I was surprised to see how close this very famous chateau is to downtown Bordeaux. Since it is so old – dating from 1525 – I’m sure that the old city of Bordeaux was much smaller when Haut-Brion was established, and that no one expected the Bordeaux subdivisions to spring up around such a famous wine estate.
We were greeted by Laetitia, the PR Director, and she began our tour with an overview of the vineyards using a model of the property. Haut Brion has 48 hectares of red grapes (45% merlot, 45% cab, 9% CF, 1% PV) and 2.8 hectares of white grapes (53% SB, 47% Sem). The soil is a mixture of clay, sand and gravel with a small amount of limestone for the white grapes. Rootstock is 3309, 420A for merlot, and some Ripara. They believe in diversity in the vineyard and try to insure they have a mix of clones. They use lutte raisonnée, and try to avoid pesticides and insecticides. Spacing is 1 x1.5 with double guyot with 4 buds. They average 44 – 50 hectoliters per hectare, but were down 50% in 2008.
Laetitia said that the vine age averages 36 years, and that they replace 1% of the terrior each year. The 1% that is pulled out is usually low in production or diseased. She said they then let the soil rest for 2.5 years and plant a cereal related to peas which is called “veces.” She said it helps to kill the worms in the soil.
Haut Brion means “little hill” in the Old French. It is currently owned by the Prince of Luxemburg, and they also own La Mission Haut Brion which they purchased in 1983. Both properties are managed by the same General Manager and Winemaker. There are 80 employees, with 25 working in the vineyard. They are also one of only 3 wineries in Bordeaux that has its own cooperage on site – the other two being Ch. Margaux and Smith-Haut Lafite.
During harvest, they taste in the vineyard in the afternoon and only pick parcels that are ripe during the first 2 hours of the morning. We met with the lab enologist for a while, and he explained that taste is the most important factor in deciding when to pick, but they are also hoping for a ph of 3.4 to 3.5 on the reds and around 3.2 on the whites. Baume for merlot is usually 13 – 13.5 and 12 – 12.5 on cab.
Winemaking is unique in that they use a specially designed stainless steel tank divided in half so that alcoholic fermentation occurs on the top and ML on the bottom. Inside the tank is a sloped piece of metal to allow the workers to remove the pomace (marc) after fermentation in a safer manner. They believe in following traditional vinification methods, but with a focus on continuous improvement. All grapes go through triage in the vineyard and on tables outside the cellar. Reds are destemmed, crushed, and pumped up to the 2nd level where the tanks are. They use 2-3 different types of selected yeast, with Davis 522 being preferred for reds.
Maceration is 14-18 days with gentle pumpover (remontage). Their goal is elegance with fine tannins. The free run wine flows to the bottom of the tank where ML is added. A Busher press is used only for the 3rd level wine.
Another unique aspect of winemaking at Haut Brion is the fact that they blend the parcels after ML – usually in Nov/Dev, with 3 experts on the blending team. They prefer to blend without the influence of oak, so they can taste the terrior from the different plots. The wine then goes to 70-80% new oak in January for 18-22 months. They top twice a week for the first 3 months and use the glass bung. Then they insert a wooden bung and turn the barrels on their sides. After that they rack and top every 3 months and add SO2 at 25-35 ppm. Total SO2 is around 120-130 with 30-34 free.
Barrels are rinsed 3 times at each racking. They have a first and second year cellar, and are the only winery we visited that is still cracking real eggs into bowls for fining – 4 to 5 eggs per barrel. The wine is then racked 2 more times before a light filtration and bottling on their own bottling line. Control of every step of the process and a strong focus on quality is very evident here.
We learned less about the white wine making process, but fermentation does take place in temperature controlled stainless with no ML. Selected yeast is VL3 for sauvignon blanc and LV1 for Semillon. The wines are aged in 20-30% new oak barrels for 9-10 months sur lies with battonage. The enologist said they use gas (nitrogen) to protect the white wine when it is moved and in tank. Interestingly, their whites often fetch a much higher price than the reds. 80% of the wine is exported, with the USA, UK, Belgium, Luxemburg and Japan as the largest clients.
We tasted 5 wines: 2008 Le Clarence de Haut Brion – medium ruby-purple; ripe fruit on nose, but less on palate. Delicate with smooth tannins. 2008 Haut Brion – darker purple-red with a nose of berries and anise; palate of red berries with chewy tannins, good concentration, a very long finish and a touch of chocolate. 2004 Haut-Brion – medium ruby with a hint of garnet; cedar, cassis and cigar box nose; red fruit and spice on palate; long finish with good tannin structure. 2008 Haut Brion Blanc – still cloudy, straw colored; wonderful nose of grapefruit, grass, and mint; citrus and melon on palate with a pleasing roundness, high acid, and touch of minerality on the finish (55% Semillon).