La Passion Haut-Brion

  • Friday 8 January 2010

It was renamed and resurrected, only to be engulfed by a first growth. Now it’s back for good. Clive Coates MW visits La Passion Haut-Brion

A century ago there were as many as 100 wine properties in what are now the suburbs of Bordeaux, set on either side of the city’s encircling motorway in Pessac, Talence, Gradignan and Mérignac. Today there are only six. Phylloxera, economic depression and the relentless expansion of Bordeaux have taken their toll. Only the mightiest have survived.

Now the six have become seven. One estate, which ceased to exist, was then resurrected, and became subsumed into the maw of a very famous neighbour, has been reborn. The first vintage of the newly independent estate is 2008; the wine is made with the advice of the celebrated Bordeaux consultant, Stéphane Derenoncourt; and it is very good.

Just to the northeast of the celebrated Château Haut-Brion, and separated from it by a road called the Rue Château d’Eau, lies a small vineyard whose fortunes and direction have been much intertwined with those of its illustrious neighbour. This is the 1.31-hectare estate of Château La Passion Haut-Brion (see map, opposite). But what is its heritage?

The surprising thing is that there is no mention of what is now La Passion in 19th century editions of Cocks & Féret, the indispensable guide to the wines of the region. One conjectures that it was part of a larger estate, and that subsequently much of the vineyard land was sold off. In the 1908 Cocks & Féret we find what is now La Passion disguised as Château Loup-Blanc Haut-Brion – the white wolf.

The property belonged to Albert Van Den Cruyce and produced four tonneaux of red wine (about 3,600 litres). Nothing much more is mentioned in the entry, which the proprietors submitted, so we have no information as to the origins of the estate. But elsewhere in this edition we can find two other domaines, lying in Carbon-Blanc and Bassens (one called Château de la Fantasie) on the opposite bank of the Gironde, belonging to the same family, who were wine brokers of Belgian origin.

In May 1919, Loup-Blanc (eventually to become La Passion – it is not clear when and why there was this change of name, but Van Den Cruyce had no direct successors) was sold at auction to M. Touraille, maternal grandfather of the present owners, who was involved in public works in the city of Bordeaux. The remaining Van Den Cruyces held on to their other two proprieties.

While there is no château entry in the 1922 Cocks & Féret (nor in any subsequent editions), it is clear that Touraille had to replant much if not all of the Loup-Blanc vineyard (as it was still called then). When there was a surplus of wine, it was sold to Belgian merchants, but most was consumed by the family.

Turbulent times

Touraille retired in the 1930s, and in those troubled times the vineyard was neglected, the vines being used for firewood, and the châteaux – there seem to have been two – demolished. Meanwhile, following a lawsuit that Haut-Brion pursued all over the Graves, the château that had originally been known as ‘Haut-Brion, La Passion’ was forced to change its name to ‘La Passion Haut-Brion’.

It lay, no one could deny, in the lieu-dit of Haut-Brion, but we have no idea whether the land originally belonged to Haut-Brion itself. (La Mission, immediately to the south, and Les Carmes, on the other side, never did.)

Touraille had two sons-in-law – Michel Allary and Jean Bardinon. In 1948 they decided to resurrect La Passion with the assistance of Georges Delmas, grandfather of Jean-Philippe, who today runs Haut-Brion. A deal was struck on a share-cropping basis.

The Haut-Brion team would look after the vineyards and make the wine, and take one-third of it in lieu of payment. Thus we see, from 1955 onwards, a succession of La Passions. Some of these have come my way in the past. At the recent presentation of the 2008 in Paris, all the fine vintages up to 1978 were served: delicious, pure, cool Graves at its best.

It was then that a new law was passed. It was no longer permitted to house the wineries of more than one property under one roof. (Unless they belonged to the same family or company – hence how Langoa- and Léoville-Barton lie side by side.)

This meant that Allary and Bardinon had to change the arrangement they had with Haut-Brion into a simple leasing operation. After the 1978 vintage the wine from the La Passion parcel disappeared into the second wine of Haut-Brion – Le Bahans. La Passion was no more. Allary was, though, paid his rent in bottles of Haut-Brion, so there was, at least, some compensation.

Then, in 2004, notice was given to Haut-Brion that when the lease came to its end in 2006, the Allary family wanted to take back responsibility of the estate. Haut-Brion made an offer for the land, but this was refused, to its chagrin.

A new cellar has been constructed, currently housing the 2008 (the 2007 was not sold under the La Passion label) and the new 2009. Louis Fournier, formerly vineyard director of the wine school at Château Dillon in Blanquefort, was appointed director in 2007.

Tragically, he died from a heart attack in August 2009, meaning Derenoncourt, originally hired as a consultant, is a little more directly involved than he would like at present; his job should not encompass general administration. But he is happy to hold the reins until a new director is appointed.

Allary, now 94 and living in Paris, says he has no intention of selling La Passion. ‘I spent much of my childhood here,’ he says. ‘I have fond memories as a small boy of exploring in the vineyard. That’s why I wanted to resurrect it after the War. It would have been uneconomic then to go the whole way and rebuild the château and chai, but today we live in more profitable times. If the wine is good, we’ll be able to sell it at a profit.’

House style

Most of the vineyard dates from 1982. Curiously – and it seems it has always been so, or at least since the time of Delmas in 1948 – the grape mix is 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, with only a token amount of Merlot in the blend.

The new generation of Allarys does not intend changing this. The gravel and sandy clay vineyard is worked by hand or using horses. There are no tractors. Next year biodynamism will be introduced. In the cellar the wine is moved by gravity and aged using 60% new wood.

If there is one thing I regret – for it is always encouraging to note the emergence or re-emergence of good domaines on good land – it is that, judging by the 2008, today’s wine bears no resemblance to what was made in the glory days from 1955 to 1978. Today’s La Passion is modern, soft, oaky and very much like many other wines now coming out of Bordeaux.

It is drinkable, indeed even enjoyable, but I found it very hard to convince myself, when I sampled the 2008, that there was no Merlot in the blend and that it came from the Graves. You will probably call me an old fogey, but I shall miss the La Passion Haut-Brion of yesteryear.

Derenoncourt, of course, has other views. In the past, he points out, the vineyard was picked earlier and the fruit was less ripe, as were the tannins. ‘Now we wait for full maturity,’ he says. ‘You enjoyed the great vintages produced by the Haut-Brion team. But what about the others? I accept the 2008 is a bit oaky, but we had just installed a brand new wooden fermentation tank, and we used 80% new wood.’

Derenoncourt is adamant that today’s La Passion is a true Graves. ‘It has all the nobility of the two Cabernet grapes. You wait for the 2009,’ he urges me. ‘It’s going to be a real classic.

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