Domaine de Chevalier vertical 2016-2000 (red)

Consistency and excellence

By Panos Kakaviatos for

28 May 2018

For several years now, I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed older vintages of wines both red and white from Domaine de Chevalier, a renowned estate from the Pessac-Léognan appellation of Graves in Bordeaux.

From a vertical of the whites, I helped to organize in Merano, Italy some years ago, to another vertical for both reds and whites at Black Salt in Washington D.C., tasting Domaine de Chevalier is a most positive experience.

And so it was no exception to have enjoyed another vertical – this time blind – of recent reds from this estate, reaching back to 2000 and up to 2016, although the 2001 was missing.

The 2016 was easiest to detect; could it be the best red ever made here? Owner Olivier Bernard prefers his 2010 for that honor, even if at this tasting this venerable Bordeaux vintage came off veritably closed. The other super star of these? 2009! Was it easy to detect the 2013? Not here. How about the 2002? Well, not really …

I tasted with Jane Anson and Gavin Quinney, and we had fun trying to guess which was which. Blind tastings always yield surprises, as we found out. And while some of us got some wines right, or at least made intelligent approximations, we were all generally not surprised with the consistently fine quality of the wines, year-in and year-out. The next section explains why.

About the estate and its terroir

First and foremost it enjoys a somewhat cooler microclimate in the Léognan part of the Pessac-Léognan appellation. Surrounded by a forest, it is rather unique, the 45 hectares under vine (40 for red wine and five for white) form a single block. Environmental disadvantages traditionally attributed to monoculture are compensated by the surrounding forest, which not only affords ecological protection, but is also a source of beneficial insects.

And when Bordeaux has a warm to hot vintage, many producers face the possibility of grapes that lack enough acidity. This is not a problem for Domaine de Chevalier whites, which even in warm to hot vintages can excel.

As for the reds, Olivier and his team share a commitment to excellence to fine-tune work in the vineyard so that only the ripest Cabernets and Merlots are picked. In that way, a cool to cold vintage can result in ever-finer reds. Warm and hot vintages are particularly welcome for reds here, as the cooler microclimate handles heat and heat stress better: the 2003 counts among the better Graves for that torrid vintage, as we discovered in this blind tasting. And the reds never fall into the “over ripe” trap.

“By accentuating thermal contrasts, Chevalier’s terroir creates a greenhouse effect in summer, which obviously enhances ripening. However, it also accentuates the risk of frost at the beginning of the growing season,” explains owner Olivier Bernard. Indeed, the estate suffered from the 2017 frost but pulled out excellent wine both red and white.

Decanter wine writer and author Jane Anson, Domaine de Chevalier assistant director Rémi Edange and Bordeaux-based winemaker and wine writer Gavin Quinney

Planted at 10,000 vines per hectare, this high density creates competition between vines resulting in low yields of grapes with thick skins and a high concentration of color, aromas, and tannin. It also reduces the time it takes for full, even ripening, and gives the wine the complexity necessary to age well for many years, Bernard stresses.

In terms of grapes, the full breakdown is as follows: 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot for the red wines and 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Sémillon for the white wines.

I love the whites of Domaine de Chevalier, but this tasting was devoted to the reds, whose quality is determined also by careful sorting after harvest. After preliminary sorting in the vineyard to remove clearly damaged grapes or those whose skins indicate paler highlights, the grapes are then gone over again on a sorting table. After de-stemming, they are looked at a third time, to be sure to eliminate any unripe grapes that may have been hidden inside bunches. I have seen this happen on a visit to the domain several years ago at harvest time.

The talented wine making of Olivier and assistant director Rémi Edange and their entire team at Domaine de Chevalier explains why the wines we tried blind were at least quite good to excellent. The best were nothing short of superb. You will note that my tasting notes come first with the number of the wine served blind, divided by flights, followed by my guessing, and then the actual vintage revealed.

Grading the wines was done on the 20-point French scale. So, for example, 20 is like 100, and 18 like 90 and so on. Keep in mind that French grading can be tough, so a score of 16 is considered in France to be a very good score: a solid B wine if not B+ in the American equivalent. Age worthiness was graded from 1 to 6, with 1 meaning to drink now and 6 meaning to wait the longest. That did not mean necessarily that a wine with a “6” rating was not already good, however.

As usual, wines in bold, I liked in particular. If red and bold, even more. If underlined, too, then a wine nirvana.

Domaine de Chevalier vertical 2000-2016

Flight One – Wine of the flight: #4

#1 – This has light tertiary notes, medium body, and it felt to me like a 2002. Lacking some vigor from a better vintage and showing some evolution with bricking on the rim. It is a bit light. In terms of age worthiness: 2? 15/20 It is a 2003! Notes after the tasting: Perhaps the extreme heat affected the cooler microclimate here less than in other vineyards?

#2– Looks slightly younger. Exudes sweet herb, black olive and some jammy fruit. Better grip than the preceding wine. And yet delicate: again, a bit light on the finish but with greater backbone. 16/20. In terms of age worthiness: 3? Not sure at about the vintage… 2004? Nope, the 2002. Notes after the tasting: Interesting how the 2002 has aged better to some extent than the 2003 here.

