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The oldest of the five legendary Bordeaux First Growths and the only one not situated in the Médoc, Château Haut-Brion enjoys an immense renown that dates back centuries. The estate’s wine served as centrepiece on the royal tables of King Charles II, quickly capturing the heart of the British political elite, as well as Thomas Jefferson, the most francophone president of the United States. Since then, the château’s ties with the USA have only grown stronger, with the purchase of the historic property by Texan financier Clarence Dillon in 1935. Today, it is Dillon’s great-grandson, Prince Robert of Luxembourg, who runs the family business, aided by the estate’s manager Jean-Philippe Delmas. Born from a slightly elevated landscape of gorgeous gravel soils, Château Haut-Brion is a different kind of Bordeaux Premier Cru, one that reveals the smooth, supple tannins of a blend with a high proportion of Merlot, presented in a bottle with a distinctive squat shape.
The past five hundred years of Bordeaux history seem to be littered with mentions of Château Haut-Brion, a prestigious 1855 First Growth whose viticultural history can be traced back even further than those of its Médoc First Growth counterparts. Recently, the owner of this Pessac-Léognan estate, Prince Robert of Luxembourg, launched a competition to find the oldest written reference to Château Haut-Brion and a medieval history researcher uncovered a mention dated January 21st, 1521. The two manuscripts, now housed in the Departmental Archives of the Gironde, refers to the “cru” wines of “Aubrion” and “Haulbrion.” Haut-Brion was also mentioned in King Charles II’s cellar book in 1660 and in the diary of parliamentarian Samuel Pepys from around the same time. All this goes to prove that the wines of Château Haut-Brion have had a following for 5 centuries.
The rights to Haut-Brion were first acquired by Jean de Pontac in 1533, who received part of the land as a dowry for having married Jeanne de Bellon in 1525. Early on, Jean de Pontac set about defining the boundaries of the vineyard. In 1549, he began the construction of the beautiful château still standing today. Throughout his life, Jean de Pontac remained dedicated to the winemaking at Haut-Brion. He died at the age of 101, leaving the château to his son Arnaud II de Pontac, who left it to his son Geoffroy, who – in turn – left it to his son Arnaud III. An extremely influential politician and First President of the Guyenne Parliament, Arnaud III expanded the residence and doubled the surface area of the estate vineyards. He also used his political influence to spread the fame of Château Haut-Brion, especially to England. In the 17th century, the wines of Haut-Brion found themselves on the tables of King Charles II and soon became the wine of choice among the aristocrats, authors, artists and wine lovers of London. The famous English philosopher John Locke visited the estate in 1677 and raved about it in his book. In fact, Arnaud III had created a new style of wine, named “New French Claret,” a direct ancestor to the long-lived, refined Bordeaux Grand Cru wines of today.
In 1749, Château Haut-Brion was inherited by Joseph de Fumel, a nephew by marriage. De Fumel invested heavily in the estate, creating a beautiful park and garden, along with several outbuildings. Joseph de Fumel also hosted a very important guest at Château Haut-Brion – namely Thomas Jefferson, who identified it in his private correspondence as “one of the four established as the very best” of Bordeaux. With his intimate understanding of Bordeaux wines, Thomas Jefferson indeed predicted the 1855 classification, almost a century before it happened. Following his visit, the wines of Haut-Brion would make frequent appearances at White House dinners.
In 1836, the château was purchased by Joseph Eugene Larrieu, who dedicated himself wholly to the estate and its wines. It was under Larrieu that Haut-Brion was recognised as a First Growth in the famous 1855 classification, joining Château Margaux, Château Lafite and Château Latour in this prestigious ranking. Carrying Haut-Brion through difficult times at the end of the 19th century were politician Amédée Larrieu (remembered fondly as a passionate wine lover who embodied the “spirit of the Girondins”) and his son Eugene, who replanted the entire Haut-Brion vineyard with North American rootstock following the ravages of phylloxera in 1880. In 1923, Château Haut-Brion became one of the only estates in Bordeaux to systematically bottle its wines at the property. The estate came into the possession of Andre Gibert in 1925. With no natural heir, Gibert searched for a suitable person to sell to after managing the estate for 9 years.
