Last December I had the chance to participate in the most comprehensive tasting of the quintessential Graves Domaine de Chevalier that the man who has run the property for the last 20 years Olivier Bernard had ever attempted.
By Bordeaux standards Domaine de Chevalier is relatively youthful, the property's pine forests on the edge of the Landes having first been cleared to make way for vines only about 150 years ago. But there has been remarkable consistency of ownership since then with only three different generations of the Ricard family at the helm until 1983 when, after a particularly late and severe spring frost, to which the proximity of those pines make this vineyard so prone, the domaine failed to share in the bounty of Bordeaux's 1982 vintage. Amid much gnashing of teeth among the many fans of Claude Ricard, the cerebral musician then running the estate, Domaine de Chevalier was sold to the Bernard family which had been hugely successful in the sugar business and now has an empire embracing the Bordeaux negociants Millésima, Wine & Co and a very large participation in all the alcohol - sorry, brandy - produced when France's surplus wine is distilled.
Rosy-cheeked Olivier Bernard who, unusually for Bordeaux, lives on the property, spent his first five years working alongside the old hand Claude Ricard. He arrived at the tasting in the Rheingau fresh, if that is the right word, from a trip selling brandy in Asia but was up early the next morning to oversee the cork-pulling and decanting of this unprecedented range of his wines. Most of the labels were old enough to bear the old black and white photograph of this modest property, Many had been acquired from salerooms and merchants such as the German specialist retailer of old and rare wines www.rare-wine.com which organised the tasting since the Domaine de Chevalier cellars were relatively empty when his family took over.
The Bernards are in an interesting position at the helm of this property, historically one of the most respected Graves after Chx Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. In recent years it has failed to maintain its leadership. Despite the enviably deep pockets of the Bernard family, the wines of Domaine de Chevalier have been rather eclipsed by the more concentrated styles now being made by its neighbours in the newish appellation Pessac-Léognan Chx Pape Clément and Smith Haut Lafitte, both also run by relatively new owners.
Recent vintages of Domaine de Chevalier have undoubtedly been hampered by its high proportion of young vines which in Bordeaux notoriously tend to produce weaker wine. The vineyard was traditionally very small by Bordeaux classed growth standards when the Bernards took it over but they were determined to extend it so cleared the forest and planted energetically in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They have also deliberately cleared the forest immediately around the vines so as to lessen the ravages of frost, which was particularly severe in 1991 and 1977 as well as in 1982.
"No other château of our level," Olivier Bernard confessed, "has been replanted as much." Three-quarters of the vineyard has been replanted or newly planted and the total extent of vines is now 45 hectares, or 111 acres, while originally only 15 hectares were planted with vines. "This was a family choice. We knew we had to plant the right variety in the right place with the right drainage, but it's a very, very long term strategy," admits Bernard, with presumably a subconscious nod to some less-than-thrilling ratings for his wines over the years. "We had some financial imperatives so in the 1990s we blended in the young-vine wine a bit too much. But I know exactly where we are going in the next 10 years. I don't like technical wines and I really don't like heavy wines. I think the time of big, over-extracted bordeaux is perhaps at an end. I want the subtlety and purity of the terroir. Graves has to have freshness."
There have long been outside influences at Domaine de Chevalier. The first internationally famous Bordeaux oenologist Emile Peynaud was a very early consultant here and was the eminence grise behind some of the property's most successful vintages in the 1950s and 1960s produced before the common dilemma for French family-owned estates of yield versus quality asserted itself. His successors at Bordeaux university have also played a part with both the reds and famous dry whites produced by Domaine de Chevalier and since the 2002 vintage Bernard has taken on the more intuitive counsels of Stéphane Derenoncourt. Bernard is particularly pleased with the 2003 and 2004 reds, aged on the lees in a more burgundian style. "What I want is 'silky' and nothing too exaggerated."
So how were the wines? What was so exciting for me was to see such a very clear thread running through the wines – more, I would say, than in most similar vertical tastings of a long span of vintages from other properties. The wines were indeed all very lively and fresh (occasionally too much so) and often understated, but with some really lovely bottles. We also enjoyed some of the dry whites for which Domaine de Chevalier has long been more famous than its neighbours.
As usual with old bottles sourced on the open market, we had our fair share of corked and out-of-condition bottles too. Most unfortunately our particular bottles of the famous 1959, 1955, 1947, 1988 and, more surprisingly, 1998 were disappointing.
Partly because of the property's unusual situation, being moulded by weather patterns not necessarily identical to those of the more famous Médoc, Domaine de Chevalier has prided itself on successes in some vintages generally regarded as off years. In fact my favourite vintage from the 1940s (whose conventional stars are 1945, 1947, 1949 and sometimes 1948) was 1943. Celebrated French wine writer Michel Bettane agreed. (We tasted blind.) The 1964 is a marvel in the classical mould and 1966 showed better than 1961. The first two flights, from the 1920s through to the 1960s were certainly the best, showing the delicacy of which this property is capable. The wines of the 1970s and the 1980s, Oliver Bernard admitted, could have done with "a nice green harvest" or some other means of reducing the yield and making more concentrated wine. Although this second crop reduction in the vineyard was practised from 1984, its effects were counterbalanced by the high proportion of young-vine fruit allowed in to the final blend. We had to wait until the impressive 1996 before seeing a return to form but from then on, the wines seemed to get better and better with the 2001, 2003 and 2004 showing particularly well. Bernard claims that his 2005 is even better, but then this is a common cry in Bordeaux.
"With the replanting of our vineyard now completed I honestly think the future of the Domaine is assured," he claims. "I don't want concentration from technique but from the fruit itself."
IMPRESSIVE DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER REDS
1943, 1948, 1964, 1966, 1981, 1996, 2001, 2003, 2004
Bottles of 1947, 1955, 1959, 1988 and 1998 did not show well at this tasting.
See tasting notes for detailed tasting notes on 50 vintages of Domaine de Chevalier back to 1916.