#3– Deeper hue. Fresher palate. Younger than either of the above. Herbal and even dark fruit.  Robust nose. A bit looser than the next wine, with not as much grip. 17/20. In terms of age worthiness: 3? Could this be a 2007? 2004! Notes after the tasting: At least none of us guessed a top vintage in this flight, although the next one proves to be the best.

#4 – Gorgeous aromas. Shows fresh earth yet also a ripe vintage profile. Has some wet stone aspects, with fine sap. A bit of fine cocoa powder. Freshness, too. Orange rind that is so appealing on the finish. A real pleasure to drink, with gas for the future. 17+ or 18/20. In terms of age worthiness: 3. 2004? Nope! 2000 Notes after the tasting: It seems that we got the best description for this final wine of this first flight, but guessed the wrong vintage …

Flight Two – It seems we are going from older to younger? / Wine of the flight: #8

#6 Lovely nose, deep and bright. Ripe fruit. 2008 or 2006? Acidity seems high, but there is balance. In terms of aging? 4 and score is about 17/20. This was actually the 2007.  Notes after the tasting: Wow, now that is one fine 2007!

#7 We opened two bottles because the first was faulty. The second bottle showed more tertiary notes than the above. Somewhat jammy on the nose: more evidently ripe, that is. The tannins seem like “2011 tannins” showing somewhat hard. Needs time, but I would rate it less optimally than the above for now at 16/20 but 4 for aging. 2005 Notes after the tasting: Totally missed this one, albeit the first bottle was off… And when tasted in 2011, it was a star. Chalk it up to a closed phase.

#8 This has a nice hue, with éclat. There is a certain austerity, but in a good way, as the tannins are tighter and there is depth to the palate. Somewhat closed phase, as this vintage can be. 2006? 17/20 and 5 for aging? 2008! Notes after the tasting: Similar style, but wrong vintage.

#9 This has a certain muted aspect, not as bright as #8. Baked fruit. Very full-bodied. Somewhat short on the finish, but the lifting acidity is there. Could it be 2012? Quite tannic. 16/20 and 4 for aging. 2006! Notes after the tasting: The 2006 here has never been my favorite but I liked the full body this time.

Flight Three – These wines certainly look younger than those from preceding flights / Wine of the flight: #11

#10 This has a certain smooth brightness and elegance at the same time. Very refined, yet fresh. Has energy. 2008 or 2014? 17/20 and 4 for aging and it was …. 2011! Notes after the tasting: Wow, now that is one fine 2011!

#11 Deep dark chocolate aspect on the nose. The palate is more austere on the attack, with somewhat harder tannins. Not as pleasing as the above, initially, although with much aging potential. Could this be the 2010? Has fine tannic power. Revisit again with time in glass and you get freshness and elegance: better than the above. 18+/20 and 5. 2009! Notes after the tasting: Here we have a 2009 that shows no evident “2009” aspects, which I mistook for the 2010. I recall liking it quite a lot from barrel back in 2011.

#12 Again dark fruit, but coolness and verve, too. This has a “more complete” palate feel, with more polish. And a “good” austerity. A bit light on the finish perhaps? 2012? Very fine. 17/20 and 5 for aging. Got this one right: 2012 ?

#13 Angular, and somewhat edgy on the palate. Does it lack some refined tannins of preceding wines? It has density but I am not sure. 2011? 5 for aging but 15/20? Maybe 16 out of 20? It was none other than the … 2010 / Notes after the tasting: This must be a closed phase!

Red socks for red wines!

Flight Four – at least the first two wines are quite young looking / Wine of the flight, wine of the tasting: #17

#14 This has fine tannins and seems riper than the last wine of the previous flight, but also you have fine tannic grip. 2014? 17+/20 and 5 for aging. 2014 / Notes after the tasting: Another correct guess, although it currently compares better than the 2010! Yet another sign of how underrated 2014 can be in Bordeaux.

#15 A certain austerity here on the palate. Cool elegance and refinement however that makes me think maybe this could be the actual 2014, depending on its phase in time? Tasting again reveals more angular tannins. 16/20 and 3 for aging. Shit. Why did I miss that! This turned out to be the “dreaded” 2013 / Notes after the tasting: Well, there you go: blind tasting!

#16 Herbal sweet on the nose. This has elegance and refinement but a bit cool and distant. A bit tight. Tannins are a tad austere. I respect it but do not love it. Not sure about the vintage here… 2014? 17/20 and 5 for aging. 2015! Wow, this is a bit closed. / Notes after the tasting: Closed phase?

#17 Very ripe and full-bodied, plenty of juice on the mid palate but also wonderful grip. This has to be the 2016 from barrel. Gorgeous wine. 19/20 and 5. Crescendo here. / Notes after the tasting: A great wine!

Many thanks to Rémi Edange for preparing this tasting for us, and of course to Olivier Bernard and the entire team at Domaine de Chevalier. A great adventure and always surprising when tasting blind.

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