In the animated hit Ratatouille, feared critic Anton Ego visits Gusteau's, the restaurant in which the movie is set, and orders a bottle of 1947 Château Cheval Blanc to go with his meal. In a film full of delicious insider moments for foodies, this is a wink to the wine lovers. That's because the '47 Cheval is probably the most celebrated wine of the 20th century. It is the wine every grape nut wants to experience before he dies, a wine that even the most jaded aficionados will travel thousands of miles to taste. Curious to know more about this iconic Bordeaux, I spent some time last year exploring how and why it acquired its exalted reputation. I was also eager to make sense of one puzzling aspect of its legacy.
The '47 Cheval is often spoken of as a benchmark wine, a yardstick against which other Bordeaux should be measured and a standard to which contemporary winemakers should aspire. But the château itself describes the '47 as a "happy accident of nature," which it was: Born of aberrant weather and vinified under primitive conditions, it is a wine full of technical flaws that turned out delicious in spite of itself. Is there any reason to think that producers today could emulate such a wine, and would they be wise even to try? In addition to seeking answers to these questions, I was hoping my research would yield something else: my first taste of the '47 Cheval.
Château Cheval Blanc, which dates back to the 1830s, is located in Bordeaux's Saint-Émilion appellation, on the right bank of the Gironde River. Although Saint-Émilion is mainly Merlot country, Cheval Blanc normally contains a high percentage of Cabernet Franc, which has always made for a very distinctive wine.
Like every other right-bank château, Cheval Blanc was omitted from the 1855 classifications, which established the five-tiered ranking system of Bordeaux's top wines. The list was compiled on the basis of price, and in 1855 the most sought-after and expensive Bordeaux all came from the left side of the river, where Cabernet Sauvignon reigns. By contrast, Saint-Émilion and its neighboring appellation, Pomerol, were seen as viticultural backwaters, producing rustic, unremarkable wines. Cheval Blanc was the one right-bank property that occasionally transcended this marginalized status: Its wine won a bronze medal at the London World's Fair in 1862 and took the gold at the Paris World's Fair in 1878. The 1921 Cheval Blanc was the first right-bank wine to garner strong international demand. Even so, Cheval Blanc continued to trade at a discount to left-bank kingpins like Latour and Lafite, and the château itself remained a small-time operation. Indeed, it sold much of its annual production in bulk to French and foreign merchants, who bottled the wines themselves. (In what quantities and bottle formats this was done was not always clear, an information deficit that wine counterfeiters are now gleefully exploiting.)
1947 was the second of three great postwar vintages in Bordeaux, a hat trick that began with the 1945s and ended with the 1949s. Two things distinguished 1947 from those other immortal years: It was a vintage that strongly favored the right bank, and the weather that summer was almost Biblical in its extremity. July and August were blazing hot months, and the conditions turned downright tropical in September. By the time the harvest began, the grapes had more or less roasted on the vine, and the oppressive heat followed the fruit right into the cellar. Because wineries were not yet temperature-controlled, a number of producers experienced stuck fermentations—that is, the yeasts stopped converting the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol (yeasts, like humans, tend to wilt in excessive heat). A stuck fermentation can leave a wine with significant levels of both residual sugar and volatile acidity; enough of the latter can ruin a wine, and more than a few vats were lost to spoilage in '47.
To better understand the difficulties winemakers faced that year, I visited last summer with Thierry Manoncourt, the 90-year-old owner of another Saint-Émilion property, Château-Figeac, and a revered figure in Bordeaux. As it happens, Cheval Blanc was created from the sale of a parcel of land that originally belonged to Figeac, and it is said that the wine was known for a time as vin de Figeac. More relevant to my purposes, 1947 was Manoncourt's second vintage at the helm of his family's estate (his first was 1943, after he'd been released from a German POW camp). A charming, dapper man with the mental and physical agility of someone decades younger, Manoncourt showed me his written records of the '47 vintage, which noted such details as the residual sugar and volatile acidity levels for the individual vats in his cellar. He also shared his recollections of that "very, very hot" year. To keep the fermentation going, he decided to dump ice into the tanks, figuring a little dilution was preferable to losing his wine.