How the '47 Cheval Blanc got to be the greatest wine ever made.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Feb. 13 2008 6:19 PM

The Greatest Wine on the Planet

How the '47 Cheval Blanc, a defective wine from an aberrant year, got so good.

(Continued from Page 1)
Manoncourt's notes from the '47 vintage. Click image to expand.
Manoncourt's notes from the '47 vintage

But the local ice distributor had regular clients—fishmongers, butchers—who were also battling the heat and had dibs on his suddenly precious frozen water. Lining up each day, Manoncourt endured interminable waits to get the 20-kilogram blocks of ice he needed, but his persistence paid off and he was able to avoid a stuck fermentation. Sixty years later, sitting in a cool, unlit room looking out on the gardens of his château, Manoncourt shook his head as he reflected on the events of that summer and fall. "It was such a difficult vintage," he said. The toughest of his career? "Yes, maybe it was."

But, against all odds, this hellish harvest yielded some monumental wines. Two Pomerol estates, Petrus and Lafleur, made clarets that have now achieved mythic status, and the Right Bank turned out a bevy of other gems. However, it was the '47 Cheval—the product of a stuck fermentation, according to the château, with the corresponding vital signs (3 grams per liter of residual sugar, high volatile acidity)—that acquired the greatest renown. In part, this was because Cheval Blanc had name recognition that Petrus, Lafleur, and other right-bank estates did not yet enjoy. Mostly, though, it was a reflection of the wine's quality. Its technical sheet may have read like an autopsy, but it proved to be staggeringly good. David Peppercorn, a British Master of Wine and Bordeaux specialist, first tasted the '47 Cheval in 1952 and says it was sublime even then. "It was delicious as a young wine," he told me, "with a wonderful sort of opulent texture that was very unusual for a Bordeaux in that day." The voluptuousness was a function of the 14.4 percent alcohol content, which at the time was off the charts for a Bordeaux.

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The '47 vintage elevated Cheval Blanc to the ranks of Bordeaux's elite and is, along with the 1961 Petrus, the wine arguably most responsible for rendering the 1855 classifications anachronous and putting the right bank on equal footing with the left in both pricing and popularity. This didn't happen overnight; Cheval Blanc continued selling in bulk until the 1960s, and the '47 Cheval remained a fairly inexpensive pleasure well into its third decade. Bipin Desai, a physicist at the University of California, Riverside, and one of the world's pre-eminent wine connoisseurs, says the '47 was a frequent presence at tastings he attended in the 1970s. "It's hard to believe how frivolously we drank it," he recalled over the phone a few months ago. Times have changed: At a Christie's auction last year in London, a case of the '47 sold for $147,000, or just over $12,000 per bottle. Suffice it to say, Desai is consuming his remaining '47s rather gingerly, and bottles of the '47 offered for sale these days are being scrutinized for authenticity as never before.

So what makes the '47 such a singular, head-spinning creation? Desai calls it a "cuddly wild boar," a vivid metaphor that gets to the wine's oxymoronic essence—it is a lovable beast. Michael Broadbent, another British Master of Wine and the former head of the Christie's wine department, describes it as being "port-like" in its concentration and sweetness. It is a comparison that has stuck: The port analogy pops up in many tasting notes about the '47. Robert Parker wrote the following in his most recent Bordeaux book: "What can I say about this mammoth wine that is more like Port than dry red table wine? The 1947 Cheval Blanc exhibits such a thick texture, it could double as motor oil. The huge nose of fruitcake, chocolate, leather, coffee, and Asian spices is mind-boggling. The unctuous texture and richness of sweet fruit are amazing … perfect or nearly perfect every time I have had it." Parker has rated the wine 100 points, his highest score.

Parker offered some other observations about the '47. "Consider the fact that this wine is, technically, appallingly deficient in acidity and excessively high in alcohol," he wrote. "Moreover, its volatile acidity levels would be considered intolerable by modern-day oenologists. Yet how can they explain that after 55 years the wine is still remarkably fresh, phenomenally concentrated, and profoundly complex? It has to make you wonder about the direction of modern-day winemaking." Not really. Sixty years ago, oenology was a crude science, entire vintages were regularly lost to the capriciousness of the weather, and truly good wines were maddeningly rare. Thanks to technological advances, such as temperature-controlled cellars, and vastly improved know-how, almost every vintage now yields wines worth drinking, and the really outstanding years cough up far more winners than in the past. Modern winemaking isn't without problems, but on balance it has undergone a glorious revolution.

Pierre Lurton of Cheval Blanc. Click image to expand.
Pierre Lurton of Cheval Blanc

Besides, the '47 Cheval is not a wine that someone contrived to make; it is a wine that essentially made itself, a point that Pierre Lurton, Cheval Blanc's current director, emphasized when I met with him at the château last September. A jovial 51-year-old, Lurton is viticultural royalty: His family is one of France's leading winemaking dynasties, and in addition to his work at Cheval Blanc, he also manages Château d'Yquem, source of the world's most celebrated sweet wine. To Lurton, the '47 Cheval is miracle juice; it is a wine that should have been destroyed by its defects but that somehow blossomed into an ageless, ethereal wonder. "All the faults became qualities; all of these excesses went into the service of an exceptional wine," is how he put it to me. To the extent that the château staff contributed to this improbable success, Lurton said, it was in recognizing that the elements were going to have their way with the wine and being courageous enough to stand aside and let it happen. I asked if he thought it would be possible to replicate intentionally a wine like the '47 and if it would be smart of winemakers to try. Lurton turned the question around: He said vintners today would be loath to take the kinds of chances required to produce such a wine—too much money is at stake now. "They would not want the risk," he said. "They are too prudent."

Some of Cheval Blanc's remaining '47s. Click image to expand.
Some of Cheval Blanc's remaining '47s

Prior to visiting Cheval Blanc, I had asked if it would be possible to take a picture of a bottle of the '47, and one of Lurton's assistants had given him the dummy bottle used for photo ops. But he decided to bring me to the château's cellar to see the real thing. The wines, all unlabeled, were resting on their sides in a large bin; by our count, there were 10 magnums and around 40 regular bottles remaining. I commented that it was too bad more hadn't been kept. "It is a little sad," Lurton said, adding that the château would be interested in buying back some bottles but that concerns about provenance make it unlikely. We were walking out of the cellar when Lurton suddenly stopped and began retracing his steps: He had put the dummy bottle in the bin with the real ones and had forgotten to remove it. "That's a fake! I can't leave that there!" he said with a roar of laughter.

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