History in a botttle

  • Monday 1 April 2002

Haut-Brion is the oldest wine-producing estate in Bordeaux. CLIVE COATES MW looks at its history and tastes the wines

It is frequently but erroneously supposed that the famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines was a classification of the Médoc only, with Château Haut-Brion from Pessac-Léognan somehow muscling in because it was too prestigious to be left out. This is untrue. It was a list of the best wines of the entire Bordeaux area, and if no St-Emilions or Pomerols appear, and indeed no other Graves, it was because they were not considered good enough, nor fetched high enough prices.Haut-Brion did make it on to the list, as one of five first growths, and it can claim to be the oldest wine-producing estate in the Bordeaux area. Not only was it the first to establish itself, fetching a much higher price than the other first growths for up to a century after, but it is the first single property Bordeaux wine to be mentioned in English literature or any other records.

This is Samuel Pepys's diary, on 10 April 1663: '…to the Royal Oake Taverne… And here drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.' Pepys several times refers to claret in his diary, denoting that several alternatives were on offer, but nowhere to any other Bordeaux wine by name.

Haut-brion in history

The wine at the time was commonly known as Pontac after the owner though, as the Pontac family were extensive vineyard owners – owning Château de Pez in St-Estèphe among other domaines – not all the wine sold as Pontac was in fact Haut-Brion. Pontac, at the end of the 17th century, was almost a generic word for claret in England. Richard Ames, in a rather affected poem called 'The Search after Claret' (1691) refers to, 'sprightly Pontac… the best of the sort', no doubt referring to the specific wine, but Joseph Addison in The Tatler in 1708, in a piece about wine fakers, uses the word as a synonym for good Bordeaux. (The resultant homemade brew was tasted by Addison's cat which was 'flung into freakish tricks, quite contrary to her usual gravity').

Haut-Brion or Pontac is mentioned by Dryden, Defoe, Swift and John Evelyn. More interestingly, the property was actually visited by John Locke on 14 May 1677. He wrote: 'It is a little rise of ground open to the west, in a white sand mixed with gravel; scarce fitting to bear anything. The vines are trained, some to stakes, some to lathes… The yield [is] 50 tuns which sells for 105 ecus a tun… Some years since [it used to be] 50 or 60 ecus, but the fashionable, sending over orders to have the best wine sent them at any rate, have by striving who should get it, brought it up to that price.' How did Haut-Brion and the other Pontac wines come to be so well known in London?

In the early 1660s the proprietor was Arnaud de Pontac, among other things a member of the local legislative council, or parliament. His son was François-Auguste, a man who, according to Alexis Lichine, had 'neither the temperament nor the aptitude for the legislative life'. He was more interested in wines and the money he could make out of them.

London after the Restoration was a cosmopolitan place. The king had returned from exile in France where he had acquired a taste for many things French, including wine. Britain was a potentially lucrative export market for Pontac and his Bordeaux wines. In 1666, shortly after the Great Fire, Arnaud de Pontac sent François-Auguste to London to promote his wines, where he opened up a tavern called The Pontac's Head. According to André Simon, it soon became the most important fashionable eating house in the city. One could dine in great style for one or two guineas a head, including seven shillings for a bottle of Haut-Brion. Spanish or Portuguese wine, meanwhile, was a mere two shillings. It is suggested that Pontac may have also had an interest in the Royal Oak in Lombard Street, scene of Pepys' encounter with the wine.The Pontac's Head was not a nine-day wonder. It remained open until 1780 when it was demolished to make way for redevelopment. The future of Britain as Bordeaux's best customer for its best wines owes a lot to M de Pontac.

In June 1705 the London Gazette offered '230 hogsheads of "new" Pontac and Margoose' (sic) for sale, and in 1707 'new French Obrion claret'. The wine went for £60 a tun, while ordinary Bordeaux fetched £18. Top Bordeaux was already big business. Between the Pontacs in the 1660s and the Dillons, who acquired the property in 1933, and are still the owners today, Haut-Brion passed through a number of hands. It was briefly owned by Talleyrand, foreign minister of France, in the first decade of the 19th century. Other aristocrats and financiers were involved. But in the early 1930s, following phylloxera, World War I and the depression, there were three atrocious vintages. Profitability was at an all-time low. Haut-Brion was put up for sale.The purchaser was Clarence Dillon, an American financier, and he paid 2,350,000FF, a little over £100,000 at the rate of exchange ruling at the time. Cheval Blanc, it is said, was also on the market, for the same reasonable price, and so was Ausone, but Dillon and his party got lost in the fog and never reached either of these two. He settled for Haut-Brion, now encircled by the expanding suburbs of Bordeaux. the american touch.

