The second wine in my journey through some of the aged Bordeaux in my cellar is the 1998 Château Haut-Brion. Now before anyone thinks I have a bunch of First Growth Bordeaux laying around in my cellar I don't. I do have my fair share and I opened this up to have a go at it 11 years into its life. I do have two more of these and, as you will see in my tasting notes, these have many years of laying sideways.
Château Haut-Brion is a First Growth Bordeaux producer according to the Official Classification of 1855 and is the only estate from outside Médoc to be included. It is located in the Graves region, in the appellation Pessac-Léognan.
History of Château Haut-Brion
The smallest and oldest of the First Growth Bordeaux Chateau it has a very long, complex and rich history. You can read all the details here but I will try to give you a very brief summary of the more interesting aspects.
Although grapes are thought to have been grown on the property since Roman times, the earliest documented cultivation of a parcel of land dates from 1423. The estate Château Haut-Brion goes all the way back to April 1525 when Jean de Pontac married Jeanne de Bellon, the daughter of the mayor of Libourne and seigneur of Hault-Brion, who brought the land to him in her dowry. Yes, dowry - seems so archaic by today's standards. I am still waiting for my dowry! In 1533 Jean bought the mansion of Haut-Brion and in 1549 construction of the château began.
The first records of Haut-Brion wine were found in the wine cellar ledger of the English King Charles II. I know everyone who reads PTC keeps a wine cellar ledger. Me, I just use Cellartracker - I wonder what King Charles would think of that? During the years 1660 and 1661, 169 bottles of the "wine of Hobriono" were served at the the king's court. Samuel Pepys (prounounced Peeps - he was "gangsta" before there was gangsta) wrote in The Diarist, having tasted the wine at Royal Oak Tavern on April 10, 1663, to have:
drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryen that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with
In 1666, after The Great Fire, the son François-Auguste, opened a tavern in London called L’Enseigne de Pontac, or the "Sign of Pontac's Head", which was according to André Simon, London's first fashionable eating-house. Jonathan Swift "found the wine dear at seven shillings a flagon". Whatever that means!
In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, then American minister to France, came to Bordeaux. On May 25 he visited Haut-Brion, describing the terroir:
The soil of Haut-Brion, which I examined in great detail, is made up of sand, in which there is near as much round gravel or small stone and a very little loam like the soils of the Médoc.
His notes placed Haut-Brion among the four estates of first quality, with the entry:
3. Haut-Brion, two-thirds of which belong to the Count de Fumel who sold the harvest to a merchant called Barton. The other third belongs to the Count of Toulouse; in all, the château produces 75 barrels.
Haut-Brion became the first recorded first growth wine to be imported to the United States, when Jefferson purchased six cases during his travels and had them sent back to his estate in Virginia. I wonder if he used government funds or had to declare the wine when he came back through customs?
Soil, Vineyards and Vines
Château Haut-Brion plants 119.5 acres (48.35 hectares if your French) to red grape varietals, with a distribution of 45.4% Merlot, 43.9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9.7% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. Another 7.1 acres (2.87 hectares)are planted to white grape varietals, distributed with 52.6% Sémillon and 47.4% Sauvignon blanc.
The vineyards are elevated, up to 88 feet, somewhat above the Bordeaux norm. The soil consists of Günzian gravel and some parcels have high contents of clay. All the vineyards are located in a cluster near the château itself and on opposite side of a main road that divides the property.
Harvest and Production
Harvesting takes place by hand and each parcel is worked by the same team of workers to increase the teams' familiarity with the individual vines. This is one of the more uniqe approaches to manual harvest I have ever read about. After sorting in the field, the red grapes are destemmed, crushed and moved to a special double-tank with fermentation taking place in the top and malolactic fermentation in the bottom, using gravity to move the wine. Previously ageing took place in 100% new oak casks lasting 18 months. This has been reduced to 35% new casks.
The annual production ranges from 10,000 to 14,000 cases of the highly regarded Château Haut-Brion red Bordeaux.
1998 Growing Season
The 1998 growing season had an above average temperature and there were 22 days where the temperature went over 86°F. Total rainfall was just over 21 inches. Harvesting began on September 15th and ended on September 30th.
I paid $198.00 a bottle for this wine and the Cellartracker average community value as of this posting is $245.84 for a 750ml bottle.
Alright, let's get to the tasting note!
1998 Château Haut-Brion - France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Decanted for 4 hours for first tasting and I enjoyed it again 24 hours later (tasting notes combined). This is a monumental effort from the oldest and smallest of the 1st Growth Chateau. The HB did not disappoint but was clearly really strutting its stuff after 24 hours. This needs a minimum 8-10 hour decant which pretty much means drinking it now is infanticide and it will age for what might be an eternity. The fact it still needs so much air after 10 years in the bottle is a significant sign of its ageability.
A deep purple core with some ruby/pink toward the edge. Very typical Graves dust/earth nose with roses, moist fertile soil, ripe dark berries, cocoa powder, smoke, cassis and leather. Wow what a nose! It was intense, complex and each sniff seemed to reveal something new. I could not wait for the taste.
The palate was macerated dark fruits (blackberries), earth, cassis, currant, a sense of minerality and subtle touches of pencil lead and spice with a very lively acidity. The tannins are refined, sweet and very nicely integrated with a sublime, elegant and medium bodied mouthfeel. It is perfectly in balance and singing an amazing song for what is a young age for First Growth Bordeaux. A long finish of everything on the palate but the dark fruit, smoke, tobacco and earth were most dominant.
What a wonderful sense of terroir this Haut-Brion has. Elegant, majestic, beautiful and ostentatious in its precise delivery. Yes, even I am surprised I used the word ostentatious. This is such a baby and may very welll age forever. After 10 years in the bottle its so fresh, young and alive. Just an unreal wine that left me realizing how very blessed and fortunate I am to experience a wine of such amazing quality and refinement. 50+5+15+18+9=97 pts.