The only one of the five first growths outside of the Médoc, Château Haut-Brion lies just south of Bordeaux city center in Pessac-Léognan, and (unusually for an estate of this renown) is surrounded by built up inner suburbs. Haut-Brion is one of the oldest wine estates in Bordeaux, and was likely the first to make wine under its own name, with winemaking underway around 100 years before its first growth peers. Over its extensive history, it has only been owned by four major families, each of which contributed to the property’s extraordinary reputation.
The Pontacs (who owned the property from 1533 to 1748) established Haut-Brion as a sought-after wine, with fans including Samuel Pepys and King Charles II. The Furnel family took over between 1748 and 1790, during which time future American President Thomas Jefferson visited and described Haut-Brion as ‘the very best Bordeaux wine.’ The Larrieu family was in control from 1836 to 1922 , during which the estate was granted first growth status. Since 1935, the estate has been owned by the American Dillon family (descendants of FDR’s Treasury Secretary Clarence Dillon). The Dillons have undertaken significant renovations, including making Haut-Brion the first chateau to convert to stainless-steel tanks for vinification. Since 2002 Prince Robert of Luxembourg (grandson of Clarence) has overseen the estate.
The property gets its name from the modest hill on which the vineyards lie – ‘brion’ is thought to derive from the Celtic word for hill. The property’s deep gravel soils have significant sand and clay concentrations and with a consequently higher proportion of Merlot (42% of the red plantings). Cabernet Sauvignon covers an additional 44%, with 13% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. Since 2003, the estate manager and Technical Director has been Jean-Philippe Delmas, whose father and grandfather held the same role before him. 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.