2001 Chateau Haut-Brion, Pessac-Leognan (Bordeaux), France

I’ve actually had a number of people tell me something approximating, “I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about Bordeaux.” I’ll admit that early in my wine drinking career I felt much the same. I occasionally went to wine stores and spent twenty or thirty dollars to buy a wine that said Bordeaux on the label and enjoyed it, but without the heavens opening or the ground shaking beneath my feet. What was the big deal?

In the last 7 or 8 years as my experience with wine has grown in depth and breath, and my ability to splurge on an occasional bottle has increased, I’ve learned “what the big deal was” as I’ve tasted more than a few excellent examples of what top-notch Bordeaux has to offer.

This bottle is an example of the power and possibility available from the region, and for some reason it hits the sweet spot of my palate. Its industry ratings have it pegged between 93 and 96 points but I am rating it a perfect 10, because my experience drinking it is nothing short of magical.

Built in 1550 by Jean de Pontac, Chateau Haut-Brion has been a seat of winemaking in Bordeaux since even before the construction of the Chateau. Haut-Brion is often known as the “first of firsts” referring to its being the only property outside of the Medoc that was given “Premiere Grand Cru” status in the famous (or infamous) 1855 Classification which determined the present hierarchy of Crus in Bordeaux as well as the fact that it was the first of the Bordeaux Chateaux to gain international recognition for its wines. History is dotted with Haut-Brion aficionados such as John Locke and Samuel Pepys, among others.

The estate is currently being run by Jean-Phillipe Delmas, whose family has been in charge of the estate for the past three generations. He was recently interviewed by the Terroir France web site, and the (badly translated) transcript is available online for anyone interested. He speaks at length about the Chateaux, and in particular the relationship and influence of the Clarence Dillon family, who purchased the Chateau in 1934.

The 2001 vintage in Graves was a near perfect growing season for this section of Bordeaux, with several very hot days during the summer and only two days of rain in the fall during the harvest, which did not adversely affect a crop which had matured slowly and steadily to a point of optimal ripeness without incident. Merlot grapes were harvested in several passes through the vineyard between September 17th and 26th, while the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes were picked between October 1st and the 8th. Haut-Brion generally harvests earlier than most Chateau in the region because it is literally in the midst of the city of Bordeaux which has literally grown to encompass the estate in the last 200 years. This proximity to the apartments, hotels, and busy streets of Bordeaux provides Haut-Brion a cushion of warmer air that ripens its grapes faster than in the surrounding areas.

This wine is made from vines approximately 30 years in age and is made up of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and roughly 20% Cabernet Franc. The wine is fermented rather quickly in stainless steel and then aged for 18 to 24 months in new French oak barrels and is fined with 6 egg whites per barrel to remove sediment. Haut-Brion was one of the first Chateaux to move to more “modern” winemaking methods such as stainless steel vats in the 1960s and deliberate clonal selections in the 1990s. The estate produces between 12,000 and 15,000 cases annually.

Tasting Notes:
A medium ruby in the glass this wine has a complex nose with aromas of alpine strawberries, violets, cherries, pencil lead, and bits of potpourri spices (cloves, dried apples, and dried flowers). In the mouth it is fantastically smooth, with silky integrated tannins that support primary flavors of cherries and a variety mineral and crushed stone flavors that drive through to an incredibly long finish that leaves me dazzled. This is an incredibly accessible wine for its youth and perfectly balanced between its fruit flavors, acidity, and tannins — definitely one of the best modern vintages I have had. This wine has potential to improve over 10 to 15 years.

Food Pairing:
Because of this wine’s elaborate and sometimes delicate character, I would recommend it be paired with something more refined than the typical prime rib or char grilled steak that are the (stereo)typical accompaniments to Bordeaux. I’d try this one with grilled veal chops and morels instead.

Overall Score: 10

How Much?: $130

This wine is readily available online.