Château Haut-Brion

The Original First-Growth
James Suckling
Posted: June 30, 2005

Robert de Luxembourg, the managing director of Château Haut-Brion, acknowledges that many people probably drink his wine for the prestige of the label. But that doesn't seem to bother him.

"I think the label has an awful lot to do with people's perception of the wine," says de Luxembourg, drinking a bottle of 1990 Haut-Brion with lunch at the George V in Paris. "The reason it has a lot to do with people's perception is because the label represents quality. The label represents the château, and the château represents the quality that has existed in the wine for centuries."

Indeed, Haut-Brion has been making wine for close to six centuries. It was a favorite of 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys, who described its "good and most particular taste" in 1663. When Thomas Jefferson was ambassador to France in the late 18th century, he visited the property and ordered the wine for his cellars in Paris and the United States.

"It amuses me when people talk about new markets being opened up and think of the United States as a new market," de Luxembourg says. "We found a letter a few years ago which dates to 1850 that was sent by a wholesaler in New Orleans, and it refers to a shipment of 400 cases of Haut-Brion 1839. The wholesaler in New Orleans was complaining that they hadn't received the 400 cases."

De Luxembourg, 36, represents the fourth generation of his family to own the château. It was purchased by his great-grandfather, American banker Clarence Dillon, in 1935. The family's holdings also include the well-respected Château La Mission-Haut-Brion. Both estates are located in the appellation of Pessac-Léognan; their ancient vineyards have been nearly engulfed by the growth of the city of Bordeaux, and their ancient châteaus are the remnants of a nobler era.

Complaints about shortages of Haut-Brion are still frequent, especially in great years such as 2000, 1998 and 1989. It is the smallest of the first-growths, with just more than 106 acres of red-wine vineyards. There are also a few acres of white grapes; Haut-Brion's barrel-fermented blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc can fetch higher prices than the vaunted red.

In wine circles, Haut-Brion's managers are as esteemed as its owners. The estate has operated under the guidance of the same winemaking family since 1923; Jean-Philippe Delmas, 45, the current technical director, represents the third generation to work at Haut-Brion.

"This gives us great continuity in winemaking here," says de Luxembourg. "There are not many wineries in the world that can say the same."

The four other first-growths are in the Médoc, about an hour's drive north of Pessac-Léognan. Their gravelly alluvial soils favor Cabernet Sauvignon, so the wines emphasize power. In contrast, Haut-Brion has much sandier and stonier soil, with clay subsoils. This makes its wines slightly finer and racier than those of its Médoc peers. And there's more Merlot in the Haut-Brion blend, almost double what's in the others, which contributes to its distinctive character. Because of this balance in its soils and grape varieties, I think of Haut-Brion as a near-perfect compromise between the Left Bank and the Right Bank of Bordeaux—a sort of blend of such wines as Lafite, Margaux and Cheval-Blanc.

Haut-Brion can be difficult to judge when young, and particularly from barrel, due to its subtle nature. But once the wine assumes its true form, this first-growth shows an extraordinary depth of fruit and character, as well as ultrarefined tannins. There's always an earthy, almost decadent undertone in the wine, with tobacco, fruit and spices coming through. Haut-Brion is wonderful to drink either young or old, although it comes into its own in a top vintage only after about 15 years of bottle age. The 1989 is perfection today, which is why I scored it 100 points in a retrospective of the vintage in 1999.

De Luxembourg, a witty, self-confident man, is a prince by birth and a former screenwriter by trade. He seeks out great wines from every corner of the world, from Tuscany to Napa Valley to Margaret River. "What I find interesting today is when a consumer tastes a great bottle of, say, '89 Haut-Brion, '82 Mouton or '61 Latour and they say, 'Wow, this is something different,'" he says. "I think the market is consumer-driven and that ultimately the position that we have is due to the fact that we produce great wines."

He adds, "In an age of communication like today, the moment you no longer produce great wines, everyone knows about it immediately—you have this information highway. In the past, it would have taken far longer to know someone is producing a bad wine, and they could have surfed on their prior reputation far longer. Today you make one mistake and everyone knows about it, from one day to the next."

Not that the château means to coast on its laurels. "I think we are always going to try and do better—that is certainly the challenge of every generation that becomes involved with wines of Haut-Brion," he says. "But the challenge is not to do better by changing the character of the wines, because the character is something that we are.

"All the owners of Haut-Brion over the last five centuries have believed in terroir and the tradition of the estate, but at the same time they have had a strong interest in innovation in order to be able to express that potential of quality at the property to its fullest."

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