Haut Brion - the Quintessential Bordeaux
Haut Brion. It is perhaps the wine I most love to hate or is it I most hate to love? For me it encapsulates everything that is best about Bordeaux, and, yes, everything I dislike the most, the ultimate vinous paradox.
The chateau has such a long and fabulous history that perhaps we should start there. I am not going to delve into detail as there are many books that do it better and you are not looking for a lengthy history lesson from me. But what other wine domaine has such lofty antecedents? Yes, the Czar may have slurped Crystal champagne and Napoleon loved his Chambertin (which he drank diluted, no wonder he did not succeed at Waterloo!), but you need to take your time machine even further afield to find the early tasting notes on this wine (though the then Robert Parker obviously had spelling issues. No spell check then.).
Samuel Pepys no less:
‘Off to the Exchange with Sir J Cutler and Mr Grant to the Royal Oake Tavern in Lumbard Street …and there drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, tha hath a good and most perticular taste that I never met with.’
Couldn’t agree with the great diarist more, if I had to bet my life savings on having a modicum of chance of guessing a wine blind, Haut Brion would be it. It really does have a taste apart. I’ve drunk a lot of good Bordeaux and could waffle on about the floral violets of Margaux, the walnut austerity of Latour, the flashiness of Mouton or the cedary elegance of Lafite, but could I actually spot any of them in a blind tasting? Not a hope. Would I largely just be reciting what I had read? Yes. But Haut Brion, well, I think I could, but we’ll come back to that later.
The original diary entry was dated 10 April 1663 and was displayed in the Pepys library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, alongside a copy of an earlier reference to ‘Hobrionno’ in the 1660 cellar book of King Charles II, currently held in the National Archives. The domaine dates back further to the 1520s, but it was in 1533 that Jean de Pontac acquired the Seigneurie de Haut-Brion and started to build the chateau in 1549. The grand cru was born. Whether the wine is really the elixir of life who knows, but he lived to the age of 101, not bad for the 16th century. Back then you didn’t drink water as it was contaminated, so I guess a diet of fine wine grown on his famous gravel ‘croupes’ had lasting health benefits. I only wish I could do the same.
Nor was it mere literary types in London who drank it. King Charles II, having finally seen the back of Oliver Cromwell (a parliamentarian who I am sure drank nothing but water), recorded in the ‘Office of the Pantry, the Butler and the Cellar of the Lord King’, the purchase of one lot of 169 bottles of Hobrion. The royalists taste was better than their spelling too, or was this a seventeenth century problem? Arnaud III de Pontac sent his son to run Pontac’s Head, a London tavern where the homebrew was served at seven shillings a bottle, three times the price of most wines on sale. I have no idea what that would mean today, but seven shillings when I was a kid was the equivalent of half a euro. And to put a little more context around it, up until 2004 Haut Brion en primeur usually cost under a hundred euros, (with the odd exception like the hyped Y2K vintage 2000). I recall being shocked by the 1995 which cost all of 40 francs (60 euros). Nowadays I don’t think you’ll find any vintage under 400, and the reputed ones go for much more.
John Locke the philosopher visited, and more literary giants enjoyed it (Dryden, Defoe, Swfit). Thomas Jefferson visited in 1787, before becoming President of the United States: ‘It is a little rise of ground open to the west, in a white sand mixed with gravel..’ Two hundred years later his supposed purchases were to cause scandal as famous auctioneers and wine experts fell over themselves to validate and sell the Jefferson bottles, though I think they were fake Lafite. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe served it at The White House…
I could go on, with French Foreign Minister Talleyrand and Careme (the grandfather of French haute cuisine), but we need to get to the seminal date of 1855 when of course Haut Brion was sanctified as Premier Grand Cru, the only wine outside the Medoc of Lafite, Latour and Margaux. Clive Coates (MW) makes the point that people think the famed 1855 Classification was just for the Medoc, and that Haut Brion muscled in because of its pre-eminent history. But in fact it was the only chateau outside the Medoc that was considered worthy and sold at a higher enough price. So much for the Right Bank…
Ok, enough potted history (read Asa Briggs for the full story), what of the wine? If it has the most fascinating history of any Bordeaux chateau, it also, in my eyes, has the most distinctive bottle shape and label which you can spot a mile off. Even the gold capsule stands out from the usual red.
