Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France for his 2017 vintage Bordeaux barrel tastings. While there, he's visiting the châteaus of some of the region's top estates, as well as some up-and-coming new producers.
The lower lying areas of St.-Emilion include part of the high-rent district bordering Pomerol. Here, in the Figeac sector, gravel soils deliver a wine with a different profile from those atop the limestone plateau—bass vs. treble, essentially. And these low-lying areas are where frost can settle ….
That meant a 30 percent crop loss for even a venerable estate such as Cheval-Blanc. In the end, yields in 2017 here were a mere 1.5 tons per acre.
"So we did prune again and we worked with the second crop," says technical director Pierre-Oliver Clouet. "We marked each plant accordingly. A few parcels had 100 percent frost damage, so that was easy to work with. Other plots had a mix [of damaged and undamaged vines], which made for more work. We purchased 15 little vats of 1,000 liters each, to work with the second-generation fruit from each plot separately, just as we do with the fruit normally. And then, in the end, two-thirds of that second-generation fruit actually made the grand vin. In terms of volume in the grand vin it came to just 2 or 3 percent."
"But it was the early season and then that long stretch through October that made that possible," says Pierre Lurton, who oversees production both here and at Château d'Yquem in Sauternes.
"Harvest started Sept. 6 through Oct. 11, stopping at times of course," says Clouet. "We have 10 different soil types and the difference in maturity between young Merlot on gravel versus old Cabernet on clay for example, is huge."
Note: These wines were tasted non-blind. See the full 2017 Bordeaux barrel tastings report for more than 250 official barrel scores and tasting notes for wines submitted to Wine Spectator's blind tasting here in Bordeaux.
From the small sister property, comes the 2017 Château Quinault L'Enclos, a 62 percent Merlot, 22 Cabernet Sauvignon, 16 Cabernet Franc blend.
"We work here the same way we do at Cheval, which means a gentler extraction, even as we increase the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyards," says Clouet. "We are also using 500 liter barrels and some 20 hectoliter foudres. We get the density and sweetness in the midpalate that oak brings, but without the influence of oak on the taste. In the past, when winemakers felt the influence of oak on taste, they decreased the new oak. Instead we work on the quality of the oak and the ratio of wine to wood via the larger vessels."
The wine is juicy with red and black currant fruit laid over a warm gravel feel. It has good energy, with solid density and a nice lingering savory hint at the very end.
From the main estate, 2017 Le Petit Cheval (second wine) represents just 8 percent of crop (333 cases). The 52 percent Merlot, 48 Cabernet Franc blend shows a light sanguine hint leading off, followed by alluring red currant and plum preserve flavors. It's supple and charming, with a light tug of tobacco and earth through the fine-grained finish. The acidity is sneaky fresh too.
Stepping up to the 2017 Cheval-Blanc grand vin, which comprises 70 percent of the crop (just over 4,000 cases), this is the first vintage of the grand vin to include fruit from Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted in 2012 on a gravel parcel close to the Figeac side. This brings the Cabernet Sauvignon in the vineyard up to 5 percent, the historical amount (the percentage had dropped as vines were replaced with Cabernet Franc instead). The ensuing blend of 56 percent Merlot, 30 Cabernet Franc, 14 Cabernet Sauvignon has a gorgeous mouthfeel, with a long, supple and succulent beam of raspberry, plum and red currant coulis flavors that stretch out beautifully along fine-grained tannins and a light mineral note. It is extremely refined through the finish, with a lingering rooibos tea note. It's remarkably fresh and refined—an example of the vintage's paradox—as freshness and supple texture are the opposite of what a warm and dry year usually delivers.
"We had the quality of an early and warm year but combined with a late and cool year. Because on some parcels we had the fruit that ripened early as a warm and early vintage, and then three weeks later we had the second-generation fruit that ripened as a cool and late style. It was a difficult but very interesting growing season," says Clouet.