In 1962, the company, Domaine Clarence Dillon SA, was transferred to Douglas Dillon, former US ambassador and finance minister under Kennedy, and the president is now his daughter Joan, Duchesse de Mouchy. Dillon senior died in 1979 at the age of 96, almost as old as his predecessor, Arnaud de Pontac, who is said to have lived to be 101.The last 60 years have seen an extensive programme of modernisation at Haut-Brion under the direction of the resident administrators, Georges Delmas, who arrived at Haut-Brion in 1921, and his son Jean-Bernard, the current director of affairs, who took over in 1960. In 1961, Haut-Brion replaced its wooden fermentation vats with stainless steel. It was the pioneer in this respect among the top estates in the Bordeaux region. There were 12 vats, especially designed by Jean-Bernard Delmas himself. Unlike Latour, for example, whose vats were tall and cylindrical, and installed two years later, Haut-Brion's were squat and measured roughly 3m3. Delmas' belief is that it is important for the macerating must to have as much contact with the marc as possible, but that one should avoid moving the marc around too much, as it gives the wine a herbal taste. In his view the smaller, squatter vat gives a better result. Ten years ago, following what one might call a trial run at neighbouring La Mission Haut-Brion, which the Dillons bought in 1983, and which is run in parallel, Jean-Bernard Delmas replaced the 1961 vats with new ones. They are still squat and cubic in shape, but one lies directly over a somewhat smaller second one. The wine is fermented in the top vat. When the time comes to run off the free juice from the marc of pips and skins one just has to open a tap. Hey presto! With no pumping necessary, the juice in the top vat is run off into the one below. 'Winemaking is a hands-off process,' says Delmas. 'The less manipulation the better.'

The reason Haut-Brion's white wine did not appear on the original Graves classification is that the production was so small that Dillon requested that it be left off. Three hectares are normally under vine, half Sauvignon and half Sémillon, and the wine is fermented and aged in new wood and bottled 14–16 months after the harvest. In 1977, two thirds of the vines were uprooted for replanting, so the average age is low. The quality of the wine, however, is very high indeed. Until the late 1980s, the only 'serious' (vinified in oak) white Graves were the triumvirate of Chevalier, Laville and Haut-Brion itself. Haut-Brion Blanc was usually the best of the three, equivalent quality to the best of grand cru Burgundy.

The Delmas Philosophy

Jean-Bernard Delmas is 66, and approaching retirement. He will be succeeded by his son Jean-Philippe. I asked Jean-Bernard to outline his winemaking methods. Green harvesting? 'We did this for the first time at Haut-Brion in 1987. The choice of the date is very important. The best results are obtained if you green-harvest half the crop just before véraison, leaving six bunches per vine. This will give you 45–50 hl/ha. Naturally the result will diminish the ratio of solid matter to juice in the must. So you'll need to do a saignée as well.'Fermentation temperatures? 'Essentially the winemaker has a choice. Lower temperatures will favour the freshness and fruit in the wine; higher temperatures will give you a fatter wine, at the expense of the aromas. We find that 30?C gives us the perfect balance between the two. There are a number of techniques that are fashionable at the moment: leaving the fruit to get over-ripe, cold soaking, using enzymes to extract colour and polyphenols, fermenting at high temperatures for an exaggeratedly long time, malolactic in barrel, racking from new wood to new wood after malo, and so on. The results tend to be better with a Merlot-based wine than with a Cabernet one. 'Is this really Bordeaux? Personally I don't think so. Bordeaux is about harmony, soft tannins, silk rather than bulk, subtlety, elegance and the ability to age. These new-wave wines lack terroir definition, they could come from anywhere. And they dry out as they age.' What is the difference between Haut-Brion and La Mission-Haut-Brion? 'The soil at La Mission is richer in humus, less stony. The wine in its youth is more obvious, more voluptuous. The soil at Haut-Brion is poorer. The wine needs work in its youth to see all the finesse and subtlety. It doesn't sing. But generally it is more complex, aromatically, and as it ages, more classy.'

The word to sum up the wine of Château Haut-Brion is elegance. One could also add charming and consistent. If Haut-Brion doesn't have the réclame of Lafite or Pétrus, or fetch the same sort of astronomical prices at auction, that is the fault of the consumer. This ignorance is our good luck. On several occasions in recent vintage tastings, Haut-Brion has come out top. Moreover it is normally ready for drinking somewhat sooner than the bigger wines of Pauillac and Saint Julien. It is a wine I have regularly bought, and I confess it to be one of my favourites.

Clive Coates MW is author and publisher of monthly wine newsletter The Vine.

Wine News

Wine News

Daily wine news - the latest breaking wine news from around the world