But what of the actual wine? Why was Pepys right? I am not a millionaire and did not inherit a cellar full of crusty great bottles, but I did arrive in Paris in 1991 at a time when wine was still affordable. Being if you like born on the wrong side of the bed, ie outside the sacred gravels of the Medoc north of the city of Bordeaux, Haut Brion was always the cheaper of the four (joined in 1973 by Mouton-Rothschild when the Baron finally managed to gain promotion to Premier Cru). In relative terms, that was where the best value lay if you wanted to buy ‘the best’.
So, I have been lucky. In fact, looking back on it, in a sense sadly, incredibly lucky, as to repeat it now you’d need to be the child of someone very wealthy or a young tech wizard. Well, or a criminal or investment banker… I think I have drunk at least 15 vintages between 1966 and 1999 and have a few younger ones up until 2008 snoozing in the cellar. Oh, plus brother literally across the road, La Mission Haut Brion. The pundits will tell you that La Mission is much sterner and more ‘masculine’ but the percentage of merlot has been increased quite a lot lately and though I’ve not drunk much La Mission, I always found a brotherly resemblance, even if Haut Brion was softer and more elegant. Both are at the highest level and these days La Mission is priced accordingly.
Throw in the second wines (Bahans-Haut-Brion, now renamed Le Clarence and La Chapelle de La Mission HB) and you have a stable of wines that really do have a distinct flavour imprint. I might also add that Bahans used to cost about half the price of Les Forts de Latour, Pavillon Rouge or Carruades de Lafite. Indeed, when the Chinese went mad over Lafite, I sold my few bottles of Carruades because they simply weren’t that good and for the ridiculous price they would pay for it in Asia, I could buy a bottle of Haut Brion’s grand vin that was immeasurably better. Oh blessed arbitrage, but alas it lasted not long.
Many people have written that the second wines of the Firsts were a great way to taste a bit of the real thing for a lot less. Maybe, but I have had some frankly disappointing bottles of Forts, Carruades and Pavillon, none of which said anything to me about their esteemed sibling. But Bahans and La Chapelle really do remind me of the grand vin. Without the power, complexity or longevity perhaps, but with more than a passing similarity. The 2005s are delicious now. And were great value.
Why? Why the distinct character? Partly it may be due to location, and the fact that the chateau is almost within the city of Bordeaux, and thus warmer – the surrounds are not the gently sloping vineyards of the Gironde estuary, with its salt marshes, fishing shacks and endless architectural chateaux. No, here you are more likely to be surrounded by tarmac, cars, supermarkets and buildings. You are just three miles from the centre of town and only Haut Brion and across the road La Mission have survived the encroaching urbanisation. The famous croupe is a small mound just 27 metres above sea level with gravel that can be as much as 18 metres deep. Perfect drainage. There are also clay dominant areas, hence the merlot as we will see.
Merlot. Unlike the very cabernet sauvignon dominated Medoc, here you have roughly equal measures of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, plus some cabernet franc and perhaps a smidgin of Petit Verdot. It shifts depending on the vintage, but the predominant grape can be merlot. The end result is a softer wine, with more perfume, and a warm bricky, ‘iodine’ flavour that permeates all of the bottlings but is also wrapped up with the usual cabernet profile of cassis, and as it ages, earthy-cedary maturity. You can sometimes throw in currants and mint. It does not at all remind me of the merlot dominated wines of the right bank, Pomerol or Saint Emilion, and has none of that plummy-dark chocolate density. Somehow, Haut Brion seems to marry the best of both banks in a style that is supremely elegant and reliable. Merlot can get very bovrily or meat-stocky as it ages in the Medoc, but not here in Pessac-Leognan.
Reliable? First Growth Bordeaux has never been cheap, though as I said for high days and holidays it used to be affordable. Thus I’ve been fortunate or self-indulgent enough to have enjoyed a goodly few. But my memories are somewhat hit and miss. A lot more success than disappointment, but… I remember serving a duo of 1983 Mouton and Lafite for New Year two years running. The first year the Lafite was splendid and the Mouton surly, closed and tough. The year after I served the Mouton first and it was marvellous, and the Lafite after it, was, you guessed it, in a grump. It was not our palates, it was not the day, it was the bottle. Not good if you have forked out a chunk of money and waited with such anticipation. Jump to the same 2 wines in the legendary 1986 vintage (scored 100/100 by one and all) and at a friend’s 50th I was asked to prepare and serve the wines. The Mouton was tough, tight and frankly a waste of time. The Lafite was corked! (By the way I sent it back to Lafite and they very decently sent a replacement which was truly excellent).
