Sitting on a hay bale in a Texas barn in the 1980s, I discovered that the best red wine to go with a cowboy stew of longhorn beef is a decent vintage of Bordeaux first growth Chateau Haut-Brion.
Seriously. It’s an extraordinarily complex wine, with distinctive aromas of wood smoke and tobacco and a subtle earthy-savory flavor overlaid with a mineral tang that stands up to meaty stews.
I first fell hard for it at that over-the-top Texas tasting of 50 vintages going back to the still-alive-and kicking 1899.
Yet except for a handful of its most fabulous vintages, like 1989, 1961, and 1945, Haut-Brion’s prices mostly trail the other Bordeaux first growths, according to London’s international electronic wine exchange Liv-ex.
Why? The simple answer, says Gary Boom, managing director of London-based Bordeaux Index, is that there’s less global demand than there is for Lafite and Latour, especially in Asia.
That’s because the other first growths have hustled more in Asia, said John Kapon, chief executive officer of Acker Merrall & Condit auctioneers, by telephone in Tianjin, China where he was visiting clients.
Maybe it’s also because Haut-Brion is the smallest and a geographical outlier, off in the Pessac-Leognan appellation in the Graves region south of Bordeaux, while all the other first growths are clustered in the famous Medoc.
Prince Robert of Luxembourg, whose grandfather, American financier Clarence Dillon, bought the property on a trip to Bordeaux in 1935, has spent the past few years pressing the flesh like a politician to change perceptions.
In 2010, he jetted to eight cities, including Hong Kong and Shanghai, on a glam road show of lavish dinners to celebrate the 75th anniversary of his grandfather’s acquisition of Haut-Brion.
His latest effort is an Oct. 4 sale at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, the first time it’s offering wine direct from its cellars at auction in Asia, thus guaranteeing impeccable provenance. Domaine Clarence Dillon is offering more than 500 lots of wines from its various estates -- Chateaus Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, and newly acquired Quintus in Saint-Emilion -- in vintages from 1891 to 2011.
In an e-mail, Prince Robert said he’s doing this partly to raise awareness of his family’s wines as some of the finest and rarest in the world. In other words, to get buzz -- and boost prices.
Still, the estimate of $1.3 to $1.8 million is well below the $8.4 million achieved at Sotheby’s 206-lot Lafite sale in 2010 or the nearly $7.7 million in Christie’s 392-lot Latour sale in 2011, both held in Hong Kong.
Haut-Brion has history on its side. “It’s the oldest great wine luxury brand in the world, predating all the other first growths,” Prince Robert told me two years ago as we sat on an outdoor bench at La Mission Haut-Brion, which his family purchased in 1983.
English diarist Samuel Pepys drank the wine in the 17th century; Thomas Jefferson visited the chateau. Now hemmed in by urban sprawl, the estate’s magical terroir is where Bordeaux as we know it began.
So this past spring, Prince Robert announced a “historical challenge,” promising a wine reward to anyone who finds a reference to Haut-Brion that predates a 1660 mention in Charles II’s cellar book.
Complicating all this brand building, though, are Prince Robert’s recent purchases of two Saint-Emilion chateaus and his penchant for re-naming wines.
In 2007, Haut-Brion’s second wine Bahans Haut-Brion became Le Clarence de Haut-Brion and Chateau La Tour Haut-Brion was absorbed into La Mission Haut-Brion. Starting with the 2009 vintage, his famous white, Laville Haut-Brion, morphed into La Mission Haut-Brion blanc. In the auction catalog, older vintages of a wine have one name, more recent ones, another.
Haut-Brion’s white has been attracting top Asian collectors for the past 18 months or so largely because of its sheer rarity, says Michael Jessen, the chief executive officer of new auction house Wally’s and former president of Zachys Wine Auctions. Only 450 to 600 cases are made each year compared to 7,000 to 10,000 of the red.
Typically 45 percent sauvignon blanc and 55 percent semillon, it’s complex and sleek-textured, with exotic nuances of lemon peel and smoked almonds. There are only three lots of this wine in the auction, including the stunning 1989 (estimate $20,000 to $35,000 a case). Of the last four vintages, the 2009 ($1,200 a bottle retail) and 2011 ($975) most impressed me.
Haut-Brion’s 1989 is one of the world’s greatest wines, so commands a premium, but vintages like 1990, 1996, and 2001 are delicious drinking now and cost significantly less. In recent vintages I prefer the big, brooding 2010 La Mission Haut-Brion to the polished Haut-Brion and the reverse in 2009 ($1,000 to $1,200 a bottle).
Ironically, there’s one benefit to less demand and a lower price for Haut-Brion than other first growths: it enjoys fewer counterfeits.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Warwick Thompson on theater.