Our wine scribe, Jim Walker, his wife Hélène and two other couples embarked on an oenophile’s journey of a lifetime to Bordeaux, France. Their saga continues as they explore the tasty treasures of Graves.
The first day of our 1988 Bordeaux excursion wasn’t in Bordeaux. No, instead we spent it most happily in Cognac where we were treated in grand fashion by the good folks at Maison Hennessy. You can read all about it in my last Gentleman’s Portion piece, O! Bordeaux – Arrival.
Our second day dawned under cloudy skies but it was it was reasonably warm. Our coach driver, Christian collected us at our hotel in Bordeaux and drove a short distance up the Garonne River to the Graves area of Bordeaux. Our merry band consisted of our guide François Chandou, Nora Farah and her husband Arnaud Ratel, Hélène and Loïc de Kertanguy – Loïc’s wife Becky didn’t drink and preferred to stay at our base where she jogged or whiled away the day enjoying other pursuits. Graves is the oldest wine growing area in Bordeaux. The terrain is very gravelly, hence the name (I kid you not). The remainder of Bordeaux had to wait for the Dutch to drain its swamps in the mid-17th century for the land to become arable. Graves is a large area stretching all the way from the city of Bordeaux to Sauternes. The authorities that control such things decided to create a new appellation within Graves the year before we arrived – the very catchy Pessac-Léognan. It was in the northernmost part of Grave nearest Bordeaux and it contained its finest red wines including Château Haut-Brion and Château La Mission Haut-Brion. It was upon these two legendary wineries that our thirsty troop of oenophiles was about to descend.
Château La Mission Haut-Brion was first. The unprepossessing winery was tacked onto the main chateau cum monastery and was wedged between vines that seemed incongruous in the rather industrial setting. At the end of each row of vines was a rose bush that served a similar purpose to the canaries at the bottom of coal mines. The rose bushes would show signs of disease before the vines, providing the opportunity to treat the vines before they became infected.
The Château La Mission Haut-Brion domain can trace its origins back to the 16th century. The de Lestonnac family owned the domaine until the death of Olive de Lestonnac in 1664. The property was then bequeathed to the missionary community of the Lazarist monks, an order founded by St. Vincent de Paul. It was seized during the French Revolution and sold at auction in 1792, passing through a number of hands until it was bought in 1919 by Frédéric Otto Woltner. This renowned wine merchant introduced ground-breaking processes for the era, such as the use of glass-lined steel fermentation vats. When his descendants offered the property for sale in 1983, it was immediately snapped up by the Dillon family, who had owned neighbouring Château Haut-Brion since 1935. Clarence Dillon was a very wealthy American Wall Street investment banker with a penchant for acquiring some of the world’s finest wineries.
Jean-Bernard (Jean) Delmas, technical director of the Domaines Clarence Dillion vineyards (Châteaux La Mission Haut-Brion, Haut Brion, Laville-Haut-Brion and La Tour-Haut-Brion) greeted us welcomingly at the door of the winery and took us inside to behold an astonishing sight. The mundane exterior belied its ultramodern interior resembling a high-tech, pristine dairy. Banks of computers cast an eerie glow from behind glass walls above while gleaming stainless steel vats stretched into the far reaches of the building. The avuncular M. Delmas explained that virtually nothing in the wine-making process at La Mission Haut-Brion was left to chance. We believed him.
Following a tour of the production facilities, Jean led us into a vast chamber filled with oak barrels aligned in military order – an impressive sight indeed. Sweet aromas of wood and aging wine filled the air. At one side of this room was a long, dark, wooden table laden with several uncorked bottles and sparkling stemware. Things were looking most promising. The tasting commenced with a bottle of 1983 Chateau Laville Haut-Brion, a white Bordeaux that was renamed Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc in 2008. Crafted from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillion grapes, it was straw coloured and offered up aromas of peaches, vanilla, ripe citrus, pears, spices and wet pebbles. It was lush and long in the mouth where notes of citrus, flowers and lemon persisted. The others used the crachoir (spittoon) but, I must confess, I let mine slip into my tummy. This was a great wine. To put it all in perspective, a bottle of the 2013 version is currently on sale for $1,129.85 at the LCBO!
