in 2002), Château Berliquet (2008) and Château Beauséjour-Duffau-Lagarosse (2009) in recent years. His longest-running relationship is at Château Pavie Macquin (since 1995), which sits on a wonderfully exposed windy hilltop of limestone and clay. I feel Thienpont's extra time at this estate shows—it's a full stride ahead of the others, as the wine typically shows some of the most beautifully expressive aromas in the appellation along with gorgeously silky texture (the 2010 is one of the stars in the making from that vintage). But it won't be long before he has the other estates at an equal level, particularly Château Beauséjour-Duffau-Lagarosse, which became synonymous with a more exotic and hedonistic style under Jean-Michel Dubos (who left in 2009 to work on Domaine Andron in the Médoc). And though he manages a cluster of glamour estates, Thienpont also produces values at his home estate of Château Puygueraud, as well as Château La Prade and Château Les Charmes Godard.
You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.