a vertical tasting of 34 years of Cheval Blancsamedi, 3 novembre 2007

Here are my notes. It is probably too long. But I wanted to present my notes as a succession of feelings, very dependant on the moment I lived them.
Sorry for the length.

Bipin Desai organises famous tastings. This time it is in Los Angeles and on four meals, two lunches and two dinners in a row, we will have two verticales of Cheval Blanc and Yquem, with a guest of honour who is Pierre Lurton, presiding to the destinies of these two precious wines.

The restaurants are Spago and Chinois on Main, where last year Bipin had organised verticals of Lynch Bages and of the Rieslings of Trimbach.

I arrive in Hotel Bel Air, in the Bel Air area, which is an incredibly complex set of farm houses in a gigantic botanic garden.

At 8pm we are at Spago, welcomed by Christian Navarro who organises the opening of wines and service in glasses. For 60 people, this is a lot of work. It means also that the quantities will be very small per person as every bottle is divided in 30 pours. But it must be said that it does not prevent from enjoying the wines.

After some appetizers that we eat standing while drinking a Champagne Henriot NV quite proper, we have this menu : Wood oven roasted Wolf ranch quail with Italian white truffles / Cabernet risotto with roasted Maine lobster / medallions of Sonoma lamb with crispy potato-mushroom galette and wild huckleberries / chef’s selection of artisan cheese / deep dish Anjou pear pie with caramelized cream. The menu is absolutely nicely executed. The tastes were very good, but we were concentrated on the wines.

First flight : Cheval Blanc 1988, 1985, 1979, 1978, 1975, 1971, 1970.

I begin by smelling all the wines. The 1988 has a very intense nose, showing a very powerful wine. The nose of the 1985 is more fluid, more discrete, indicating a more discrete wine. The 1979 has a nose which is smoky, as the smell of a fire. The nose of the 1978 is well balanced. The one of the 1975 is discrete but of a very high class. The 1971 seems very alcoholic and indicates a strong wine. The 1970 has a strong nose but not too expanded, indicating a high quality.

I drink the wines before the dish arrives, and when it arrives, my neighbour swallows it literally and pushes his plate away, before I have even begun, telling me that he would be unable to judge the wines with the smell of the white truffle. But are we there to judge or to enjoy ? I will try to do both.

Along my notes, I give my impressions as I feel them. If I change my mind, I will tell it. Because in the glass a wine evolves, and a first approach can evolve.

1988 is a very classic Cheval Blanc, strong, still aggressive like a wild horse. 1985 shows evolution. A little tired, and would need food. Not bad, but probably too strict. 1979 is elegant, rather alcoholic. A little strict too. I would say that it is a classical but tight Cheval Blanc. The 1978 is more generous, more sunny, comfortable but not so shining. A little astringent.

The 1975 is a little weak but pleasant. Not complete, but showing talent. I like this wine. The 1971 is powerful, expanded, not typical for Cheval Blanc, but great. The 1970 has a nice balance. This is the most balanced of this group.

Then I drink the wines with the quail and the 1970 confirms that it is delicious. I would rank at that stage : 1970 – 1988 – 1971. The 1971 is extremely powerful, it is a soldier. The 1970 has the elegance, the 1988 has the youth. It is the wild horse which will become a great wine in some years. The 1975 appears a little tired. The 1978 should be included in my choice because it is more in the line of what Cheval Blanc is than the 1971, so my choice would be : 1970 – 1988 – 1971 – 1978.

1985 is like a good pupil, classical but not surprising; the 1979 is rather nice for the year. It is dry but for my palate it is better than the 1985.

