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.
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.
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.
In 1935 the estate was rescued by an American. Financier Clarence Dillon purchased the property for 2.3 million francs. Dillon named his nephew Seymour Weller as president of Société Vinicole de la Gironde, a position he held until his retirement in 1975 at age 83. Under Weller, the chais was cleaned and improved and “modern” technology was implemented. Perhaps the key stroke to restoring the estate was the hiring of George Delmas as winemaker and manager. George retired in 1961 and was succeeded by his son Jean-Bernard who invested time and effort in clonal research. It was his belief that great wine required different clones (strains) of each grape varietal. Each hectare is reputed to have 10 to 15 different clonal selections. The property is now under the direction of the third generation of Delmas, Jean-Phillipe Delmas, who has been in charge since 2003. The Dillon family still controls the estate today headed up by Prince Robert of Luxembourg, the Président Directeur Général of what is now called Domaine Clarence Dillon SA.
Besides the grand vin which is labeled as Chateau Haut Brion, they make a second wine. The second wine is called Clarence de Haut Brion, but before 2007 it was known as Bahans Haut Brion. They also make Chateau Haut Brion Blanc, a white wine which is a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc and is one of the best and most expensive dry white wines in the world. Occasionally release a second white called Les Plantiers du Haut Brion.
Grapes have undoubtedly been cultivated on this land since the 1400s. By 1700 the entire estate consisted of 650 acres and there were 94 acres under vine. Today 120 acres are planted to red grapes: 45.4% to Merlot, 43.9% to Cabernet Sauvignon, 9.7% to Cabernet Franc, and 1% to Petit Verdot. In addition, just over 7seven acres are planted with white grapes: 52.6% Semillon and 47.4% Sauvignon Blanc. The average age of the vines is 35 to 40 years with the oldest vines dating back to the 1930s. The soil is Günzian gravel with some portions of the vineyard having large amounts of clay.
After hand harvesting, the fruit is sorted in the field. The grapes are then fermented on natural yeasts in stainless steel vats. It is a special tank that allows the fermentation to take place on the top and the malolactic fermentation to happen on the bottom. These were first used in 1961, and although are very common now in Bordeaux, were quite an innovation. Chateau Haut Brion has its own cooperage for making their barrels. The wine is then stored in barrels for two years or longer. In the past, the wine was aged in 100% new oak, but now they use 35% new oak (25% for the le Clarence). The white wine sees 45% new oak and is aged for 12 months.
Annual production is around 12,000 cases for the grand vin and 800 cases for the Blanc. Annual production for the Le Clarence is around 5,000 cases.
Haut Brion is recognizable for the shape of its bottle, in use since the 1958 vintage, which are based on an old decanter shape. The wines are made to age. While some vintages may be delicious on release the wines really need at least a decade to show their quality. The 1970 vintage of Haut-Brion ranked fourth among the ten French and California red wines in the historic 1976 Judgment of Paris wine competition. I suspect that the 1970 Haut Brion, which was never a great vintage, is still drinkable and enjoyable.
Haut Brion has been very consistent in quality over the last fifty plus years. Like the other first growths the price has gotten silly expensive. Yet, it often remains one of the less expensive of the first growths perhaps stemming from its location in Graves and not the Medoc. In any event, the price is now over $500 per bottle in the recent stellar vintages of 2005 and 2009. Perhaps better value can be found in the 2003 or 2008 vintages where a bottle can be obtained for under $300. I have been lucky enough to try about twenty vintages of this great wine. Personally, the best two vintages of Haut Brion I have had are the amazing 1989 and the will-probably-be even-better-with-more-age 2000. Those wines are two of the most profound wines I have ever, and most likely will ever taste. Unfortunately, the 1989 now sells for over $1,000 a bottle while the 2000 can still be “had” for around $500.
Haut Brion’s neighbor is Chateau La Mission Haut Brion. These two chateaus have had a historic rivalry for over 50 years. Some say the rivalry ended when Domaine Clarence Dillon purchased La Mission in 1983. I am not so sure. In fact, while there is always bottle variation on a wine that old, the 1989 La Mission Haut Brion remains the best red wine I have ever tasted. Both wines are excellent, but Haut Brion still retains one advantage, the honor of being classified as a Premier Cru back in 1855.