Chateau Cheval Blanc in Saint Emilion produced a faulty wine in 1947 that turned out to be legendary. How the wine transformed into such a mythical vintage is baffling. The estate describe the 1947 as ‘an accident of nature’. It should have been dreadful but instead it is magical. The Cheval Blanc 1947 sends wine lovers and collectors alike into a frenzy. It is also one of the most sought after and the most expensive wines in the world to acquire.
The 1947 vintage was the product of a scorching hot summer that carried on in Bordeaux through from July to September and grapes were shrivelled by the sun on the vines. Some estates in Pomerol and Saint Emilion produced some of the most Port-like, concentrated wines ever made in Bordeaux whereas others struggled.
At Cheval Blanc the heat permeated down into the cellars and resulted in ‘stuck fermentation’ leaving high levels of residual sugar and volatile acidity. The wine was full of technical flaws but incredibly it didn’t matter. The wine had evolved into something beautiful. Jancis Robinson describes it as her “last chosen wine on earth” and Robert Parker has awarded it a perfect 100-point score. His tasting notes from 1994 read:
“What can I say about this mammoth wine that is more like port than dry red table wine? The 1947 Cheval Blanc exhibits such a thick texture it could double as motor oil. The huge nose of fruitcake, chocolate, leather, coffee, and Asian spices is mind-boggling. The unctuous texture and richness of sweet fruit are amazing. Consider the fact that this wine is, technically, appallingly deficient in acidity and excessively high in alcohol. Moreover, its volatile acidity levels would be considered intolerable by modern day oenologists. Yet how can they explain that after 47 years the wine is still remarkably fresh, phenomenally concentrated, and profoundly complex?”
Very few people are lucky enough to taste Cheval Blanc 1947, partly because (as the late, great wine expert Harry Waugh said) that much of this wine was drunk within its first 5-6 years of life because it was so supple and partly because what is left is jealously hoarded by wine collectors. Only a few thousand cases were made and thanks to the wine’s value it is a prime target for counterfeiters.
Back in 2010 a rare Imperial bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947 sold for £192,000 to a private collector at an auction at Christies in Geneva. Christie’s wine expert, Michael Ganne, said the sale constituted a new world record in the wine category and the “only known bottle in the Imperial format” for this Saint Emilion vintage. An Imperial bottle is the equivalent of 8 standard bottles of wine (6 litres). Larger bottles are popular with Bordeaux collectors – especially the Imperial. This is because the small amount of air in the bottle and the large volume of wine favours slow development and allow more complexity in the wine when compared with smaller formats.
This week it was reported that a French collector has bought a case of 12 bottles of Cheval Blanc 1947 for £111,000 in one of the most expensive purchases ever in a French auction. That works out at £1550 a glass! The bottles were still in their original wooden case, blackened by time, and had been re-corked at the chateau during the 1990s to protect the wine from oxidation. Re-corking is a service that chateau offer their customers as corks tend to shrink with age. The new corks are usually printed with the date of the re-corking as well as the original vintage. Records are rigorously kept to prove the wine’s provenance.
In the past some chateaux would also ‘recondition’ the wine i.e. if the level of the wine had fallen in the bottle it was usually topped up with a tiny drop of the same wine. Modern replacement labels were also available if the originals had perished. However problems arose when the customer brought in old or rare bottles as it was difficult to find the same vintage to top it up with. In this instance a vintage of similar quality was chosen for the job.
Reconditioning is somewhat of a controversial topic and nowadays many estates decline to do it – for example Petrus have prohibited the reconditioning of customer’s bottles since 1998 as they consider the service is susceptible to fraud (counterfeiters would attempt to legitimise their fake bottles by asking to have them reconditioned at the chateau). The Bordeaux Grand Cru Classés will only consider reconditioning wines under certain circumstances and by special arrangement – usually only if the wines have cast iron provenance.