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Clay is key to quality in 2012 Bordeaux

Bordeaux has produced a “fabulous vintage” in 2012 depending on soil type, said Château Cheval Blanc’s technical director, Pierre-Olivier Clouet, speaking at a tasting in London last week.

Château Cheval Blanc
Château Cheval Blanc

Clouet made the comment having shared wines from Cheval Blanc’s 2012 harvest – the first time the St-Emilion property has ever poured barrel samples for the public outside the château – giving UK press a preview of the vintage ahead of primeurs in April.

In answer to questions about 2012, Clouet explained that it “will be a vintage for terroir,” due to the uneven rainfall during the growing season.

“It was a specific vintage, with very high precipitation in April as well as high in June, and average in July, but very low in August and September – and it is this which saved the vintage; the end of August changed everything,” he said.

Such was the reduction in rainfall during the summer months, Clouet showed data to prove that 2012 was the sixth driest vintage in the last 50 years.

“We classify vintages at Cheval Blanc according to the stem water potential, and the driest vintage in 50 years was 2005, then 1998, 2010, 1995, 1989 and 2012,” he stated.

According to Clouet, the extremes of rainfall from very high to almost arid conditions favoured clay – the underlying soil of Cheval Blanc’s best vineyards – due to the soil’s natural ability to retain water.

“Average terroir can have a problem in 2012 with too much water and then not enough,” he said, referring to the more free-draining gravel or sandy soils, also found at the property.

“But in 2012 clay performed very well because the regulation of water was perfect. Water control is the most important point in 2012 – it was a classical vintage with average temperatures, so its success is because it is a dry vintage. “

Cheval Blanc’s new winery

Continuing he said that warm temperatures alone won’t guarantee quality in Bordeaux, noting that 2003 “is not exceptional” because the extremes of heat were combined with a lot of summertime rainfall.

On the other hand he declared 2010 one of the best vintages at Cheval Blanc because temperatures were “fresh” and the total rainfall was three times less than the average.

Then, switching the focus to 2012’s traits, he said, “Yes 2012 will have more structure and tannin than 2011.”

And, referring to the wines tasted, particularly the Merlot and Cabernet Franc from clay soils, he spoke of 2012’s quality.

“All these wines are still in barrel, and I’m not sure that you will find one note of wood in these samples… with 2012 it’s just fruit, and when you get fruit like that, it is a fabulous vintage.”

Cheval Blanc’s technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet. Source:

Although the nature and quality of the 2012 vintage was discussed in detail, the purpose of the London-based tasting for the UK trade and press was to highlight the components of Cheval Blanc, which is unusual for its high proportion of Cabernet Franc.

Clouet remarked that the property has not yet produced the perfect blend, but has invested in clonal selections and a new cellar to create a better wine.

Opening in June 2011 was a €13 million new winery allowing the 29 hectare estate to separately vinify its 44 different plots.

In terms of vineyard soils at Cheval Blanc, Clouet identified three main types: clay (40-45%), gravel (40%) and sand (15-20%), stressing that the property has no limestone.

Sand, he said, was the estate’s poorest soil because “it is difficult to have a good balance: the vine can have too much water when its wet, and not enough when the vintage is very dry.”

Referring to the style of wines this soil produces, he commented, “The wines are simple and direct, fruity but not completely ripe in a difficult vintage, and medium bodied, and it is better to plant Merlot on sand, it is not good for Cabernet Franc.”

Meanwhile, gravel he said can “produce some exceptional wine”.

Warming very quickly, you can get “overripe aromas” he said, while rapid maturation from grapes grown on gravel mean, “you need to be careful to preserve freshness”.

Such is the free-draining nature of gravel soils, he said it favoured older vines with deep roots, and young vines can suffer in dry conditions.

In general, gravel yields wines with “precise, complex aromas, and the most important effect of gravel is on the nose,” according to Clouet.

Cheval Blanc’s best soil however is clay. “The water regulation is perfect and it stops the vine growing at the right time,” he said.

Explaining further, he stressed clay’s ability to supply water to the vine during dry periods, and speaking about near-neighbour Pétrus, which is situated entirely on clay soils, he said that the wine’s most important trait was “regularity – even in 1997 they had ripeness.”

The château and new winery side by side

Summing up the determinants of soil quality he said, 90% is down to water status, and 10% nitrogen content; “the rest you can forget”.

He also said that in blind-tasting wines from the 44 plots when deciding the blends for Chateau Cheval Blanc and Le Petit Cheval, as well as which wines to reject, it is easier to detect the soil type than the grape variety.

Meanwhile, he surprised attendees of the tasting by declaring that Cabernet Franc and clay were Cheval Blanc’s most prized combination.

Joking that Cabernet Franc was “the best grape variety in the world,” he said that the grape was becoming “trendy”, with plantings up four fold worldwide in the last 50 years.

Like Ausone, Cheval Blanc has been working on its own clonal selection for Cabernet Franc, and 15 years ago began isolating the property’s best examples according to berry weight, yield, sensitivity to botrytis, sugar content, acidity, pH and greenness – the latter measured according to IBMP (3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine) content in the wine, which is responsible for a green bell pepper character.

Although he stressed that Cheval Blanc has selected clones that produce very little IBMP, he said the most important quality determinant was berry weight – with the property’s selection focused on Cabernet Franc vines producing small berries.

“The target is to continue to plant our genetic heritage,” he said, adding, “Just to identify the best clones has been the biggest investment of the château in the last 20 years.”

The event was jointly organised by Château Cheval Blanc and Bordeaux Négociant Yvon Mau, and was hosted by Richard Bampfield MW. It was held at Trinity House at Tower Hill in London on Tuesday 5 February.

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