In October 2000 Bibendum Wines, London, held a vertical tasting of the wines of Château Haut-Brion. Predictably, the tasting was a complete sell-out: there could be few more desirable carrots to dangle in front of the average wine-donkey than the prospect of tasting through several top vintages of one of the world’s greatest wines. Add the fact that the wines would be presented by Jean Delmas, who was born in the château and has been at the wine-making helm since 1961, and the prospect of a spectacular wine-tasting opportunity was ensured. Vintages of the grand vin on show were 1979, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1995 and 1996. There were also a couple of vintages each of Le Bahans de Haut-Brion (the excellent second wine) and of the rare Haut-Brion Blanc.
On return from this tasting I had a browse through Robert Parker’s “Bordeaux”, Clive Coates “Grand Vins” and a few other sources. It is quite remarkable to see how consistently these wines have acheived the highest ratings – with Parker for example, nothing in the tasting scored less than 93 of his infamous points; several wines scored between 96 and 100. That also suggests how wrong some critics are to claim Parker likes only one highly-extracted style of wine: these wines are the model of restraint and elegance.
The distinguished panel who presented the wines included Jancis Robinson; Willie Lebus from Bibendum; Jean Delmas and HRH Prince Robert de Luxembourg whose family are owners of the château. Perhaps the first thing to say is that the wines were truly magnificent. Haut-Brion is a personal favourite of mine amongst the top Bordeaux Châteaux, and this wine proved that these are amongst the most alluring, subtle, complex and harmonious of all clarets. Truly “intellectual” wines, the appeal of Haut-Brion is in its exquisite balance and restraint. That is not to say that the wines are at all lacking in fruit or in any way “difficult”; just that there is nothing “blockbuster” about them – something of a culture shock for those used to the vivid ripeness and heavy layering of oak in many top Australian or Californian examples – indeed in many recent vintages of some Bordeaux estates! But these wines are not just admirable, but delicious too, and the older wines from ’79, ’82 and ’85 demonstrate just how seductive mature Haut-Brion can be in terms of lush fruitiness and silky texture.
M. Delmas has been in charge of winemaking for fully forty years; the position he inherited from his father. Throughout that time his vision has been clear and uncluttered: to make a Haut-Brion that is “the most harmonious wine within its size”; in other words, to take the raw materials that the vintage has given him and treat them sympathetically. Delmas eschews the move towards what he calls “black wines”: wines that must be highly-extracted, dense and massive, even when produced from a weaker vintage. For example, only in a really top year will he employ close to 100% new oak barrels. He tempers this, down to 40% perhaps, according to the vintage, never wishing to overpower the quality of fruit and terroir. He says he is “trying to make wine, not a dilution of wood”! Some top Bordeaux estates have embraced a popular trend towards high concentration and charry, powerful oak. Some even employ must concentrating machines, to remove excess water from the juice in a dilute vintage. This trend must be anathema to M. Delmas.
Drunk by Pepys in London’s Royal Oak Tavern in 1663, Haut-Brion has such a weight of reputation and history that it could easily prove a burden to any winemaker. But Delmas was practically born into the job and remains quite implacable in his beliefs and confidence. And so he should: the wines speak for themselves. He is, by his own admission something of a control freak. He likes to supervise every aspect of the operation, from cloning of vines, to the finest detail of the winemaking. Despite the history, he is not afraid to experiment and innovate if he thinks he can improve his wine in any way that does not compromise its intrinsic character. This too carries on a tradition for the estate. In the 17th century Haut-Brion was the first top château to move from small casks to large vats for fermentation. This allowed the cap of skins to be punched-down and avoided the need to blend in press wine to increase colour and strength. In 1890 they were amongst the very first Bordeaux estates to graft onto American rootstock to guard against Phylloxera. In 1961 they again paved the way in introducing stainless steel vats, and in 1970 began a comprehensive vine cloning programme for the estate. As recently as 1990 they employed their own tonnelier to make and toast barrels to their exact specification.
And so to the tasting. I have been lucky enough to taste several vintages of Haut-Brion, including four on show here. This was my second tasting of the Parker 100 point-scoring 1989 in the past couple of months: what a wonderful wine. The tasting was not blind. The wines were served in pairs of closely matched vintages. All of these wines were supplied directly by M Delmas from the château’s collection.
Château Haut-Brion Blanc 1996 – £1,425.00 per dozen
Rich golden colour. Lovely nose. Little notes of wool, amaretto and fig, some buttery quince and quince jelly. Palate is beautifully balanced, quite rich and silky with creamy, buttery pear fruit and stone-fruit tartness. There’s a deal of richer, peachy, almondy and syrup flavours and all the time a citrussy juiciness and a component that’s nutty and dry. There is lovely acidity too and this is very long and beautifully balanced.
Château Haut-Brion Blanc 1989 – £1,425.00 per dozen
Deep, powerful golden yellow. Developed wax and wet wool character on the nose, very buttery with a gorgeous weight of fruit and little floral notes amongst peach, vanilla and nuts. Fantastic ripeness of fruit gives a sweet impression on the palate with lots of orange and lush apricot fruit, again a creamy note and a medium bodied but rich texture. Very good integration of acidity that is still fresh and palate cleansing into the long, very focused and pure finish. Delicious and extremely fine. Outstanding.
Second Wine – Red
Le Bahans de Haut-Brion 1994 – £275.00 per dozen
Dark, rich ruby/crimson colour. Gentle, restrained, cedary, earthy berry fruit. Dry and tinged with a black cherry note. The palate is concentrated and grippy with lots of tight blackcurrant fruit. Very firm and savoury. Lots of richness too though, and power as it begins to open up in the glass. Quite generous fruit peaks through and it has very good length and balance. A fine showing for the vintage, this has plenty of time ahead of it.
