1939 & 1950 Cheval Blanc


There is always a frisson of excitement in coming eyeball to eyeball with a prewar bottle of Bordeaux, especially one from a vintage dismissed and written out of history. The quality of the 1939 vintage was trivial against the backdrop of war breaking out across Europe, though for the record it purportedly produced light wines, better for whites than reds. Examples are hardly ever seen nowadays. Apart from a couple of Sauternes, the only one I had tasted was a 1939 Rauzan-Ségla at last year’s vertical. But I recently attended a dinner where the highlight was a bottle of 1939 Cheval Blanc. I was intrigued. Why this particular vintage when there are so many other legendary years to choose from?

Pierre-Olivier Clouet, Cheval Blanc’s technical director, was on hand to give me the background. The challenging 1939 growing season provided only a minute yield, and since there was little market for fine wine, not to mention an immediate shortage of glass to produce bottles, the société civile that owned the estate decided to sell 14 barrels to Mähler-Besse. The Bordeaux négociant found a client in New York and duly sold 90% of their stock across the Atlantic. However, when it came to shipping the wines in 1941, the vessel was forced to return to France due to the threat of German U-boats. Consequently, the bottles languished at Mähler-Besse until recently, when one of the team notified Pierre Lurton and brought a bottle to Cheval Blanc for their inspection. The château does not own a single bottle of 1939, ergo Mähler-Besse’s stock represents all that exists. Bottles varied in ullage, and they decided to re-cork the best, electing to do so at the négociant rather than the château so there can be no claim that this is ex-château stock. A few of these re-corked bottles have been released onto the market.

So how does it taste?

The 1939 Cheval Blanc is far better than I expected, not least because the bottle had lain in a single cellar virtually its entire life. It is surprisingly deep in color. The nose has retained a sense of vigor, offering black fruit, mint, touches of chimney soot and cracked black pepper – rustic but pleasant. The palate is medium-bodied and a little fleshier than anticipated, displaying an agreeable bitter edge with cedar and sage toward what feels like a more Cabernet-driven, tertiary finish. While it is short and nowhere near as complex as the postwar legends, it is perfectly drinkable and enjoyable. 90/Drink 2019-2024.

More recent vintages were opened, but for now, I include just one other since it comes from around the same era.

This dust-caked bottle was filled and corked in 1952 in Berry Brothers & Rudd’s cellar, where it lay until around 6pm on November 25, 2019.

The 1950 Cheval Blanc was bottled by Berry Brothers & Rudd two floors below where it was opened some 69 years later. The 1950 is a highly regarded vintage, revered on the Right Bank, but poorly so on the Left. This was similar to two château-bottled examples that I have tasted previously, albeit not for many years. Deep in color with thin bricking on the rim, it has a glorious bouquet of ample red cherries, wild strawberry and blood orange, signifying a Saint-Émilion that must have been precocious in its youth. There is something almost sorbet-like about the aromatics, despite the wine’s age. The palate is medium-bodied with lithe tannins, a fine bead of acidity and real intensity that reminds me of the 1948. I detect just a soupçon of volatile acidity that is a trait, even a virtue, of Cheval Blanc from this era, imparting a tangible edginess that counters its intensity. A marvelous wine that continues to give pleasure. 94/Drink 2019-2030.