We next proceeded to slurp a flight of La Mission Haut-Brion reds. The 1983, made from equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with a dollop of Cabernet Franc added for good measure, was a brooding garnet colour and offered up intense aromas of black cherries, pipe tobacco, smoke, cassis, mushrooms and earthy aromatics. It was full-bodied, concentrated, long and just a tad tannic. I felt it needed a few more years to reach its peak. However, it too avoided the fate of the crachoir! You’ll be thrilled to know that you can latch on to the 1995 vintage for a mere $656 at the LCBO.
We bade a fond adieu to La Mission Haut-Brion and its wonderful wines and made the short trip across avenue Jean Jaurès to stately Château Haut-Brion. I had marvelled at the drawing of the building with its towers on its wine labels. Now here it was before us. Although I had tasted but a few bottles of the red wine from this estate, it had become my favourite Bordeaux. I adored its big, cigar box, sweet black currant, smoky character.
The origins of Château Haut Brion, denoted a first growth in the 1855 classification (8), date all the way back to 1426. However, reliable records show that annual wine production started in 1521. The estate progressed through the centuries under various owners and names until Clarence Dillon purchased it in 1935 and it remains in his family to this day. It seems that the name Haut-Brion comes from an ancient Celtic term briga, which loosely translated means mound.
In 1663 Samuel Pepys wrote, “There I drank a sort of French wine called Ho-Bryan that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with.” That was likely the world’s first professional wine review.
We were greeted at the large wooden front door by Joan de Noailles, Duchess of Mouchy and Poix (née Joan Douglas Dillon). She is Clarence Dillon’s granddaughter and became president of Domaine Clarence Dillon in 1975. She has been responsible for countless improvements and enhancements ever since. Joan greeted us warmly and took us on a tour of the main rooms of the elegant château. Jean Delmas then took over, escorting us to the business end of the winery. The cold Haut-Brion cellars were much more traditional than those of its sibling across the avenue. Stainless steel tanks and computer scenes were in view, but not to the space age extent of La Mission Haut-Brion.
As before, a side table replete with open, beckoning bottles and many wine glasses was set up in the barrel room. Our taste buds were trembling in anticipation. First up was a 1985 Haut-Brion Blanc that was absolutely astonishing – sweet, honeyed peach, caramel and buttery aromas leapt from the glass. This white, fashioned from two-thirds Semillion and a third Sauvignon Blanc, is produced in very limited quantities – about 7,800 bottles per year. The 2016 vintage currently retails for about $1,000 the bottle, if you can find it.
Next to reveal itself was a 1983 Château Bahans Haut-Brion, the second tier red wine of the estate. Some second tier wine! Comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, it was simply magnificent with its sweet black currant, tobacco and roasted-herb nose and its medium to full-bodied, rich, succulent texture.
A 1979 Haut-Brion then took centre stage. Here’s how the wine writer and critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. described it in the fourth edition of his book Bordeaux, A Consumer’s Guide to the World’s Finest Wines: “One of the top three or four wines of the vintage, the 1979 Haut-Brion has put on weight in its evolution in the bottle and, although fully mature, shows no signs of decline. The color is a dark garnet with some amber at the edge. The wine shows a very sweet nose of fruitcake intermixed with damp earth, tobacco, smoke, liquid mineral, black currants, and a hint of creosote. Medium to full-bodied, with excellent power and lushness, this is an atypically rich, layered, authoritatively flavorful wine that seems almost out of character for the vintage. – 93/100.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, except that I’m not too sure about the liquid mineral or the creosote. By the way, today a bottle of 2000 Ch. Haut-Brion Rouge retails for a mere $2,195.00 at the LCBO.
Thus ended our day enjoying the magnificent wines from the two top wineries in Pessac-Léognan, or perhaps, of all Bordeaux. The whites from both were equally stunning. As to the reds, here’s what The Wine Cellar Insider has to say, “(La Mission is) a bigger and more tannic wine than Haut Brion. Depending on the vintage, it might not show the same level of elegance. Yet, in some years, La Mission Haut Brion produces a better wine than Haut Brion. Today, La Mission is at the top of the list for Super Seconds. If a reclassification were done, this is one wine that would definitely be promoted to First Growth status!”
Well, no matter which is deemed better, we were privileged to have tried them both along with all the other magnificent wines in the company of the gracious folks who produced them. It just doesn’t get any better in the life of an oenophile than that. Or does it? The third day of our Bordeaux pilgrimage took us to St.-Émilion. I’ll tell you all about that remarkable occasion in my next Gentleman’s Portion post.
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