A few years ago, we held a small tasting of 1988s with generous friends, and, if I recall, we opened Cheval Blanc, Margaux, Latour and Haut Brion. And a ringer, Ridge Montebello from Santa Cruz Mountain, California. The verdict? The 1988s were tannic, unyielding and high on austerity, low on fruit. The only 2 wines that shone were Haut Brion and Ridge. I don’t know if it’s just a sort of unconscious bias, as Ridge is my favourite wine in the USA by far, but the only wine that I think replicates at all that dusty iodine signature of Haut Brion is Montebello. I had a case of the Latour ‘88 (bought for twenty pounds a bottle!) and in the end I sold the last ones as even after 30 years it was still a tough brute and for just how long are you supposed to wait for it ‘to come round’? Rigid austerity rarely blossoms with age.
I could go on… But I have never had a disappointing bottle of Haut Brion, and I don’t mean faulty (as in corked) I mean one that left you feeling underwhelmed. And if I had to pick the most emotional Bordeaux I have drunk, twice, it was the 1966, opened around 2010. So don’t think that the softer merlot side means it doesn’t age as well as it’s more lauded brothers up north. And if you don’t believe me, Clive Coates also hints that Haut Brion is not just the oldest, but the most reliable and often his favourite wine of the Big Five. I am onboard with him and Pepys, or perhaps I just appreciate less the more macho side of Pauillac.
And before I forget, the white wines are also spectacular, though that is not my subject here.
So why do I hate to love it? Because as well as encompassing everything that is best about Bordeaux – the history, the pretty chateau, the bottle, label and capsule, the glorious flavour, the reliability and the lowest price amidst its peer group, it’s also now everything I dislike…
What do you get now? Endless interviews with a prince in sharply tailored jackets; hyper expensive shops and restaurants in Paris – Haut Brion is very much part of the mega wine families, the big corporates, the crazy pricing, the designer architecture, the show-off elite. In 2005 the premier crus tripled their prices over night and dumped most of their loyal clientele in favour of label-inspired new Asian buyers. 2007 was a feeble vintage and sales happily flopped due to the total mismatch between the high price and low quality, so in 2008 the prices fell almost back to earth (hence the fact I have wines until 2008 in the cellar – but no 2005, 6 or 7). Alas, the moderation was all too short lived and in 2009, 2010 the greed returned, the prices went back into orbit, only rocket-boosted again after the uninspiring and wildly over-priced 2011,2012,2013 by the stellar 2015, 2016 etc. If I sound angry and envious because I can no longer afford any of it, well, it’s because I am.
But what also happened, apart from the shift from expensively affordable wine to speculative, luxury commodity? Somewhere in there something else seems to have changed. As I have not tasted any of these wines, I cannot comment, but if the wines of the last century were glorious, they were alcoholically soft. Indeed, Burgundy usually topped out higher. But whereas nowadays (at least prior to the recent trio of heatwave 2018-19-20) the great wines of the Cote de Nuits still come in around the 13’s, I have seen Haut Brions in the 14s and even I think 15%. Of course, the American critics love it and shower eye-watering scores and ratings and the Europeans (perhaps embarrassed?) all quickly comment that you cannot taste the alcohol, but it takes a lot of make up to cover that much spirit? You may end up with a balanced wine, just as a big Chateauneuf or Barolo can be, but it’s not going to be the same, is it? I love my bigger wines too, but cabernet-merlot is not grenache-syrah or Nebbiolo. I do not believe that you can achieve the same timeless finesse with 15% of head-turning alcohol onboard. And I also wonder with that level of power, whether that idiosyncratic and wonderfully unique set of flavours can survive and shine? When you sing more softly, you can hear every note. Far more difficult when you bellow, however impressive it might sound overall. Is the nuance being lost in a ‘big is better’ value chain and a desire to up the scores in the endless round of pointless tastings? I sometimes think that nowadays a glass of wine is more about the score than the contents.
Anyway, it is all somewhat immaterial unless I win the lottery and I may not live long enough to fully appreciate the 2015 and 2016 at their peak. In the meantime, I am enormously happy to have a few wines from the 90s to keep us going, wines of a unique distinctiveness, of elegance and finesse, of complexity and generosity of flavour, and an ability not just to survive, but to add layers of emotion and interest over decades.
That, for me, is a pretty fair definition of true greatness in a wine.