The milestones of breeding and blending for making a great wine

The beginning

Work in the cellar begins with the harvest, as soon as the grapes come off the sorting table. The crushed grapes are put into small 450 kg vats, then transported to the fermentation vat that corresponds to their weight and the plot they came from. Every vat is filled three-quarters full by gravity flow, without pumping. The juice is left on the skins and alcoholic fermentation is ready to begin.

This starts on the second day due to the action of yeast. After about 12 hours of fermentation, the CO2 that is released pushes the skins to the top of the vat, where they form a cap. Three times a day, part of the translucent juice is pumped from the bottom of the vat up to the top to percolate through the cap. This pumping over is done delicately in order to obtain the highest-quality tannin. The operation takes place manually, and a technician makes sure to spray wine all over the cap. This pumping over is done less frequently as time goes on and comes to a halt when the desired relative density is attained. This is measured twice a day with a hydrometer. The other parameters are overseen by the château technical team and the cellarmaster, who takes a sample every morning from each vat.

The juice is left in contact with the cap in temperature-controlled vats for several days at a temperature of 28-30°C without manipulation. This post-fermentation phase helps to make the free run juice richer and more elegant, and the tannic texture more silky. The free run juice is put into another vat, and the marc is pressed. The various lots of press wine (approximately 10% of the total) are put into barrel to speed up clarification. The best lots will later become part of the château’s second wine.
In order to preserve each plot’s taste profile, malolactic fermentation takes place in vat at a temperature of 20°C. This operation softens the acidity and stabilises the wine. It lasts for anywhere from three weeks to several months. Sulphur is added at the end of this second fermentation to avoid oxidation and any harmful bacteria. Only the smallest possible amount of chemical input products is used at the château during winemaking, which must remain as simple and natural as possible.

Château Cheval Blanc purchases their barrels from six or seven different cooperages, and the quality is constantly controlled. This diversity avoids any dominant kind of oak influence due to a single variety of oak or degree of toasting

When fermentation is finished, in late autumn, the wine spends a further sixteen to eighteen months in long rows of barrels in a vast underground cellar with subdued lighting at a constant temperature of 14°C. Every vintage is aged in oak: between 300 and 450 barrels.

Each one is numbered and replaced every year. The barrels are made exclusively from French oak trees aged 180, 200, or even 350 years old. These are from the famous forests of Tronçais in the Allier department and Bercé in the Sarthe department. Only the best parts of the trees are used by coopers to make these barrels. The oak is split rather than sawn to preserve its outstanding qualities.

Château Cheval Blanc purchases their barrels from six or seven different cooperages, and the quality is constantly controlled. This diversity avoids any dominant kind of oak influence due to a single variety of oak or degree of toasting. Barrel ageing must help the wine to express itself and respect its tannic structure. It must accompany rather than overpower or overshadow the wine. Twice a year, the château’s technical team organises blind tastings along with coopers during which they evaluate wines from different barrels to test their uniformity and to achieve the greatest possible aromatic precision. This also allows the château be more explicit about their requirements and preferences.

Racking entails transferring 210 litres out of 225 from one barrel to the neighbouring one using an inert gas (nitrogen) that pushes the wine out of the barrel while avoiding the risk of oxidation. Neither pumps nor filters are used so as not to upset the wine’s balance. A tripod called a chèvre makes it possible to tip the barrel at the end of racking. During this final stage, the wine’s clarity is checked visually by a technician. He does this by pouring a sample into a glass and holding it up to a light source. He alone decides whether to go on with the racking or to stop.

It is only after three months in barrel, at the end of winter and before the en primeur tastings for the wine trade and the media, that the blend is made. This means that wines from various plots are put together for the first time. This blending is more than just a simple step in the long process leading to the production of a new vintage. Instead, it is the writing of a new page in the history of Cheval Blanc. The aim is not at all to make the same wine every year, but to produce the most beautiful Cheval Blanc in a given year – one that combines vintage character with the estate’s intrinsic characteristics of freshness, elegance, finesse, length, and balance. The team making the blend must work hard to create the best possible synthesis. Every vintage leads to a new interpretation of Cheval Blanc’s terroir.

During blending, wine from each barrel is tasted and its expression of the plots it represents assayed. The extraordinary complexity of Cheval Blanc’s terroir shows through at this time, as well as the perfect complementarity of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Depending on the vintage, wine from fifteen to thirty-five plots out of forty-five go into the grand vin. The choice of plots in a specific vintage is not governed by any hard and fast rules other than truths revealed by very careful tasting. Furthermore, the exact proportion of Cabernet Franc and Merlot is not set in stone, nor are production figures defined in advance. Only excellence determines which wines are worthy to become Cheval Blanc.

Blending is an art calling for considerable expertise. This is a very important event at the château calling for inspiration and concentration – but also doubt and uncertainty. Every member of the team is well aware of the precise proportions in previous years going back decades – and that the balance can shift enormously by adding or excluding as little as one barrel of wine.
Wines from selected barrels (and thus from selected plots) are briefly left to marry in a 220-hectolitre stainless steel vat. The blend is then put back into barrels and returned to the ageing cellar, where the wines remain for one more year in the semi-darkness, naturally ventilated by a Mashrabiya.

The precision of the gesture, the fundamental factor

Barrel ageing begins in late November or the month of December. A few weeks later, in January or February, the first racking is done. This delicate operation clarifies the wine by separating it from the lees. Cheval Blanc feels it important to obtain clear juice quickly, and to keep it separate from the lees that would make the wine coarser. Racking is done every three months, i.e. a total of five to seven times, depending on the vintage. Wine is racked by hand from barrel to barrel at Cheval Blanc, via the esquive, or small bunghole, for perfect clarification and to avoid contact with oxygen. This age-old practice calls for special skills that have become extremely rare. The fact that this tradition has been maintained shows the château’s commitment to a simple, fundamental value: complete, careful control over winemaking.

This is a very important event at the château calling for inspiration and concentration – but also doubt and uncertainty.