In 1934, a New York banker by the name of Clarence Dillon visited Château Haut-Brion. On his way back to the United States, he received a telegram letting him know that the property was up for purchase but that he would have to act quickly. By May 13th 1935, the purchase was finalised and a glorious new chapter began at the château. A passionate Francophile and wine lover, Clarence Dillon would for forever after bind the history of Haut-Brion to the relationship between the United States and France. In fact, no other Bordeaux estate has been associated for such a long period of time with an American family. Clarence Dillon immediately got started modernising the estate, installing electricity and a new plumbing system, renovating the cellars and redesigning the estate grounds. During World War II, Dillon converted the château into a military hospital to treat wounded soldiers in the French army. In 1961, he modernised the vat room by adding stainless steel vats and between 1975 and 2008 his granddaughter Joan Dillon fully renovate the interior of the chateau, elevating its style to a level befitting such a historic property. She managed the family business with her husband the Duke of Mouchy and inaugurated a brand new vat room in 1991.
Today, Château Haut-Brion is owned by their son Prince Robert of Luxembourg, who has completed the renovation of the château with sustainable materials certified High Quality Environmental standard. Prince Robert has also set in place a magnificent circular library, famous for its vast selection of first editions and rare books. The estate is managed by Jean-Philippe Delmas, who took over from his father Jean-Bernard Delmas after he left to manage Château Montrose in 2003.
The Château Haut-Brion estate is situated in the commune of Pessac and belongs to the Pessac-Leégnan appellation. Its slightly elevated vineyard covers 51 hectares, of which 48 are planted with red grape varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) and 3 hectares to white grape varieties (Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc). The vines stretch their roots deep into easy-draining gravelly soils, composed of small stones and different types of quartz. This gravelly topsoil is layered on subsoil of clay, sand, limestone and falun from the end of the Tertiary era. In fact, the high concentration of clay in the vineyards of Château Haut-Brion explain the high percentage of Merlot vines planted, a variety known to perform best in clay terroirs. The gravel deposits are between 20 centimetres and 3 metres thick, forming slopes that orient the vines toward the sun, so that they enjoy a higher degree of exposure.
Jean-Bernard Demas has been especially focused on the selection of the right rootstocks and clones to best suit the unique terroir of Château Haut-Brion, which has resulted in healthy, balanced vines with naturally low yields even without green harvesting.
Following the manual harvest, the fruit is sorted, destalked and added to vats with very precise temperature control technology. The temperature is raised gradually and fermentation takes place, typically lasting around two weeks. During this time the colours and aromatic compounds of the fruit is released into the juice and the vats are drained. At Château Haut-Brion, the winery team carries out a vast parcel-by-parcel fermentation, meaning that each base wine has its own personality, reflecting the characteristics of the microterroir of its parcel of origin. The very best wines are chosen to go into the estate’s namesake First Wine blend. Finally, the wine is placed in new oak barrels for a period of 20 to 24 months, during which time its tannins become smooth and its true character is revealed.
The Château Haut-Brion Grand Vin (First Wine) is today one of the most sought-after Bordeaux red wines in the world. It typically comprises a blend of 45% Merlot, 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc and a trace of Petit Verdot, with the relative proportion depending on the character of each vintage of Haut-Brion. On the nose, this wine exudes rich aromas of black fruit, complemented by a mineral quality. After swirling the glass, the wines continues to reveal its signature empyreumatic notes of chocolate, cedar wood, cigar box and roasted touches. The texture on the palate varies by vintage, though it is tend to be characterised by exceedingly soft and supple yet very precise tannins and a well-rounded, coating mouthfeel. The finish lingers surprisingly long. The Château Haut-Brion Blanc is a rich blend of around 52% Sémillon and 48% Sauvignon Blanc. With its very limited production, this white wine is a rare treat and truly an enigma, with a very distinct expression and surprisingly generous palate.
In addition to its red and white First Wines, Château Haut-Brion has also produced a Second Wine since the beginning of the 20th century. Originally called Château Bahans Haut-Brion, this wine was renamed Le Clarence de Haut-Brion with the 2007 vintage as an homage to Clarence Dillon. The blend is usually composed of roughly 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc and is very similar in style to the Château Haut-Brion red, though it can typically be enjoyed slightly younger that its older brother. The nose is quite harmonious, revealing black fruit intermingled with tobacco, while the palate is smooth and broad with a juicy texture.
Finally, La Clarté de Haut-Brion is the estate’s Second White Wine, produced from the vineyards of both Château Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. This Bordeaux dry white wine consists of 90% Semillon and 10% Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose, this Semillon-dominant Bordeaux white expresses fruity and floral aromas, paired with an incredibly fresh and uniquely complex palate. Around 1,000 cases are produced per year.
In addition to its unique signature style, the Château Haut-Brion squat bottle shape also helps set the estate’s wines apart from the rest of Bordeaux. This distinctive shape was first brought to the estate in 1958 by Clarence Dillon and first used for the 1958 vintage.