It’s mid November, on a cool yet hazy, sunny day when we navigate our way through Pessac on the outskirts of the city of Bordeaux to find the entrance gates of Chateau Haut-Brion. We have a 3.00 p.m. appointment for a visit to the wine estate.
The whisper of history murmurs to us as we enter the Chateau Haut-Brion driveway. Saying nothing, we listen to the echoes of nearly five centuries since wine has been made at Chateau Haut-Brion. Wine has been produced on this land for centuries before that. Before finding our way to the parking area, we stop and take photos of gnarled vines in their closely planted rows.
The whisper of history tell us that:
In 1533, Jean de Pontac, by purchasing an existing noble house in Haut Brion united it with the vine growing land, leading to the birth of the Chateau Haut-Brion.
In 1660 – 1661, the cellar records of King Charles the Second of England, who was known to be a bon-viveur extraordinaire, note 169 bottles of “ Vin de Hubriono” (sic) are held for guests at the royal table.
In 1663, Samuel Pepys, the famous English diarist, wrote that he had drunk at the Royal Oak Tavern in London: “…I drank a sort of French wine called Ho-Bryan (sic) which had an especially good taste that I had never encountered before. “
In the 17th century, writers were commenting on the nature of the soil in the area of “white sand with gravel” and the particulars of the terroir.
In 1787, the American Ambassador to the French Court, Thomas Jefferson, later the third President of the United States, visited Chateau Haut-Brion. A wine connoisseur, he also commented on the nature of the gravelly terroir. In his writings, he identified four great wine houses of the area including Chateau Haut-Brion. In this, he anticipated the identification of Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Lafite, Chateau LaTour and Chateau Margaux in the official classification system of 1855, as Premiers Grands Crus wines of the Gironde. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was reclassified to Premier Grand Cru in 1973 and added to the prestigious list.
Chateau Haut-Brion changed hands several times during the centuries. There is an apocryphal story about one of the owners in the Pontac family in the 17th Century. It is said that he lived to over 100 years, an age almost unheard of at that time. This gentleman attributed his longevity to his daily glass of Chateau Haut-Brion!
The present owners since 1935 are the Dillon family. The current head of the Domaine Dillon is Prince Robert of Luxembourg, who is a great grandson of Clarence Dillon, the New York financier and purchaser of the property. Since the purchase, the family has invested significantly in the property through a program of continuous renovation, innovation and improvement both to the historic chateau building and to the winery facilities.
On this particular November afternoon, after ringing the intercom bell at the visitor entrance, our guide, who was informative about the estate and interested in our visit, joins us. Following an introduction to the past and present owners through the medium of their portraits, we are given a detailed look at the topography of the vineyard and its proximity to the neighbouring estate, also owned by the Dillon family, which is Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion; a story for another time.
During our visit, the wine making process is explained to us. At Haut-Brion, our guide explains, traditional approaches are employed while at the same time using modern and efficient equipment with a program of regular reinvestment and improvement. For any aspiring wine maker, an opportunity to work at Haut Brion would seem a great privilege. My impression is that wine making at a wine estate with such a historical context would be more a vocation than an occupation.
One of the things that I appreciate at Chateau Haut-Brion is that it has its own cooperage service or barrel maker on site. Supporting and fostering these artisanal skills such as barrel making in the wine industry is important for their continuation. This on-site barrel-making workshop is “the fruit of a partnership between Haut-Brion and Séguin Moreau” and has been in place since 1991.
All wine starts with the soil in the vineyards, the selection and management of the vines and the choice of particular varieties for individual parcels of land. The high standard of care of these vineyards to produce grand cru wines has been consistent over the centuries.
The conclusion of most wine tours is to taste the wines produced on the property and our afternoon at Haut-Brion is no different. We are guided to the 18th century Orangerie, which was renovated in 2001 and is used as the tasting room.
We are offered the 2011 vintage wines, which our guide tells us, are just being opened now. Haut-Brion records indicate that 2011 was a very good year for their wine. It was the driest year registered since 1949. With enough rain in the summer to allow the vines to work their magic, the harvest took place from August 31 to September 27. All this data and more are recorded by Chateau Haut-Brion and available for review.
The typical blend of grape varieties in the red wine at Haut-Brion is Cabernet Sauvignon 45%, Cabernet Franc 15% and Merlot 40%. These wines are created for laying down and building a cellar for future enjoyment. The Haut-Brion recommended life of the 2011 vintage is from 2020 to 2035. In 2017, we are tasting this wine in its teenage years; in the process of ageing and developing its full expression of the terroir and all the wine making expertise that has gone into its production.
Standing in the Orangerie, tasting these magnificent wines and looking out at the garden and the old Chateau itself, has to be a memorable wine moment. So much so that when I look back, I remember hearing the whisper of history and at the same time, tasting the richness of the red wine, the deep black fruit, the chocolate aromas with developing smoked tones and that sensation of enjoying a beautifully crafted wine.
A December 2017 article in the British weekly magazine, Spectator, written by their wine writer, Bruce Anderson, summed up this sentiment well when he wrote about “wines of a lifetime.” Coincidentally, in that article he also refers to a Chateau Haut-Brion wine, in that case a 1959 vintage that he enjoyed with a friend.
In preparing to leave, we thank our guide for our visit.
For me, the visit to Chateau Haut-Brion will be up there in my list of chateaux visits of a lifetime.
Chateau Haut Brion: http://www.haut-brion.com
Note: A point of appellation detail: Chateau Haut-Brion retains its 1855 Premier Grand Cru classification although it is not in the Medoc area. It is in the Pessac Leognan appellation, which was previously part of the Graves appellation. (See the attached map of Bordeaux and the Neighbouring Regions.)
Spectator magazine: http://www.spectator.co.uk