Valiant Bordeaux Blanc in a Tough Vintage

Today’s Story: Château Haut-Brion

I recently wrote about Château Haut-Brion when I reviewed the 2014 Le Clarence de Haut-Brion in November, 2020, so if your memory is quite sharp feel free to skip to today’s tasting notes below. If, however, you’d like a refresher you can read on for the history of this great estate.

Château Haut-Brion is a historic Bordeaux wine estate that traces back to at least 1521, and it was awarded First Growth (Premier Grand Cru) status in the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855. In 1533, Jean de Pontac acquired the land that would become Château Haut-Brion and he immediately set about renovating the vineyards and expanding the estate. He is also the owner who, in 1549, started building the château. Jean de Pontac was instrumental in each vintage under his ownership until he passed away in 1589 at the age of 101, though the estate remained in the Pontac family by passing to his son Arnaud II and then Arnaud II’s nephew Geoffroy. Geoffroy’s son Arnaud III took over during the early 17th century and expanded the château itself while doubling the size of the vineyards. He also used his political influence to extend the fame and reputation of Haut-Brion, particularly in England.

As the influence of Haut-Brion grew, particularly amongst nobility and the intellects of the time (including John Locke), Joseph de Fumel inherited the estate from his father in 1749. The estate’s influence took another leap when, in 1787, Thomas Jefferson visited the château and wrote with great admiration about the soils and wines of Haut-Brion. The rosiness ended during the French Revolution, however, as Joseph de Fumel was beheaded by guillotine and his holdings were divided. Over the next four decades or so, the estate changed hands several times.

In 1836, Joseph Eugène Larrieu purchased the estate and worked tirelessly to improve on the exceptional wines it was known for. His efforts were rewarded when Haut-Brion was awarded Premier Grand Cru status in 1855, though pain struck again through disease and political upheavals within the region in the latter half of the 19th century. In 1859, Amédée took over upon his father’s death and replanted the vineyards over time to deal with mildew. By 1873 when his son Eugène took over Haut-Brion, there was optimism which unfortunately proved futile when phylloxera struck with a vengeance in 1880. Eugène spearheaded a massive replanting of the vineyards yet again, this time using rootstock from North America that was resistant to the disease.

Jumping forward through multiple new ownerships, the Dillon family came into the picture during the early 1900s. The owner at the time, André Gibert, faced the need to find a proper owner for Haut-Brion with no heirs of his own. Clarence Dillon, a banker from New York, visited in 1934 and received notice on his way back to America he could buy the estate. The purchase was finalized in 1935 and the Dillon family remains the owner of Château Haut Brion to this day. This purchase by the Dillon family helped bring Haut-Brion to the modern age, with them first installing electricity, new plumbing, and renovating the cellars. Over the decades that followed leading up to current times, the family continued to improve the estate, modernized the winemaking process with a high tech vat room, and completely renovated the château with utmost attention to detail.

Château Haut-Brion today consists of 51 hectares of vineyards located in the Pessac-Léognan appellation of Bordeaux. Of the 51 hectares, 48 are planted to red varieties of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot while the remaining 3 hectares are planted to white varieties of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Situated across from Château La Mission Haut-Brion (which I wrote about recently as well), Château Haut-Brion shares the same gravelly soil of small quartz stones above a subsoil of clay, sand, and limestone. Following the same practices of their neighbor, all fruit is harvested by hand and then sorted before transferral to temperature controlled vats for fermentation. After two weeks, the vats are drained and the wine moves to barrel where it spends 20-24 months before bottling. Château Haut-Brion produces four wines: Château Haut-Brion, Château Haut-Brion Blanc, and two 2nd wines named Le Clarence de Haut-Brion (red) and La Clarté de Haut-Brion (white).

Today’s Wine: 2012 La Clarté de Haut-Brion

58% Sémillon, 42% Sauvignon Blanc; 14% ABV

The 2012 La Clarté de Haut-Brion is transparent pale gold in color. The medium intense nose showcases aromas of lemon, grapefruit, white peach, yellow apple, honeysuckle, dried herbs, chopped grass, white truffle, and wet stone. On the palate, I get medium intensity and notes of lemon, nectarine, grapefruit, dried pineapple, beeswax, chamomile, river stone, and saline mineral. This dry Bordeaux Blanc is medium-bodied with medium (+) acidity and a well-rounded mouthfeel into a medium (+) length finish.

Price: $100 (I paid $89). While not really a great vintage overall for Bordeaux, this was actually a very solid wine and showcases its age beautifully. I think the price I paid is fair given my experience, though I would probably seek out stronger vintages if I’m buying this bottling again.

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