The first and last visits of the day were to properties that could scarcely differ more superficially. Cheval Blanc has a fantastic new winery with the appearance of a breaking wave on the shore. Ausone has a nineteenth century belle epoque chateau that is being restored in the original style. Cheval is owned by Bernard Arnault of LVMH; Ausone remains in the hands of the Vauthier family. Cheval Blanc has 36 ha on the area of graves adjacent to Pomerol; Ausone has only 7 ha, partly on the limestone plateau just outside the town of St. Emilion, partly on the descending slopes. The production of Cheval’s second wine is larger than the production of Ausone’s grand vin. Yet these are the two original Premier Grand Cru Classé “A” chateaux—and in spite of the promotion of Angelus and Pavie to that category, neither has been admitted to the Club of Eight that represents the Premier Grand Cru Classés of both left and right banks. Both Cheval and Ausone have a strong commitment to Cabernet Franc, indeed these are the two greatest wines in the world based on a Cabernet Franc blend.
Thursday morning: Technical director Pierre Clouet shows us round the new cuverie at Cheval Blanc. “It took the new owners ten years to decide what they wanted,” he says, “but then it was done very fast. We wanted to respect the nineteenth century history but to have something modern.” It’s a green building with a living roof, containing a garden and terrace. Inside are 45 cuves to allow each of the plots in the vineyard to be vinified separately. “We produce exceptional wine by miracles in the vineyard and no mistakes in the cellar,” Pierre says. “We don’t want to change the style of Cheval, that was decided two centuries ago, but we want to have more precision, more resolution, more pixels.” The decision on whether to include lots in Cheval Bland or in the second wine, Petit Cheval, is taken on a plot by plot basis: each of the 45 cuvees must be good enough to include in Cheval Blanc, or it is declassified to Petit Cheval. There is also a third wine to keep up the quality of Petit Cheval.
There’s an interesting difference in the vineyard. “People who think that Merlot is for clay and Cabernet Franc is for gravel don’t understand Cheval Blanc; it is exactly the opposite here, Merlot is on gravel and Cabernet Franc is on clay. The Merlot is picked early, al dente, in order to preserve freshness. Cabernet Franc is not Sauvignon, it does very well on clay. This is what gives the wine its texture. The Cabernet Franc that is on gravel works best when the gravel is on a subsoil of clay, the tannins are too hard from Cabernet Franc on full gravel and there’s always some green pepper, so you would have to harvest late, and then you would get a mixture of over-ripe and under-ripe flavors.” We taste the 2006, which is round and elegant, a very good result for a year where I find most Bordeaux to have a rather flat flavor profile.
Afternoon: At Chateau Ausone, Alain Vauthier also believes that the Cabernet Franc is the essence of the style. “We’ve only been planting Cabernet Franc recently, and the proportion has increased,” he says. “We make very good Merlot, but I prefer the Cabernet.” I asked if there was a difference in terroirs for Merlot and Cabernet. “In theory, yes, but at Ausone there is the same effect as at Cheval Blanc and Pétrus: the terroir dominates the cépage.” We see round the facility, which is modest, with a fermentation facility using small wooden vats, and a barrel room cut deep into the rock. We taste the 2012, which is about to be bottled, and there is that characteristic combination of power with finesse.
In between: Coming out of St. Emilion into the one way system at the top of the town, we pass a bewildering number of entrances with gateposts saying Chateau Canon. Most lead into the vineyard or towards the chateau which is plastered with signs saying, Keep Out, work in progress. Eventually we find an entrance that winds round the back to the bureau, separated from the chateau which is undergoing a massive renovation. John Kolasa arrives from Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux, also owned by Chanel. Things had gone badly downhill when Chanel bought the property in 1996, and it’s taken twenty years to get things back to where he would like them. The cellars have been entirely rebuilt and 75% of the vineyard has been replanted. Croix de Canon is used for the wine from the young vines, but as they become older these lots will begin to go into Chateau Canon, and Croix de Canon will come from the vineyards of the former Chateau Matras, adjacent to Canon, that were recently purchased.
The style here is distinctive. Once again, Cabernet Franc is key. At one point, Merlot reached 80% of the vineyards, but the replanting program has brought it back down to 65%. “Canon can’t make sexy wine because the vines up here on plateau get stressed, down below on the plain” (with a slightly disdainful gesture) “the wines are ripe and round when young, but they will be flabby after 40 years. Up here there is more minerality, the wines will last for years.” Bordeaux is coming back towards a fresher style, John believes. We taste a sample of the 2013, followed by the 2011 and 2001. The same purity of style is evident; if I had these wines blind I would predict a higher content of Cabernet Franc than is actually the case, as for me they have that mineral purity I always associate with the variety. The lineage back to the wines of the 1960s is clear. Canon is right back on form.
Talking about vintages, I ask both Pierre Clouet and John Kolasa what they feel about the highly rated 2000 vintage versus the 2001 vintage that it somewhat overshadowed. They have the same view: 2001 really represents the style of the chateau, it has not yet entirely come into its own and will last for a very long time, 2000 is delicious now but is (at the risk of putting words in their mouths) more opulent than the style they truly desire, and it will not last as long as 2001. Cabernet Franc über alles.