Second flight : Cheval Blanc 1955, 1953, 1952, 1937, 1934

We are sixty people attending the event, and it can be remarked that two bottles per wine is enough to well understand the wines. Many glasses are not empty at the end of a flight, which means that 30 persons per bottle is a size which works. We make smaller sips and we can taste without problem. Things change a lot when there is only one bottle for 60 persons, and Bipin decided that for this case there would be only one glass per table (there were six tables), the whole table drinking in the same glass. I must say that it is not especially my cup of tea, but I fully understand the problems that Bipin has encountered to obtain so many bottles. If someone does not provide the bottle that he promised, I understand that it is uneasy to replace it instantly. So, we have had only one bottle for the 1952 and the 1937. For one wine, it did not disturb me as I immediately saw that it was the best wine of the evening. But for the 1937, it appears that I missed the message, as I found tired a wine that many other people found fantastic.

I examine the nose first. The 1955 has a very rich nose, with a trace of milk. The 1953 has a fantastic smell. The 1934 has a rather evolved nose but very interesting. The 1937 has a rather acidic nose, a little disturbed.

In mouth the 1952 is fantastic. This is an immense wine. The 1937 has a taste which is a little burnt, a little Port like even if it is not the type of Port that is found in the 1947 as we will see. Still very lively, but a little “smoked” as a burnt piece of wood. Apparently I missed the train as some other people loved the 1937.

The 1955 is a great wine, but not as the 1952. The 1953 is a great wine, in the same league as the 55 and 52. The 1934 is good but a little tired (some friends were more impressed than me by the 1934).

I find the 1952 gorgeous, and my ranking is : 1952 – 1955 – 1953 – 1934 – 1937.

The 1934 improves and appears better than what I thought. It works wonderfully with the delicious risotto. The wines of the decade 50ies are highly above the wines of the first flight. The 52 is rapidly finished as we shared one glass. The 1955 is really a very great wine. The 1934 gets tired after some minutes.

The advantage of this flight is to show how the decade 50ies performs well by now for Cheval Blanc.

Third flight : Cheval Blanc 2004, 2003, 2001, 2000

By smelling the 2004, it shows that we change completely of era. The nose is pure, sympathetic. The nose of the 2003 is more concentrated, more intense. The nose of the 2001 is suppler, more voluptuous. The nose of the 2000 is velvety, elegant but also powerful. The most distinguished nose.

In mouth, the 2004 is already a great wine. It is very good, but the set or aromas is not very large. The final is nice. The wood is elegant. I have a very positive impression about this young wine. The 2003 is rather monolithic and simplified. Despite the reputations, I am fonder of the 2004 than of the 2003, which does not appear so well built.

The 2001 is elegant, has purity, with a sufficient power. It is very black fruits, and astringent. The 2000 is an immense wine. It is not truly in the Cheval Blanc style. It is balanced, soft and serene, with cacao, tropical wood. This wine will become a very great wine.

Ranking is very difficult. For the pure pleasure, I hesitate between : 00 – 04 – 01 – 03 and 00 – 01 – 04 – 03. The 03 is too simplified and bony.

Trying to figure a final choice for this day, I ranked first so :

00 – 52 – 55 – 53 – 04 – 70 – 88 – 01 …

But I changed it to :

1952 – 1955 – 1953 – 2000 – 2001 – 2004 – 1970 – 1988

This shows how it is difficult to make a decision. The 2000 will certainly be the greatest. But the performance of the decade 50ies needed to be noticed.

Driven home by friends, I did not take the dessert which was accompanied by a Santo Stefano Moscato di Asti 2006. I took just a quick sip to notice that it is very young.

During the dinner, Pierre Lurton was nearly having closed eyes as it was for him a non stop day of 27 hours. But with his legendary energy, he was able to talk precisely about every wine. John Kapon was tired as he attends such events or provokes them nearly every day. James Sucking showed us how he makes instant videos that he will put on his blog. The attendance consisted of a very regular group of Bipin’s fans. The atmosphere was smiling.

A wonderful dinner with a delicate food in a nice place. But the big boys of Cheval Blanc are coming tomorrow.

