Published: December 2011; Paris, France
As a wine lover and pupil, there are certain places that are mythical, and only exist in the fairy-tale stories of the beginnings of this industry. Many of these locations are within France, and more still within the protected appellations of Bordeaux. There are more than 10,000 châteaux in Bordeaux producing AOC/AOP quality wines, and at over 300,000 vineyard acres, it also qualifies as France's largest wine-growing region. With a history dating back to the 6th century (and even back to the 4th century in the right bank appellation of St. Emilion), to taste the wines of Bordeaux is certainly like tasting history. And quite a daunting thought is where on earth to begin.
So it was appropriate that my first visit in Bordeaux was to the region of Pessac-Léognan in Graves, directly west of the town of Bordeaux proper, where I was lucky enough to be based (I actually took the bus from town to the center of the region!). My first appointments were with the highly celebrated and historic châteaux of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. In fact, Haut-Brion (ho-bre/awn) was the first mention of a brand-name château, as recorded in 1663 by Samuel Pepys at the Royal Oak Tavern in London (also proving that the wines of the Graves region were celebrated much earlier than the wines of their disease-laden swampy neighbor to the north, the Médoc, which were not fit for production or exportation until the 18th century). Perhaps this is why Château Haut-Brion is the only château in Graves that was included in the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux.
Although founded as two separate properties, Haut-Brion in 1525 and La Mission Haut-Brion in the 18th century, today they are owned and operated by the same family, and employ the same team and techniques in both cellars. It was the famous American financier, Clarence Dillon, who purchased Château Haut-Brion in 1935, and in 1983 his grand-daughter, Madame la Duchesse de Mouchy (Joan Dillon) purchased La Mission Haut-Brion from the heirs. Only the soil, separated by Avenue Jean Juarès in the commune of Pessac, makes the difference in the wines.
Upon my visit, Château Haut-Brion was undergoing a lengthy two-year renovation, and so I had the pleasure of conducting my tasting at La Mission, which had just completed it's two-year renovation the summer prior. "We'll start the tour in the chapel" the guide had advised me. What a perfect place to begin the historic and sacred education of this revered beverage in France. While sitting politely in the wooden pew, gazing with deference at the many stained-glass windows lining the tiny chapel and listening to the story of how the Mission was started in the 17th century by the followers of Saint-Vincent de Paul, and later was bequeathed to the Pères Lazaristes, I at once saw clearly the connection of wine and religion that are such cornerstones of French culture.
Out in the vineyards, the soil is a mixture of large-caliber gravel, sand and light clay, together referred to as boulbenes. There are 25 hectares of vines for La Mission Haut-Brion, and 50 hectares for Haut-Brion. Majority is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (as dictated by the terroir and the AOC/AOP system), followed by Merlot and Cabernet Franc. On this day, 19th December, they were assembling the final 2011 blend of both La Mission and Haut-Brion in the large inox cuves in the cellar room, and then putting the final blend into barrel for aging. Racking in barrique occurs every 3 months, in primarily Seguin Moreau oak. And then, there was the tasting.
Alone with the guide from the domaine, she led me to an oak-paneled room rich with velvet draperies and tapestries, and a delicately inlaid parquet floor. The early-afternoon white winter light spilled in to highlight additional carved oak chairs and a grand fireplace and mantle. A polished carved wooden table stood waiting with two glasses and two half bottles: Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2007 and Château Haut-Brion 2007. It was seriously like going to the Communion Altar. My kind of church!
The La Mission started young with tightly wound tannins, but with a soft fruity feminine nose that opened into an exciting winter spice and chocolate palate. Rose petals and cherry wood developed in time and the finish long, silky elegant. 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 43% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc. The Haut-Brion was, of course, a stunner. I wrote "chilling". That is just how it should be for a Premier Cru Classé. Chilling. More masculine and much tighter than the La Mission (given that 2007 was an excellent, 'classic' year in Bordeaux), the blend was of 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 43% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc. But oh, the complexity. It went though about 5 different lives in my glass over 15 minutes; starting big and manly with leather, spice and tobacco. Then softening into some deep red and purple fruits, with hints of dusky rose petals. Then the minerality, with the white quartz and bits of clay-like chewiness showing through. And the silky tannins seamlessly integrating with the timeless elegance of a finish. It was like drinking in a bespoke men's clothier shop, with rich leather armchairs in the corner and a wall of mysteriously dark silk ties mingling with hand-tailored pinstripe suits. I imagined it to be a shop somewhere on Jermyn Street in London.
After just this one experience, it's easy to see that wine is a religion here, from a reverence to the soil and the respect of the terroir, to the instillation of wine at celebrations, dinner tables, ceremonies and religious rites. It is as much a part of the soul of a Frenchman as the bread and hard work that he toils at each day. And the history! I immediately wanted to return to my European History text book and re-read all the stories of wars, kings and conquests that shaped the France of today, stories that I had surely forgotten most likely one month after reading them in 1992.
Nonethelesss, the history does exist today at La Mission Haut-Brion, and just walking upon the sacred grounds, taking in the 15th century limestone buildings, feeling the smooth stones from the vineyard in the palm of my hand, and breathing in the newly filled oak barrels the renovated chai (where I expected the sound of chanting monks to escape from behind the impressive stone pillars) was a clear indication of this. And if that won't convert you, the wine most certainly will.