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

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

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.

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During my visit to Cheval Blanc, I didn't request a taste of the '47, and I wasn't offered one; it is not the sort of wine that gets popped for a visiting journalist on a Monday morning. Naturally, though, I was more eager than ever to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Bacchus soon came through for me, in the form of an invitation to a December tasting in Geneva of 10 vintages of Cheval Blanc, capped by the '47. But while I was thrilled to finally get a crack at the fabled wine, I was pretty sure it would be a letdown. I wasn't being pessimistic, just realistic: The wine was 60 years old, had probably seen its share of movement, heat, and light (the Furies of the wine world), and was apt to be dead or close to it on opening. Even if the bottle was in pristine condition, it was hard to imagine the wine living up to its reputation. I became a little more hopeful when I arrived at the Beau-Rivage Hotel, where the event was being held, and learned that the '47 was coming directly from the hotel's cellar and had slept there undisturbed for nearly its entire existence. It turned out that the hotel's late owner, Fred Mayer, was a wine lover who had purchased an entire barrel of the '47, which was then bottled at the château and shipped to Geneva. Thanks to Mayer, the Beau-Rivage's vast wine collection includes a number of rarities, chief among them the '47 Cheval, of which around 20 bottles remain.

The impeccable storage undoubtedly explains why the '47 Cheval I drank that night now ranks as the greatest wine of my life, a title I doubt it will relinquish. The moment I lifted the glass to my nose and took in that sweet, spicy, arresting perfume, my notion of excellence in wine, and my understanding of what wine was capable of, was instantly transformed—I could almost hear the scales recalibrating in my head. The '47 was the warmest, richest, most decadent wine I'd ever encountered. Even more striking than its opulence was its freshness. The flavors were redolent of stewed fruits and dead flowers, yet the wine tasted alive; it bristled with energy and purpose. The '47s signature flaws—the residual sugar and volatile acidity—were readily apparent, but it was just as Lurton had said: In this wine, the flaws inexplicably became virtues. The analogy that sprang to mind wasn't port; it was Forrest Gump. This was the Forrest Gump of wines—clearly defective, completely charmed. I realized that it was silly even to try to place the '47 in the context of other wines; it defied comparison, a point underscored when I tasted another legend, the 1945 Château Latour, later that night (yeah, it was a nice evening). The Latour was stunning—probably the second-best wine I've ever had—but it at least fell within my frame of reference: It was a classically proportioned Bordeaux that just happened to be achingly good. The '47 Cheval, by contrast, was an otherworldly wine—a claret from another planet. And it was amazing.


But I wasn't quite done with the '47 vintage. Several days later, I attended a small luncheon in Paris hosted by Bipin Desai in honor of Thierry Manoncourt's 90th birthday. It was held at Taillevent and featured 17 vintages of Château-Figeac back to 1943, Manoncourt's first. The '47, which came in a magnum, was not up to the level of the '47 Cheval, but it was terrific in its own right, and surprising, too. By now, I'd come to assume that all the '47 Right Bank wines—the good ones, anyway—were zaftig beauties. But the Figeac was different: It was trim, elegant, and remarkably spry—very much like Manoncourt himself. That night, I ran into Manoncourt and his wife, Marie-France (who had also attended the lunch), at a Left Bank brasserie. He was having choucroute and beer and insisted I join them and do the same. We talked about Figeac, our families, and the state of France, and then we drank a toast—to Manoncourt's birthday and continued health, and to the '47 vintage, for all that it became and all the pleasure it has given.