The second meal for tasting Cheval Blanc is a lunch by Chinois on Main, with the cook of Luis Diaz and Rene Mata, and with the supervision of wines by Christian Navarro. The tasting is conducted by Bipin Desai and the guest of Honour is Pierre Lurton, who will give very precise data on every year with dates of crop, yield, proportions per variety of vine, and alcohol, acidity and sugar levels. It is extremely interesting to drink knowing these information. Some people took notes about these figures. I did not.

The menu consists in : passed hors d’oeuvre / potstickers with stir-fried lamb and Matsukake mushroom emulsion / wok seared Maine lobster and veal cheeks bao / duck pancakes with mushroom sauce / Peking duck “Bipin” with Asian pears in red wine / Pixie tangerine granite with almond macaroons. The food was very spicy, which disturbed sometimes the mouth, and was sometimes too complicated to give a benefit to the wines. But the atmosphere and the commitment of the whole staff were remarkable and we enjoyed this rare moment.

The bottles are opened at the last minute and decanted just before the service. This method is very different from mine, and some wines were a little tight due to the late opening.

First flight : Cheval Blanc 1999, 1996, 1995, 1989, 1983

The 1999 has the nose of a wine which was just opened. The alcohol appears first in the smells, and the other aromas are not awakened. The 1995 has a more complete set of flavours, and is more charming. The 1996 has a very classical nose, not showing fantasy. The 1989 has a more closed smell, and the colour indicates an evolution. The 1983 has an evolved nose.

I drink the wines without food. The 1999 has a nice structure. It is woody, but agreeable. I find a good balance in this wine. The 1996 is more established. It is more classical, with nothing very spectacular. I write again : “very classical”.

The 1995 is a little more flat. It is a good wine, but without panache. The 1989 is a wine for gastronomy. Very balanced, a little bitter, it would be a great wine with a proper food. The 1983 is obviously good. It has evolved, but it is very elegant.

As it is difficult to rank, I make several rounds. The 1999 is pleasant. The 1996 is too classical. The 1995 is more pleasant now, with a great balance. The 1989 needs a nice dish. The 1983, as the 1996 is too classical, even if good.

I rank : 1989 – 1999 – 1995 – 1996 – 1983. What is interesting is that around me, the comments are completely different from what I note. Bipin finds the 1999 too linear. Some friends say that the greatest are the 1983 and the 1995. Am I going to be influenced by these comments?

I taste again the 1983 with the dish, and it looks better. The dish is much too spicy. I like the 1999 with the spices, and the 1989 gets tired with the spices. Being influenced by the comments, I appreciate more the 1983. I continue to appreciate the 1989. And, influenced as I am, I rank the wines so : 1983 – 1989 – 1995 – 1996 – 1999.

It is clear that the wines have expanded which revealed qualities that I had not caught. But I keep in mind that I had well accepted the 1999. I accepted to change my mind as it gives a ranking which is the order of the years.

Second flight : Cheval Blanc 1966, 1964, 1962, 1961, 1959

The 1966 has the nose of a wine which was opened too recently. The alcohol is shown first. The colour seems evolved. The 1964 has a muddy smell. It could be the glass. The 1962 has a lovely nose but then the dish is served. The nose of the 1961 is opened, and the 1959 has a very lovely smell, charming with the dish.

The 1966 is a very comfortable lovely wine. The 1964 is very great and I write again very great. The 1962 is more limited. The 1961 is a great wine, but does not correspond to what I know and what its reputation is. It lacks of panache and irradiation. The 1959 deserves respect. It is a great wine with an infinite length. At this stage, I rank : 1959 – 1964 – 1966 – 1961 – 1962. The position of the 1961 shows that it should be the bottle which has a problem.

The 1966 is obviously a very agreeable wine. It is a wine of pleasure, not sophisticated but comfortable. The 1964 is great, beautiful, magnificent. The 1962 has not the level of the others. The 1961 has a greater density than the others, but is not made for pleasure. The 1959 is a perfect wine, immense. It has everything one could hope.

Bipin makes comments about a characteristic taste of Cheval Blanc which is candy. My personal remark is that all the wines that we had from the decade 50ies were pure champions.

