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.

Grapes on the vine at Cheval Blanc. Click image to expand.
Grapes on the vine at Cheval Blanc

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.

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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.

Thierry Manoncourt in his vineyard. Click image to expand.
Thierry Manoncourt in his vineyard

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.

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.

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.

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.

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