The only one of the five first growths outside of the Médoc, Château Haut-Brion lies in the Pessac-Léognan region slightly further south, and is surrounded by the suburbs of Pessac. The urban, rather than rural location is somewhat rare for a property of this status (though research shows this results in higher temperatures, which aid vine growth) and accounts for its smaller size, though there are still 51 hectares under vine.
Haut-Brion is one of the oldest wine estates in Bordeaux, and probably the first to make wine under its own name, with winemaking underway around 100 years before its first growth peers. It has really only been owned by four major families, each of which made its own impact and contributed to the property’s high repute.
The Pontacs (who were in control from 1533 to 1748) were the first to invest in vineyards, and they established Haut-Brion as a premium and sought-after wine, with fans including Samuel Pepys and King Charles II. The Furnel family took over between 1748 and 1790, and it was during this time that future American President Thomas Jefferson paid a visit, and described Haut-Brion as ‘the very best Bordeaux wine.’
The Larrieu family was in control from 1836 to 1922, during which time the estate was granted its first growth status, and overcame phylloxera, which had destroyed so many of the vineyards of Bordeaux. From 1935, the estate has been owned by the American Dillon family, and it was under its ownership that significant winery renovations took place, including the decision to make Haut-Brion the first property to convert to stainless-steel tanks for vinification. Joan Dillon married Princes Charles of Luxembourg in 1967, and since 2002 Prince Robert of Luxembourg has overseen the estate. In 1983 the family bought the neighbouring leading estate of La Mission Haut-Brion, but each wine continues to be made separately to retain its personality.
The property gets its name from the hill on which the vineyards lie – ‘brion’ is thought to derive from the Celtic ‘briga’, meaning ‘hill’. The deep gravel soils here have more sand and clay than their Médoc counterparts, and there is a higher proportion of merlot: this makes up 42% of the red plantings, with cabernet sauvignon covering 44%, 13% cabernet franc and 1% petit verdot. Three of the 51 hectares are given to white varieties – an almost equal mix of sauvignon blanc and semillon. Since 2003, the estate manager and Technical Director has been Jean-Philippe Delmas, whose father and grandfather enjoyed the role before him.
Jean-Philippe Masclef has been oenologist here since 1995. The grapes are vinified in stainless-steel tanks plot by plot and a detailed tasting evaluation of the different vats determines the final blend. This then spends 18-20 months ageing in oak. From year to year, merlot and cabernet sauvignon alternate as the dominant variety, depending on vintage conditions, but the finished wine always remains true to the signature Haut-Brion style.
Haut-Brion makes an excellent second wine, Clarence de Haut-Brion (previously called Bahans Haut-Brion), and a tiny quantity of sought-after white, Haut-Brion Blanc. It has been using its distinctive bottles – emulating designs of old decanter models – since the 1958 vintage.