by Paige Donner (all photos copyright 2017 Paige Donner)
As Bordeaux’s very first wine château, is it any wonder that Haut-Brion still ranks with such stature in the world’s profile of wines and wine estates? Well, a measured answer would be both yes, and no.
It’s not a given that a wine or a wine estate with such deep-roots and a glorious past would be sheparded forward through the centuries in a fashion that continues to uphold what is best of the property and best for the wine.
On a recent visit to Château Haut-Brion, my first visit, in fact, I was told by the lovely Turid, the château’s press relations manager who has been with the property for 17 years, that Château Haut-Brion is rightfully considered the very first Bordelais wine-producing château as they have come to be known through the ages. Meaning: vineyards, wine production area, chai, vat room, cellars and in Haut-Brion’s case, even a cooperage.
As many French, and it’s said the Bordelais in particular, tend to wax eloquent about the history and cultural significance of their properties, I had always taken this singular claim as the original Bordeaux Château with a grain of salt. BUT, I stand to be corrected. As the charming Turid pointed out, and later I was able to verify through my own research, indeed, it was as far back as 1533 that Jean de Pontac bought what was then considered to be a mansion that sat on the locality known as Haut-Brion in the commune of Pessac and united it with his surrounding vineyard land-holdings.
Thus, it can rightfully be claimed, through historical land records, that Château (& vineyards) Haut-Brion came into existence in 1533.
But that is not all that Jean de Pontac did. By 1549 he started building and enlarging on the very site that is still the château today and in fact the north-eastern part of the current château still constitutes this edifice.
Fast-forward a century or so and the château, always owned by illustrious men of power and King’s servants, has gained immeasurable repute for its terroir and its resulting wines. So much so that in 1677 a (famous) philosopher by the name of John Locke, on a visit to the estate, is quoted as saying,
“The wine of Pontac, so revered in England, is made on a little rise of ground, lieing open most to the west. It is noe thing but pure white sand, mixed with a little gravel. One wold imagin it scarce fit to beare anything….”
That is probably one of the most remarkable things about Haut-Brion, a Gascon name that derives from its ancient Celtic origins of “Briga,” meaning rise or mount, that traces of wine production here date back to the 1st c. AD. Hence as far back as Pax Romana times, this little hillock with its characteristic small white stone gravel soils has been recognized as being especially conducive to growing grape vines.
First Growth, Bordeaux Grand Cru
On the 25th of May, 1787, America’s great lover of wine, Thomas Jefferson, who at the time was the 2nd American Ambassador to France, visited Haut-Brion during a tour of Bordeaux. According to historical record, this is what Mr. Jefferson had to say about Haut-Brion:
“The soil of Haut-Brion, which I examined in great detail, is made up of sand, in which there is near as much round grael or small stone and a very little loam like te soils of the Médoc. In the category of red wines, there are four vineyards of prime quality:
Chateau Margaux, belonging to the Marquis d’Argcourt, who produces around 150 barrels taht were sold by contract to a merchant named Jernon.
La Tour Ségur, in Saint-Lambert, belonging to Mister de Miromesnil, sho produces 125 barrels.
Haut-Brion, two-thirds of which belong to the Count de Fumel sho sold the harvest to a merchant called Barton. Teh other third belongs to the Count of Toulouse; in all the chateau produces 75 barrels.
Chateau de la Fite, beloning to President Pichard of Bordeaux, which produces 175 barrels.”
This list, of course, later became the original 4 First Growths of the Grands Crus Classés en 1855 or 1855 classification (in other words, the classification made some 68 years after Jefferson’s writing).
The Chateau and The Wines
The Haut-Brion wines are legendary. If you ever get a chance to taste any of their precious whites – relatively very small production – served in magnums, then consider yourself touched by an angel. Their reds are what this historical treasure’s foundations are built upon.
Since 1935 the estate has, famously, been in the hands of the Dillon family. The château’s current President, Prince Robert of Luxembourg, in 2008, took the chateau’s reins from his elegant mother, Joan Dillon, daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to France under Eisenhower,
There are, naturally, many significant and significantly outstanding characteristics of this exemplary Bordelais château. The terroir, as discussed above, the château’s history, its luck in consistently arriving in loving, even doting hands and patronage… Other notable characteristics is that here the first all-steel vats vinification cellars were established in all of Bordeaux. Many of the region’s great châteaus later followed suit. The cellar master today is the son of the now-retired cellar master and was even born on the property. The computerized vat room is nearly James-Bond-like in its precision to serve the fermenting wines in the best possible way at every moment under any conditions.
And yet the adherence to old ways and traditions is just as firmly in place. Today the ancient French filtering practice known as soutirage using a candle and wine glass (pictured below) to monitor the level of sediment in the new-oak wine barrels as the wine ages is still used in the château’s barrel rooms.
It is also only one of a handful of Bordeaux châteaus that has its own on-site cooperage. They use only new oak barrels for their wines.
Château Haut-Brion Library
Remarkably, one of Prince Robert’s newest projects at Château Haut-Brion is the creation of a food+wine library.
These rooms are located in a far wing of the château and are prefaced with a most inviting reading room. The reading room entrance is graced with a picture of Samuel Pepys who (as perhaps the western world’s very first food+wine writer) declared in April 1663, that at the Royal Oak Tavern in London,
“…There I drank a sort of French wine called Ho-Bryan (sic) that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with.”
Anecdote: It was later in 1666 that the son of Arnaud III de Pontac, François-August, opened L’Enseigne de Pontac, a tavern in London, which served Haut-Brion wines and which, by historical accounts, “soon became the most fashionable place in all of London…”.
The Château Haut-Brion’s library is still being stocked with ancient and rare books, manuscripts and also contemporary tomes to food + wine. I believe it may be, to date, perhaps the first and only library dedicated exclusively to the writings and documentation of food + wine?
The doors to the library are a good meter thick and to gain access you have to pass through the Harry Potter-like secret wall entrance. The room itself is not overly large but it is large enough to tower a good 15 feet high, replete with moving staircase for when the upper shelves are filled in with books. There is a desk that invites one to sit and research and a high-backed leather chair where you can read historical accounts of food+wine. The ambiance is very conducive to a flask of wine and a book of verse.
A visit to Château Haut-Brion is a dream come true. It’s one worth waiting for, like an excellent vintage. And the marvel of it, too, is that this original Bordeaux Château, nearly half a millennia old, is still in cherishing hands, noble stewards of a hallowed land.