An American Bordeaux in Paris

Celebrating 75 years of American-owned Château Haut-Brion in Paris
May 28, 2010

Last night, in Paris, I attended the 75th anniversary party for the Dillon family's ownership of the famous first-growth Château Haut-Brion. Besides the beauty and grandeur of the event, which was held at the Academie Diplomatique Internationale in the center of the great city, I was impressed with the interest and passion that nearly all the people attending the event seemed to have.

The people around me on a large, long table seating about 40 were fascinated with every word on the wines, not to mention drinking them. It was great to discuss preferences, styles and joys of wine with everyone. And this was interspersed with subjects as varied as geopolitics to French socialism, literature, and art—not all interrelated!

The 75 or so people who were seated at the black-tie event were not part of the wine world. No wine merchants or other wine critics attended. In fact, the group was the farthest thing from it. They were part of the Parisian cognoscenti, from media stars to supermodels to jewelers to fashion designers. The head of Haut-Brion, Prince Robert de Luxembourg, said he and his team hoped to improve the international profile of his Bordeaux estate through a number of dinners of the same magnitude around the world.

Some might call this slightly elitist, but I guess Haut-Brion and wines of similar stature have always been like that considering their rarity and prices. It's just the way it is. It takes nothing away from the history, culture and quality Haut-Brion represents, as well as the fact that it is American-owned.

"In London, in 1660, we find the first written mentions of Haut-Brion in the cellar Book of King Charles II," said de Luxembourg in a speech at the beginning of the evening. "Returning from exile at the court of his cousin Louis XIV in France, the king must have brought back a few of these fine bottles to celebrate his return with his subjects."

"In the 17th century, the Pontac family, then owners of Château Haut-Brion, created a tavern in London that became the most fashionable eating establishment of its age," he continued. "Pontack's Head gathered some of the greatest luminaries of the time in what was undoubtedly the age of enlightenment for London. At the tavern, the guests discovered the fine wines of Château Haut-Brion and spoke of this new style of wine 'new French claret' in their writings."

There will be eight such celebratory dinners starting with Paris and ending in Tokyo. The cities in between include London, New York, Los Angeles, Moscow, Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Each event will be different, with different wines and different chefs.

"Globalization has had its impact on Château Haut-Brion," said de Luxembourg. "And it is due to this that I decided to organize eight dinners in eight great cities to celebrate eight decades of my family's presence at this great estate.

The chef for last night's event was Yannick Alleno, from the restaurant of the Hôtel Le Meurice in Paris. He served classic haut-cuisine à la Francais, from a tepid lobster salad with frogs' legs and girolles mushrooms to roasted pigeon with foie gras and tiny vegetables. The wines included two whites, 2005 Haut-Brion (a wine I scored 100 points in bottle for the magazine) and 1993, as well as four reds, including 1998, 1989, 1982 and 1949. (The 1989 remains a 100-pointer.) They were all served from magnums from Haut-Brion's cellars.

Except for the 1949, I had recently tasted all the wines at an event in Montreal. So I won't go into them again, but the 1982 was the most drinkable, with fabulously rich and decadent aromas and flavors of sweet tobacco, cigar box, iodine and warm stones. The 1989 was a younger version of the 1982, but perhaps with a little more depth. 1998 is just a baby, Port-like.

The 1949 had a musty, slightly mushroomy nose, which marred some of the amazing ripe and wonderful fruit there. A small glass from a second magnum was cleaner and more complete. It's a beauty for a wine that's 61 years old.

I felt very lucky to drink these wines again and share them with so many interesting French people. I was proud to be one of the few Americans there and proud that a fellow countryman, the late Clarence Dillon (de Luxembourg's great-grandfather), had the foresight to buy one of the great wine estates in the world way back in 1935.

Haut-Brion is arguably the birthplace of premium wine, where in the mid-1660s the then-owners of the property changed the winemaking to produce stronger, more sturdy reds, or the "new claret," as some like to say. I hope that everyone who loves wine gets the chance to sip a glass of Haut-Brion in their lives to better understand what it represents to the world we all take such pleasure in. Because, as de Luxembourg said at the end of his speech "allow the wines of Château Haut-Brion to speak for themselves."

France Bordeaux

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