Le Bahans de Haut-Brion 1993 – £275.00 per dozen
Just a shade darker and more purple. Nicely spicy nose with cedar and blackcurrant and quite a cassis like purity. Palate has again plenty of tannin and grip. fruit is not quite so powerful here, but there is a core of rich plumminess that is just constrained by hard tannins which coat the mouth giving a little dryness in the finish. Very good, perhaps not quite the balance of the 1994.
Château Haut-Brion 1996 – £1,305.00 per dozen
Very dark, dense crimson/purple colour, opaque at core. Lovely fragrance with sweet blue/black fruits and a hint of violets, with tiny floral aromas, cherry, plum and a frim, mineral core. No sign of oak. On the palate very concentrated and tightly-wound with a steely core to sweet, plummy black fruit wrapped in grippy but fine tannins and plenty of refreshing acidity. There is a little underpinning with smoky oak into the finish, but this is all about lean minerality and focused fruit at the moment, and will certainly develop over the next decade or two into a fine, fine Haut-Brion. Excellent.
Château Haut-Brion 1995 – £1,425.00 per dozen
Similarly dense, slightly darker and more opaque. More restrained on the nose at first with intense, deep, tight aromas of black-skinned fruits: notes of damson, black cherry and blackcurrant and a tiny coffee note. The palate has fine depth, it is earthy, smoky and rich. There is a liquoricy darkness, but from the fruit, not oak, a cherry-skin bitterness and lots of firm, dry, chewy tannins. Good acidity, with a long, sweetly-fruited, finely-balanced finish despite the power and obvious ripeness and concentration. Excellent. One of my favourite’s of the night.
Château Haut-Brion 1990 – £2,365.00 per dozen
Extremely deep and even, dense crimson. Youthful. Deep and smoky with some toasty oak forming a cushion to dark, plummy fruit and again that bittersweet plumskin and black cherry focus that gives a serious edge to tobacco and woodsmoke, gravel and steel. Sweet and concentrated fruit on the palate and drying, super-fine tannins dry the mouth. There is just a hint of flatness about the mid-palate at this stage, but the finish regains that wonderful sense of completeness and composure with ripe black fruits, spices, that core of minerality and great length. This balanced, powerful wine will fill out without any shadow of a doubt and is excellent. Another favourite.
Château Haut-Brion 1989 – £3,540.00 per dozen
Also extremely dark, with just a little ruby at the rim. Fantastic nose, just fantastic. Lots os sweet, toasty oak but layered with earthy black fruits, truffle, woodsmoke and little glimpses of exotic spices, briary wood and cedar. This is a real show-stopper. Superb sweetness and complexity on the palate, with a little burnt caramel note, silky, glycerine-rich texture and fine concentration and complexity. Acidity and fine tannins really make their presence felt into the finish which is extraordinarily long. Possibly my wine of the night. I last tasted this just two months ago with very consistent notes. A simply outstanding wine.
Château Haut-Brion 1986 – £1,545.00 per dozen
Dense, still crimson/black at core picking up ruby through to light orange at rim. Quite dank on the nose, quite vegetal at first, but the Haut-Brion profile of dark, tight, bittersweet black fruit begins to push through. On the palate juicy and savoury with a coffee-bean flavour mixing with plum, liquorice and a suggestion of coal. There are still quite grippy tannins and moderately high acidity that grip into the finish. This seems slightly awkward for Haut-Brion, but this massively tannic and structured vintage might just need more time.
Château Haut-Brion 1985 – £1,660.00 per dozen
Much lighter colour, with a medium/dark ruby density. Gorgeous, seductive coffee-bean, earth, truffle, leather and tobacco nose, with plenty of soft fruit, suggesting strawberry, leafy blackcurrant and berries. Warm autumnal fruit floods the palate too. Soft and creamily-textured, it is rich and sweet (so typical of this lovely, lovely vintage) and there is plenty of juicy berry fruit. Delicious cedary structure gives definition into the long, rich finish. Complete and delightful, it might lack a little of the complexity and structure of the ’90 for example, but this is drinking just beautifully and was another of my favourites, finishing with a milky cappucino sweetness.
Château Haut-Brion 1982 – £2,720.00 per dozen
Dark and quite deep, with crimson at the core to ruby/ochre at the rim. Classic claret nose. Masses of cedar and pencil-shavings with sweet cassis fruit, a little minty leafiness, then coffee and cream. Herbal nuances too. The palate has a fantastic silkiness of texture. Medium-bodied, it is glycerin-rich and packed full of ripe, sweet berry and blackcurrant fruit. There is a lush openess to this wine with lots of sweet, plump fruit that melds with creamy oak, silky mature tannins and lowish acidity. A hedonistic Haut-Brion and another delicious wine that is drinking beautifully.
Château Haut-Brion 1979 – £1,190.00 per dozen
Surprising colour here: a very dark, blackish mahoganny. Sur maturité nose, with an almost Port-like character of sweet black fruits, some burnt caramel and charry-oak, coffee and a sweet dankness. Delightful. Mouthfilling texture this is rich on the palate and has powerfully ripe fruit. That caramel note persists and silky-soft tannins and balanced acidity give support. This is a surprisingly big wine still, terribly well-focused and creamy in texture with a long, beautifully harmonious finish. Another lovely example that shows that 15 to 20 years is just when these wines begin to hit their stride. Lovely.