In the minds of most enthusiasts, Médoc is the cradle of Bordeaux. After all, this important region on the Left Bank of the Gironde River is home to four of the great châteaux that received First Growth rankings in the definitive 1855 classification: Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, and Château Mouton Rothschild. Its prominence at that time can be traced to the buying habits of wine brokers—primarily the Dutch and English—during the mid-17th century and onward. While the Dutch purchased mainly inexpensive wines to ship long distances to their colonies in the West Indies and Africa, the English began to develop a taste for quality and so, more often than not, sought the wines from Médoc, which they deemed to be superior. Two centuries later, when Napoléon III commissioned a panel of Bordelaise merchants to rate the wines from Bordeaux according to their reputations and prices, the brokers also favored that region. Yet the First Growth estate largely responsible for weaning English palates from lesser libations, Château Haut-Brion, is located not in Médoc but farther south, in the northernmost section of Graves known as Pessac-Léognan. Indeed, an early owner of Haut-Brion, Arnaud de Pontac, was the first proprietor of a significant château to actively market his brand rather than the wine’s region of origin. After the Great Fire of 1666, Pontac opened a fashionable tavern in London, and soon distinguished citizens such as Samuel Pepys and Jonathan Swift were asking for Haut-Brion by name.
Though the estate passed through the hands of many owners before coming into the possession of American financier Clarence Dillon, whose descendants have served as its stewards since the early 1930s, Château Haut-Brion has maintained its long tradition of innovation. The château was the first such estate to be dedicated solely to wine production; it pioneered the grafting of vines to American rootstock after the phylloxera epidemic in the 1890s; and, in 1961, it was the first estate to install steel vats in its winery. Over many generations, these refinements have contributed to making Haut-Brion unique among First Growths, not only for its geography but also for the extraordinary personality of its wines. Château Haut-Brion 2008 ($600), certainly the wine of the vintage from Bordeaux, is dark in color and deeply perfumed with aromas of blackberry, blueberry, graphite, and anise. Its layered structure is sheer perfection, and its lengthy finish resonates on the palate.
Château Haut-Brion, www.haut-brion.com