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16 vintages of Domaine de Chevalier with owner Olivier Bernard

Dating back to at least the 17th Century, Domaine de Chevalier is a jewel in the Bordeaux crown.

Producing both red and white wines, Domaine de Chevalier – located in Leognan – enjoys an interesting microclimate, surrounded by forest.

Since 1983, Olivier Bernard has owned and run the estate. Much has been done to improve the quality of the wines. While the whites always had been appreciated, Bernard has done much to improve both the white and the red wines. It proved interesting to see how a group of Washington D.C.-based sommeliers, restaurateurs, wine merchants and wine lovers evaluated 10 vintages of red Domaine de Chevalier: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001 and 2000, followed by lunch with three older reds (1991, 1981 and 1961) and whites (2001, 1991 and 1981).

The tasting lunch took place at Black Salt on Saturday 29 January. All the wines had been shipped ex-château one month earlier.

First flight: 2000-2001-2002

2000 red: This wine was full bodied and despite decanting, it needed time in glass to open up. Though not primary, it was far from ready to drink. Much potential, perhaps big in some respects, but also containing burgeoning aromatic complexity, with red and black fruit, that is not yet expressing itself optimally in glass. It will certainly gain from more time in bottle. 4 stars going on 5
2001 red: Here we have a wine that is more open than the 2000, with a bit more elegance on the palate and yet not quite as much body. A lovely, herbal and olive expression with notes of espresso and red fruit, but still somewhat closed, again despite double decanting (Olivier had asked me to double decant just the 2000 and 2001 among the 10 reds in the tasting before lunch). Needs time in bottle to open, like the 2000, but perhaps with not as much potential. 4 stars
2002 red: My favourite of the first flight. A real charmer: cranberry freshness and hints of that classic Graves tobacco, with excellent body and a fine texture on the palate. It does not have the scale of the 2000, but it has real nuance today, and provides much pleasure. An underrated vintage, and still quite inexpensive for the quality. 4.5 stars

Second flight: 2003-2004-2005

2003 red: Quite nice. Of the three wines in this series, only two or three people voted it as their preference. This was understandable, because 2003 was difficult for Graves-based reds. Already a warmer climate than, say, St Estephe in the Medoc, Graves terroir did not react well to the torrid 2003 vintage. But Domaine de Chevalier did not have that evident raisin, cooked fruit taste that one gets from many 2003s. One of the better 2003s from Graves I have ever had. 3 stars
2004 red: This reminded me a lot of the 2002, but perhaps with a tad more body and, yet, a bit more closed. It exhibited fine cassis and some cigar box aromas, with lovely red fruit freshness and good sap on the palate. 4 stars
2005 red: This wine was large scaled, without being “big”. Rather primary, the wine exhibited a lovely expression of red and black fruits with spice. Real freshness and lift on the palate matched its richness. 2005 may prove better than the 2000 because it seems to have greater freshness and a better finish. 4.5 stars going on 5

Third flight: 2006, 2007, 2008

2006 red: This wine could have used with a decant, because it was rather closed aromatically. On the palate, one senses impressive body, but also the tannin. Over time, some notions of cassis and cherry, but it is not drinking that well today. 3.5 stars
2007 red: Here we have a very fresh and elegant wine, with brambly red fruit and cedar and fine minerality. Another charmer, with a tad less body than either the 2002 or 2004, it is drinking nicely today. 4 stars
2008 red: Likely better than the 2007, with more body – and more (potential) nuance – this is already showing light tobacco aspects and dark fruit, but not as easy to approach today as the 2007. It is certainly more approachable than the 2006 and seems to have more potential complexity than either the 2006 or the 2007. 4 stars going on 4.5

2009 barrel sample red: From barrel, this is an amazing wine – the third Bordeaux “vintage of the century” in the last ten years. I can see how it can be considered somewhat of a bargain among the über-expensive 2009 Bordeaux. Very primary, more so than the 2005, the 2009 seems to be on the dark fruit register with notable empyreumatic aromas and flavours. The 2009 may end up being richer while still balanced, while the 2005 will have a bit more freshness and lift. 4.5 stars going on 5

Lunch whites

1981 white. Surprisingly lightly coloured, with floral aromatics – hints of orange blossom – pear and mineral. It exhibited superb depth and richness on the mid palate, before a long, lingering finish. I came away from the tasting and lunch with a revelatory feeling for this 1981, which tasted at least 10 years younger than the 1991… 5 stars and then some.

1991 white. Perhaps this should have been served before the 1981. A difficult vintage. Far less wine was produced than the average, Olivier said. It was a challenge and the estate rose up to it. Still, it paled in comparison to the 1981. A nutty, rancio aspect, although some Graves tobacco, too. Do not wait for this. Olivier said that it would have been better to have served from magnum, as was done with the 1991 red later. Here a Carpaccio of Nantucket Bay scallop and organic salmon proved a bit mismatched, but delicious. 2.5 stars

2001 white: A beauty. Beeswax, lanolin, pear, white peach. More Sauvignon Blanc in the mix in recent years, because of the acidity one gets from Sauvignon Blanc, Olivier explained, so while the 2001 is closer to 80 per cent Sauvignon Blanc and 20 per cent Semillon, the earlier vintages are more like 70-30. Will age as slowly as the 1981, but may offer more body. It certainly paired well with the grilled tuna, white beans, local turnip puree: the texture of the meaty tuna was matched against the subtle richness of the 2001. 5 stars.

Lunch reds

1961 red: Perhaps the second best wine of the entire tasting. Whilst decanting, the wine was of an excellent colour, without too much deposit: a good sign. The nose was quite cedar and cigar box to me, echoed in the finely textured palate, with some sweetness on the mid palate in fact. There was a tannic edge on the finish, indicating a long life on this plateau for this 50-year-old red (coming from regular bottles). Fine match with sweet potato ravioli: rich enough to match the tannic edge of the wine, whilst echoing its evolution in pork consommé. 5 stars.

1991 red (from magnum): Forest freshness on the nose. Smoky and rather plush on the palate: a real pleasure to drink. Burgundian, one participant remarked, but also quite full-bodied. Coming from magnum format helped because 1991 is not really a strong vintage. Perhaps my overall favourite match: the richness of the slow braised short ribs, foie gras, crispy sweet breads, red cabbage and Maiitake mushrooms balanced the tobacco-like freshness of the 1991. 4.5 stars.

1981 red: More evolved than the 1991, with truffle and leather, and not quite as focused. Still, it seemed to have good body and charm, and matched the cheeses perfectly, including a five-year old Wisconsin cheese that resembled Cheddar and a comté. 3.5 stars

Written by Panos Kakaviatos

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