Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Cheval Blanc and chips

As the snow continues to fall, the fine wine continues to flow at Decanter. This week we hosted a St Emilion Grand Crus Classés 2000 and 20001 tasting. When all our tasters have gone home, I get an apprentice-like call from the tasting room that goes something like: 'Lucy, the wines are ready to see you now', at which point I ping an email round the office, letting everyone know they are ready to be tasted.

To get the best stuff you've got to be quick. This time round I was lucky enough to take home 1/3 of a bottle of Cheval Blanc 2000. I was excited, having only tasted CB on two previous occasions, both of which were memorable. The first was something of a Sideways scenario. I'd been working at one of our Fine Wine Encounters and had got to take home nearly a full bottle of 2004. Walking home with a couple of friends, we passed a McDonald's.

Unable to resist the chance of a Miles moment, we strode in and ordered the obligatory burger and fries, asking for three empty cups on top of the three milkshakes we ordered. I was tasked with pouring, so began surrepticiously sliding the empty cups under the table one-by-one, which miraculously came up full. Admittedly, a plastic cup is not the ideal receptacle in which to judge one of the best wines in the world, and I think I was more in love with the idea of the wine than the wine itself, but it was a wonderfully irreverent experience.

My second brush with the white horse came at the Chateau itself. Last July I spent a week on a canal boat along the Canal du Garonnne as part of a Bordeaux travel feature. Before my travel buddy and I set sail, we took a detour to Saint Emilion. I'd managed to line up visits at Canon, Ausone and Cheval Blanc. We were due at the white horse at 2pm. Running late from our tasting at Ausone, we careered up the gravel drive lined with perfectly pruned topiary, narrowly missing the tiny white wooden sign wedged in the grass.

We parked and made our way into the chateau, and were surprised to be greeted with a library rather than a reception. Decked out in tasteful regency furniture, small dogs stood proud inside big frames. Conscious of the fact that we'd taken a wrong turn into a private part of the of the chateau, we made our way into the hall and eventually found our group.

At Canon and Angelus we had been lucky enough to have the place to ourselves, but had to tag onto a group of six affluent Americans at Cheval Blanc. In the tasting room, one of them nudged the other, exclaming in not-so-hushed tones that it was about time to see how his '82s were getting along. They both erupted with laughter. I was impatient to see which vintage would be brought out for us to taste – 2007, or '06 perhaps. Our guide came back clutching a bottle of '04. My heart flopped. Of all the vintages in recent history, it had to be the one I'd already tried.

Deflated, I lifted the glass to my nose and sniffed. Where was the wine? Had all the character ran back into the empty bottle? It was in that awkward stage in a wine's life, a few years after bottling, when it goes back into itself and quite literally clams up. All the fruit had gone, and I struggled to get anything in the way of aroma and taste. I wanted to like it, but couldn't help but be disappointed.

Fortunately, the 2000 didn't disappoint. Enjoyed in the most prosaic of surroundings (my front room), the wine had really opened up. The nose showed a fantastic array of flavours, the first thing hitting you being the lovely dried fruit aromas of prunes and figs; it almost had a Port-like character. And yet there was lots of young fruit: plums, damsons, currants, black cherries, all wrapped around smooth velvety tannins. The palate had a sweet coconutty smoothness, which I found really attractive. Some might call it over-ripe, but I was wooed. It was a little short, but delicious nonetheless, and by far my most satisfying Cheval Blanc experience.

I guess that's the joy of wine; you get to see it grow. You follow it through its infancy and support it through its awkward adolescence. With patience, you witness its metamorphosis into a confident and complex adult, layered with nuance. That's when wine becomes really exciting; when you get to see how the same wine is progressing, like reconnecting with an old friend. I've kept the bottle as a trophy. The taste still lingers like a friendly ghost.

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