Even before being classified, Château Haut-Brion was already a class act

Monday October 14 2013 by Kelsie Adams

A piece of advice for wine lovers : do not say that Château Haut-Brion is a Médoc estate! As a town vineyard, Château Haut-Brion is proudly rooted in the gravelly hills of Pessac. Alain Puginier, a historian who looks after the archives of Clarence Dillon’s Domaines, found it funny that Château Haut-Brion was mixed in with Médoc Châteaux during the recent France 3 programme (Bordeaux, histoires de châteaux, which was broadcast on 2nd October). He also found « Mouton Rothschild’s gimmick », claiming to have been the first Bordeaux domaine to systematically bottle their wines at the Château, doing so since 1924, funny. « Haut-Brion have been doing it since 1923 » the historian states, but « it would be too much to say that on-site bottling was created at Haut-Brion ! However, the idea of uniting many different techniques just to produce clarets was definitely born there ! »

It is Arnaud III de Pontac who is responsable for this mix-up. As a fine politician (he presided over the parliament of Bordeaux during the revolts in the middle of the 17th century), he saw the limited quality of medevial Bordeaux wines, and the total lack of potential for ageing these wines. Taking inspiration from preexisting techniques, Arnaud III de Pontac replaced « the wood hooping of his casks*  with metal, which allowed him to deal with larger volumes and to macerate the fruit », states Alain Puginier. At the same time Haut-Brion was also implementing « the burning of sulphur in a cask before filling it (Dutch Match technique), moving wine from one barrel to another (racking), and systematic ullage... » This list goes on, the only thing it is missing is Médoc wine cellar !

However, according to the historian, « Arnaud III de Pontac’s real genius lay in opening a restaurant  in London, so that his wine could be sold as well as  tasted alongside food». This educational approach, an early indication of food and wine pairing, allowed the first consumer market of Bordeaux wines to try this new wine. The fashionable New French Clarets were launched after Lafite, Latour and Margaux joined the domaine. In the meantime, Château Haut-Brion was named a Premier Grand Cru Classé in 1855. But neither this classification, nor the changes in ownership, have taken away the desire for innovation at the vineyard. Alain Puginier recalls that in 1961 « the introduction of stainless steel casks meant that they had to pay dairy taxes. Then, it became the norm ! »

« As the first authentically wine producing Château in Bordeaux », according to expert Phillipe Roudié,  Haut-Brion is now owned by the fourth generation of the American Dillion family. The current managing director of the group, Prince Robert of Luxembourg, is investing in land on the right bank of Bordeaux with Château Quintis. This land is offering him the means to fulfil his ambitions to create a new grand vin from Saint-Emilion (click here to find out more).

* : Incidentally, Château Haut-Brion’s casks are produced on site, by Seguin-Moreau.


[Photo of Alain Puginier and the harvest at Château Haut-Brion, taken on 11th October during the Symposium to fight for wine in Aquitaine (Bâtir pour le vin en Aquitaine)]


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