With all the news and ongoing commentary about the ever-skyrocketing prices of First Growth Bordeaux, it’s easy to forget that these legendary wines are far different from most other luxury goods. Their history sees to that, and the fact that they’re not products that have been expressly created to appeal to a specific market sector but, rather, have grown over the centuries while maintaining a sense of consistency and recognizable style (while still evolving with the times) means that they constitute a category apart.
Bloomberg.com ran a fascinating story yesterday on the history of Chateau Haut-Brion, the great First Growth of Bordeaux’s Pessac-Leognan. And even if, as the article notes, “Haut-Brion has had an undisputed place among the top 10 or 20 most expensive wines in the world for the past 350 years...it [right now] tends to sell for less than rival top reds from the Medoc, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol,” it nonetheless is among the greatest wines on the planet, and a supremely expressive example of why certain terroirs are superior to others.
Its history, the article notes, goes back “more than 2,000 years ago, when a group of Bituriges Vivisci tribesmen scattered grape seeds a few miles west of the Gironde River. That gesture has burgeoned into a hyper-luxury, billion-dollar industry hinged on how the weather affects the 400,000 vines that annually turn out between 10,000 and 11,000 cases of Haut-Brion.”
That may seem like a lot of wine, but the demand for it means that it’s often difficult to find. Indeed, Jay McInerney, in his excellent book A Hedonist in the Cellar, notes that Haut-Brion is “the most aromatically distinctive and unmistakable of all the first growths...a mature Haut-Brion smells like a cigar box containing a Montecristo, a black truffle, and a hot brick, sitting on top of an old saddle. It’s as earthy and complex as a Shakespearean sonnet. Once you’ve had it you never forget it, and you never stop yearning for more.”
It may be priced out of the range of most mere mortals’ budgets (the second wine, Bahans Haut-Brion, is a great alternative), but its history is integral to the story not just of Bordeaux, but of wine itself.