First Growth Focus – Château Haut-Brion

Continuing our series on the First Growths, Ludovic Surina, Fine Wine Advisor at Lay & Wheeler, introduces Château Haut-Brion.

The history of Haut-Brion starts even earlier than most think – at the end of the tertiary era, when the emergence of the Aquitaine basin and the Western Pyrenees caused a layer of debris to spread over the foothills, later to be carried by powerful streams and rivers all the way to the Gironde. This Günzian gravel (with some parcels showing high contents of clay) is the basis of the exceptional, well-draining soil that constitutes the terroir of Haut-Brion.

The next step in the estate’s history takes us to Roman times. Vines were planted at Haut-Brion (from the Celtic term “Briga” – a hill) during the 1st Century AD. The potential of the wines produced at Haut-Brion was already obvious, but the true birth of the estate as we know it came in 1533, when Jean de Pontac purchased the Mansion house situated on the land that were part of his wife’s dowry. It is somewhat ironic that Haut-Brion, now surrounded by sprawling suburbia, was originally intended as a country retreat by de Pontac! 

After continuous improvement under the de Pontac’s family’s ownership (such as conservations techniques in the 1660’s which allowed the wine to age), Haut-Brion’s reputation grew to International recognition: King Charles II, Samuel Pepys, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson all mentioned it in glowing terms.

It became one of the five first growths of the 1855 classification, and was bought by American banker Clarence Dillon in 1935. His grandson, Prince Robert of Luxembourg, now manages the estate, with Jean-Philippe Delmas at the winemaking helm since 2004. His innovations, such as hot, short fermentation, an increase of the quantity of the crop relegated to Bahans (1978), crop thinning in the 80’s and selection of optimum rootstocks and clones have helped the wine go from strength to strength, and establish a reputation for consistency at the highest quality level.

The 45 hectares of vineyards are planted with 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet France and 37% Merlot. The total production is of 13,000 cases on average and includes the Grand Vin, a second wine, Clarence de Haut-Brion (Bahans before 2007), Château Haut-Brion Blanc (200 cases 63% Sémillon and 37% Sauvignon Blanc) planted on 2.7 hectares and a second white wine, La Clarté de Haut-Brion (formerly Plantiers).

According to Robert Parker: “…this great first growth is the world’s most elegant and aromatically complex wine.” It has a broader window of drinkability than any other first growth thanks to its approachability and ability to gain weight and texture with age.

Following the intense trading of the three first growths from Pauillac over the past year, Haut-Brion now looks great value and has started attracting fast-growing interest. At its current pricing and given its consistent quality, Haut-Brion (from most vintages) really looks like one of the smartest investment opportunities in Bordeaux.  

2010 Vintage
The 2010 is, even at this early stage, already showing all the class and breed of its terroir. Aromatic, rich and pure yet already displaying extraordinary complexity, with notes of roast coffee, tobacco leaf and delicate white pepper to complement the crème de cassis backbone: it is simply stunning, and with its fine-grain tannins and fresh acidity, it has all the elements to age gracefully for decades.

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