Tasting Top Bordeaux

Louise Venne

At this year’s Naples Winter Wine Festival, a select
few got the chance to taste banner vintages from Bordeaux’s renowned Château
Haut-Brion and Château La Mission Haut-Brion—the tasting notes will have to
suffice for the rest of us.

Is it possible that HRH Prince Robert of Luxembourg was…nervous? Perhaps even sweating a little? It seemed unlikely, given that he was about to walk into a tasting of Château Haut-Brion and Château La Mission Haut-Brion, the famed Bordeaux properties his family has owned for decades. This is his home turf—or home terroir, as it were.

But, you see, this was no ordinary tasting—the historic vintages to be poured for each estate were 2000, 1990, 1989, 1982 and 1961—and even the prince seemed slightly in awe as he unveiled the ten wines for an audience of 40 at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Florida.

“I’ve never done a tasting like this,” the prince, who’s 43, said candidly. “It’s exceptional. Being in front of these bottles is like being in front of the Grand Canyon. Truly awesome.” It was clear that he meant it.

The event was part of the 12th annual Naples Winter Wine Festival, the bacchanal that has raised almost $106 million for local youth charities since its founding. It’s precisely unique events like this tasting that keep people coming back, but this time the ante was upped even more than usual, hence the prince’s hushed tones.

Haut-Brion, in particular, is a legendary estate that dates back to the 16th century. Its flagship red wine was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson’s (it may have been the first Bordeaux property to gain fame worldwide) and ranks as one of the five official First Growths of Bordeaux. Even though it lacks the First Growth designation, neighboring La Mission Haut-Brion can be just as powerful—and sometimes even more so. Collectors prize these wines, to say the least: A case of the Haut-Brion 1961 went for $22,000 in 2009 at Christie’s.

Among its other distinctions, Haut-Brion has been known as the “American First Growth” ever since the prince’s great-grandfather, banker Clarence Dillon, picked up the estate for a song during the Depression. (Though Prince Robert’s mother was the American-born Joan Dillon, now the Duchesse de Mouchy, his late father was Charles, Prince of Luxembourg, hence the title.) The family purchased La Mission Haut-Brion, their former local rival in the Graves district, in 1983, and Robert has been running the show for four years.

The weight of that storied history is always palpable for anyone drinking wines from these châteaux, but especially in the vintages that a select few tasted on January 26. All from hot and dry years that made magic in the vineyards, all traded at auction and fawned over by critics, these wines command attention even from those who know them best. As Prince Robert put it after the tasting, “I’m absolutely speechless.”