Another brisk, yet bright morning in Bordeaux. A half-day of playing hooky from work. A visit and a tasting at one of five Bordeaux First Growths: Chateau Haut Brion.
That right there says enough. But of course, I have more to say.
I am ashamed to admit, after over a year in Bordeaux, this was my first visit to a First Growth estate. I’ve visited a lot of classified estates and had the chance to enjoy some amazing wines. But I have been a bit remiss in working toward exploring the best of the best. Luckily for me, I have motivated friends and getting to Haut Brion is quite easy. In fact for me, the trip is almost door to door.
But before I get into the details, let’s talk a bit about history. The oldest wine estate in Bordeaux, Chateau Haut Brion can trace it’s history back to the early 1500’s. Yes I said the early 1500’s. I’ll pause here for a minute to let that number sink in…
Located just outside the modern limits of Bordeaux proper, historical records shows that grape vines were grown in this area by the Romans as early as the 1st Century. As such, it comes as no surprise that the notable Pontac family established their winemaking estate in the heart of this prime terroir. Centuries passed, the estate changed hands (several times as is commonly the case in Bordeaux) and eventually the estate was recognized as one of the best of the best. In 1855, as a result of the classification ordered by Napoleon III, the estate was named one of 4 Premiers Crus Classés, or First Growths, for red wine and the only one to come from the greater Graves region.
Fast forward to the modern era…In 1934 American banker Clarence Dillon purchased the estate. A devoted francophile and lover of good food and wine, Dillon gladly took ownership of this historic estate and established firm roots in France. His children and grandchildren, who shared his passion for France and fine wine, maintained control of the estate and in 1983 added the neighboring “La Mission de Haut Brion” to their wine property portfolio. Today the two estates are overseen by Prince Robert of Luxembourg, Clarence’s great grandson.
There is a lot more detail, but I don’t want to bore you and I’m eager to get back to the fun part. If you want to learn more you can visit the Chateau Haut Brion website.
So… yesterday morning I promptly walked across the square and hopped on the bus, picked up a friend in the city center and was eventually met by 12 other classmates. In my eagerness, we were actually about 20 minutes early, but after a rather entertaining conversation via speaker phone (Me: Good morning we have an appointment for a tour at 10:30; Haut Brion Tour Guide: Yes, Me: Uhh..can we come inside?), we made our way inside. And then promptly waited…and waited. Unattended in the entryway. Personally I thought it was a bit bizarre but c’est la vie en France.
Eventually we were greeted by our guide and were led upstairs for a quick video screening detailing some of the history of this great estate. Then the actual touring began with a visit to the vat room, where our guide promptly, and thankfully, skipped over the standard vinification lecture. Then it was on to the in-house cooperage and a visit to the 17th Century Chateau’s main courtyard. Sadly we were not invited to see inside the ancient estate, but we were eventually led through the barrel cellar into the ancient Orangerie for our tasting.
Thankfully we were able to do a side by side tasting of the 2007 vintage of both the Grand Vins of Chateau Haut Brion and La Mission de Haut Brion. I could bore you with formal tasting notes, but I would much rather talk about what I found most interesting. Both these wines are made from vineyards planted across the street from each other. They are vinified, monitored and bottled by the same technical team. The are of almost identical blending proportions from the same vintage and experienced almost identical barrel aging. Both wines offer similar aromatic profiles and marked similarities. And yet… at the same time they are markedly different. This was for me, the clearest evidence of terroir and it’s impact on wine that I have ever experienced.
I will now also confess to something that many wine lovers, and Bordeaux enthusiasts in particular, and maybe even my boss, will find blasphemous. Overall the wines were elegant, refined and very, very good. But I wouldn’t pay the market price for a bottle. At about 150 euros for La Mission and over 300 for Haut-Brion, these wines are….dare I say it…overpriced. Granted, 2007 was not an epic vintage in Bordeaux and the wines were young. They amazing potential for additional age and grace, but still, I couldn’t see myself ever buying a bottle. And don’t mistake my meaning, I believe in the great Bordeaux wines and I hope to one day build my own collection. But in that particular moment with that particular wine, I was a bit disappointed.
So now that I’ve spilled my secrets and shocked you all, I will leave you with a link to the day’s photos. And maybe I just need a bit more exposure 😉
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