Cheval Blanc: The “First Growth” of the Right Bank

When the wines of Bordeaux were classified in 1855 all of the wines were from the Left Bank of the Gironde River.  In fact, with the exception of Haut Brion, which is from Graves, all of the wines classified were from the Medoc.  Since that time, the winemaking areas of Bordeaux have greatly expanded.  Some of the best wines in Bordeaux are now made on the Right Bank including some of the most expensive wines in the entire world. 

view counter

While there is no official classification system for all of Bordeaux, there can be no doubt that if such a system was implemented today, at least a few Right Bank wineries would make the list.  Perhaps no winery deserves the mythical first growth of the Right Bank title more than Cheval Blanc.  In fact, the wines of Saint Émilion, a commune on the Right Bank, were ranked in 1955 and Cheval Blanc was one of two that received the highest rank of Premier Grand Cru Classé (A).  Those rankings were redone in 1969, 1986, and 1996 and most recently in 2006 (although that ranking is the subject of an ongoing legal dispute not relevant to Cheval Blanc) and Cheval Blanc has remained a First Growth in every subsequent ranking.

Chateau Cheval Blanc is in Saint Émilion.  Some people think it is a white wine due to its name, but it actually is French for Castle of the White Horse.  No one is sure where this name originated.  There have been vines covering the land since at least the mid 18th century.  Chateau Cheval Blanc’s beginnings trace back to 1832 when the Ducasse family purchased land from Chateau Figeac.  In fact, the early vintages were still labeled as Figeac.  In 1838, the Ducasse purchased additional acreage from Figeac.  The wine was successful from the start winning medals in London and Paris in 1862 and 1867 respectively (today’s label incorporates reproductions of those awards on them).  Henriette Ducasse had married Jean Laussac-Fourcaud in 1852, and by 1871 Laussac-Fourcaud had increased the size of Cheval Blanc to 41 hectares (a little over 100 acres), its size today.  Laussac-Fourcaud made many improvements to the estate including the building of the chateau and perhaps more importantly, installing vineyard drains.  It was these drains, the first in Saint Émilion, that helped alleviate the constant threat of flooding. 

In 1893, their descendant Albert Fourcaud-Laussac (he reversed the order of his last name) took over the estate.  The great vintages of 1900 and 1921 were made under his leadership and were some of the first Right Bank wines to garner world attention.  The Chateau also reorganized from a family business into corporate structure (called Société Civile) which allowed the family to avoid estate taxes and maintain control. 

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

The family remained in control until 1998 when it was sold to Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH luxury goods, and Albert Frere.  Pierre Lurton was appointed as the general manager.  Pierre Lurton also manages Chateau d’Yquem. 

Whereas most Right Bank vineyards are dominated by merlot, Cheval Blanc’’s vineyards are mostly cabernet franc (57%) with merlot (40%) and the remainder cabernet sauvignon and malbec.  An average vintage produces around 6000 cases.  They also produce about 2,000 cases of a second wine called Le Petit Cheval. 

There are three basic soil types.  A small part of the vineyard is on gravelly soil.  A larger portion is on sand and clay.  This area is mostly on blue clay, but a fraction is over natural iron deposits.  As you might expect, vineyard maintenance is meticulous.  The vines average over forty years old.

Some of the estate borders the commune of Pomerol (across the road from Chateau L’Evangile). 

The grapes go thru a rigorous selection (between 35 and 40 hectoliters per hectare) before being fermented in concrete and stainless steel vats.  Each vineyard plot is fermented separately.  Once the wine is thru malolactic fermentation, the wine is aged in 100% new French oak for 18 months.  The Le Petit will see one year of barrel ageing.