The Rise of Domaine de Chevalier
In a recent reappraisal of the 2014 Bordeaux vintage, Vinous head critic Antonio Galloni said of Domaine de Chevalier: "Olivier Bernard owns one of the crown jewels of Bordeaux, as these wines clearly make evident." He finished that sentiment with a whopping 96 point score, calling the domaine's rouge one of the "don't miss" cuvées of the vintage. Of course, that wasn't news to us here at K&L. Since the day I started working for the company, Domaine de Chevalier has been one of our staff's favorite wines. In fact, I was once gifted a bottle of the 1990 vintage by my former colleague Jim Chanteloup after my first big holiday season. I had no idea what it was at the time, as I had just started learning about Bordeaux and was simply trying to get a handle on the Médoc's classified growths, but I remember him saying: "Trust me; this is a really great bottle." Back then, our senior wine guys saw the Chevalier rouge as an insider's claret; a poor man's Haut-Brion. "This property is completely underrated," I recall my colleague Ralph Sands telling me once; "The wines can live forever." The word "secret" is definitely part of the vernacular when speaking about the domaine. Known as "the secret garden" due to its location, the vineyards are planted within a clearing in the middle of a forest, the boundaries of which protect the vines from extreme weather. What's becoming less of a secret, however, is the value of the domaine's great wines—both white and red. It was clear during our visit to the estate this past Spring, tasting through the spectacular recent vintages from the domaine, that Chevalier's time in the spotlight is most definitely upon us.
The property at Chevalier dates back to the mid-1800s when the term "domaine" still had a wider connotation than today's standard château moniker, one that has today ceased to exist in the region. It's a designation that still carries an important meaning for Oliver Bernard, the current proprietor and owner of the estate. The original domaine—known then as Chivaley and named after the "chivalrous" knights that may have traveled down a nearby path in medical times—consisted of a larger agricultural operation with farm animals and vast meadows, woods, and, of course, vineyards. "The word domaine implies a notion of both terroir and wines, and the complex interaction between them," Oliver told us over dinner. The terroir at Domaine de Chevalier and its potential for greatness were recognized early on and the property's wines rose to fame quite quickly after its formation in the 17th century. When the Bernard family purchased the domaine, the lineage of stewardship traced back to only three men: Jean Ricard, his son-in-law Gabriel Beaumartin, and Claude Ricard, who led the property to its grand cru classification back in 1953. The somewhat spiritual connection that Chevalier has formed between its caretakers is apparent in the domaine's fourth steward, Olivier, who worked with Claude for five years after first purchasing the property in 1983. "He helped me to under stand Chevalier's true nature," Olivier said of that period. What exactly is the nature of Chevalier, you ask? Let me tell you.
It's clear to Olivier that the responsibility of managing Chevalier is more than just a job; it's a long-term commitment and a philosophical undertaking. The opportunity to care for one of Bordeaux's most special terroirs is a privilege, and it is one rooted in the family, which is why his sons are by his side helping to manage the estate today. There are forty-five hectares of vines at the domaine, forty of which are planted to red varietals and another five devoted to white. The vineyards are high density, meaning the struggle between each vine for nutrients in the gravelly soil produces low yields of concentrated and thick-skinned grapes. Besides the surrounding forest and lack of any neighboring sites, what makes Chevalier's terroir even more unique is that it's one single square block, rather than a winding network of vineyards or series of parcels. It's a contained and isolated ecosystem that, as Oliver stated, "is free from outside contamination." The result is an early-ripening cabernet that's often as aromatic as it is finessed, defined by mineral notes and hints of graphite—the calling card of the Graves—with light accents of pepper and spice. What may surprise a number of red Bordeaux drinkers is that the Chevalier blanc is often more prized than the rouge and often can age for just as long! With a fiercely mineral core alongside ripe and somewhat tropical fruit flavors, the white Chevalier often sells for double the price of the standard red and has become somewhat cultish over the years. I've been lucky enough to taste several fully mature vintages of the wine over my career and it's one of the most hedonistic Bordeaux experiences outside a glass of Château d'Yquem (albeit the Chevalier is a dry wine).
One of my goals while visiting the domaine this past April was to get a clear shot of the terroir; a photo that really captured the rocky, gravelly soils of Chevalier and Pessac-Léognan in general. It's one thing to write about soils and the influence they have on a particular wine's flavor, but in the case of Domaine de Chevalier it's become such a talking point that I wanted a visual component. When critics like Galloni talk about the property as one of the "crown jewels of Bordeaux," this is what they're referring to. It's that stony, highly-mineral soil, enclosed within a border of forestry, that provides the ideal conditions for top quality red and white Bordeaux winemaking; the results of which have increased in quality during each decade of Oliver Bernard's ownership. Through his careful expansion, calibration, and improvements in the cellar, the true potential and character of Chevalier has been lifted to new heights and the domaine's lore has begun to permeate the far reaches of wine culture. It wasn't always an easy path, either. In 1985, during Oliver's honeymoon with his wife, a brutal frost killed all the merlot vines on the property. The roots had to be pulled out and that part of vineyard was completely replanted (which meant for the five subsequent years the wine was made from 100% cabernet!). Throughout that learning curve perhaps the most endearing aspect of Oliver's humble stewardship has been his pricing. Considering the wines are consistently ranked alongside a lineup of properties priced between $150 to $300 per bottle, the $49.99 he's asking for the 2014 vintage suddenly seems like a steal. I often think the only thing preventing Domaine de Chevalier from reaching loftier heights is a lack of consumer awareness for Bordeaux wines beyond the left and right banks. However, with the subsequent rise of Haut-Bailly, Smith-Haut-Lafitte, and Pape-Clément over the last decade, it appears as if that hurdle has been cleared.
With the wines of Pessac-Léognan now firmly in the spotlight of the world's top critics (the 2014 Haut-Bailly also received a 96 point score from Vinous), the "secret garden" is likely a secret no more. The ascension of Domaine de Chevalier has been thirty-plus years in the making for Olivier Bernard, but if you ask him he'll tell you its merely his duty as a steward of a great terroir.