My final ranking confirms my first : 1959 – 1964 – 1966 – 1961 – 1962.

Third flight : Cheval Blanc 1998, 1990, 1982

The nose of the 1990 is not opened (every first wine of each flight has a closed nose, due to this opening method). The 1998 whose colour is spectacularly younger than the others has a very pure nose. The nose of the 1982 is very pure too.

The taste of the 1998 is fantastic. It is a wine of a pure success and accomplishment. It is so good ! The 1990 is very good but is more established, cosy. It is a great wine. The 1982 is in the same situation but is even more “established”.

In the 1990 I find the candy taste mentioned by Bipin. The wine is extremely fresh. Due to the airy final I put the 90 above the 98 which pleased me more by a first approach. The 1982 stays a little behind even if it is a wine of a top quality.

I rank : 1990 – 1998 – 1982.

The 1990 has many similarities with the 1959. The 1990 is without doubt largely above the 1989. The three first flights were of an outstanding quality. The most pure of the wine is certainly the 1998. The charm is for the 1959 and the 1990.

Fourth flight : Cheval Blanc 1949, 1948, 1947, 1945, 1921

Bipin announced that we would have only 2 bottles of 1947 as he had doubts on a third one. And he announces that there is only one 1921. But as he thinks that the wine could be a fake, he asks if we would like to taste it. Evidently everyone wants to taste. We scrutinised the cork, and Pierre Lurton seeing how it was printed, with the indication “recorked in 1995” on both faces of the cork, confirmed what I supposed, that the wine was authentic. And in mouth it is definitely a wine of the 20ies, with no doubt, and it is a great wine. So, the probability of changing a great wine of the 20ies for a great wine of the 20ies makes very probable that it is a true Cheval Blanc. I find it delicious, combining sweetness and acidity. A wine of an exceptional length. I will not rank it later, as the fact to drink just one sip or two excludes a true analysis.

The 1949 has a very superb and elegant nose. The 1948 has a very rich and seductive nose, of a rare depth. The 1947 has an incredible nose. It is a bomb. It is above the 1948. The 1945 is corked.

I begin to taste the 1945 and with the greatest possible objectivity, I must say that the taste is not biased by the smell of cork. It is a large, opulent, serene, powerful, velvety wine. It is a great wine. The 1949 which I find too cold is more strict, lighter, but it is a great wine. Probably too strict when compared with the previous Cheval Blanc 1949 that I tasted among an horizontal presentation of the best Bordeaux of 1949. The 1947 exposes its Port like aspect with a great evidence. There are coffee, cacao and butternut. The power in mouth is amazing. Many people around the tables wanted the 1948 to be above the 1947, as the 1948 is nearly never drunk. And the hesitation could be possible as this 1948 has a strength and a serenity which makes it an important and imposing wine. It could seem to be fortified as it is so powerful, but it is just an impression.

Bipin will keep for him the empty bottles of the greatest wine, so he has with him one of the 1947, and he shares with me the sediment. This sediment has a taste to die instantly. This is so incredibly good. Purely amazing. I could fall down from my chair. It is incredible. I find it totally crazy, and it makes me mad. There are caramel aspects, Maury aspects. It is like precious gold in mouth.

The 1949 confirms it is a little limited, The 1945 is even greater than what I had tasted. The 1947 is obviously above, but the trio 1947, 1948, 1945 boxes in a heavyweight category. My ranking : 1947 – 1948 – 1945 – 1949. The three first have a constant aspect : torrefied, rich, Port like.

My conclusion is that the decade 50ies made the most authentic Cheval Blanc which have elegance and finesse and are now at the top of their form. And the decade 40ies, created for the best years wines which are more extreme, madder, more extravagant.

The 1947 is an extraterrestrial wine, The 1921 is still a good wine, very different from the others. It is certainly a magnificent and rather unique vertical that we have lived, with the nice comments of Pierre Lurton and the intelligent organisation of Bipin Desai.