Chateau Haut Brion – A Bordeaux First Growth Loved by Poets, Philosophers and Presidents for 350 years

My favorite of all of the first growths is Chateau Haut Brion.  Back in 1855, when the first growth classification was created, it was the only chateau that was not located in the Medoc.  Haut Brion at the time was in the commune of Graves.  Since that time, the Pessac-Loegnan appellation was carved out of Graves and is now the AOC home of Haut Brion.  Graves is a bit further south than the Medoc but still on the left bank of the Gironde.  

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It is likely grapes have been cultivated on the property since Roman times.  The first records, however, date back “only” as far as 1423.  There was a mansion house located on the property called Aubrion.  After a succession of owners, the property was owned by Jean de Ségur in 1509 whose family would someday own many of the preeminent chateaus including Lafite and Latour.  In 1525 the owner, and the mayor of Libourne, Pierre de Bellon, gave it to Jeanne de Bellon to include as part of her dowry to Jean de Pontac.  The mansion house was built in 1533 and the Chateau in 1549.  The Estate was known briefly as Chateau Pontac.  

In 1649, Lord Arnaud III de Pontac became the owner of what was now undoubtedly called Haut Brion.  This began a new era in which vineyards were acquired and developed.  Around that time, Arnaud Bellon III, a great great grandson of Jean Bellon, took control of the winery. There are records of the wine being in the cellar of King Charles II of England including notes that in 1660 and 1661, 169 bottles of “Hobriono” were served in the King’s court.  Samuel Pepys wrote in The Diarist of having tasted the wine called “Ho Bryen” at the Royal Oak Tavern on April 10, 1663.  Author Jonathan Swift was quoted that he “found the wine dear at seven shillings a flagon.”  In 1666, Arnaud’s son Francois-Auguste began marketing the wine to the British even going so far as to open a tavern in London which sold the wine.  English philosopher John Locke visited the estate and wrote in 1677 about the estates sand and gravel soil and what a marvel it was that such great wine could be produced there.   

In the 1700s the wine became even more popular.  It was introduced to the Royal Court by the Duc de Richelieu, Armand-Emmanuel du Plessis.  Thomas Jefferson visited the estate on May 25, 1787 commenting favorably on the wines.  He described the terroir as follows:  "The soil of Haut-Brion, which I examined in great detail, is made up of sand, in which there is near as much round gravel or small stone and a very little loam like the soils of the Médoc."  Jefferson wrote that the estate produced 75 barrels of wine, of which he bought and sent to Virginia six cases.  

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

At the time of the French revolution, the owner of the estate was Joseph Fumel.  Like many of his contemporaries, he met his fate on the guillotine.  The estate became the property of the people although it was surreptitiously repurchased by Joseph’s nephew Jacques.  

It would appear that the quality of the wines from Haut Brion slipped during the 1800s.  The few published notes are less than stellar.  Nevertheless, the reputation of the estate was sufficient that it was included in the 1855 classification.  It was the only winery from Graves to be included and was granted first growth status as a wine commanding top dollar.  Then, like the rest of Bordeaux, Haut Brion had to deal with Phyloxera and the First World War.  These were tough years for Haut Brion, perhaps much leaner years than the other first growths, as the string of owners were not as committed to spending their resources on maintenance and modernization.