Tasting A Legend: Going to Head-to-Head with Haut-Brion 1929

Vinted on May 5, 2010 binned in wine appreciation, wine review, wine tasting

“A bottle of good wine, like a good act, shines ever in the retrospect.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Stevenson had it right about special wines being eminently memorable, though he forgot to add the part about how wine tasting, like a hot date, owes so much to anticipation.

And as much as I like to think that I am inching ever closer to the Zen mystery, it’s really difficult not to put expectations on a tasting in which magnums of 1995 Champagne and Graham’s Vintage Port (1977), as well as bottles of 1981 Vieux Chateau Certan, take second billing.

Which is exactly what happens when you have a bottle of (genuine) 1929 Haut-Brion in the lineup.

That’s because the 1929 Haut-Brion is one of those extremely rare triple threats: world-class producer, renowned vintage (before every other release was deemed “vintages of the century” in Bordeaux) and rare old wine (in decent condition).

Or so we had hoped, anyway.

As it turns out, that fabled bottle that had me (and several other guests at the Columbia Firehouse restaurant in old town Alexandria, VA) buzzing with anticipation last week had apparently leaked at some point in it’s 81-year history.

Uh-oh.

We (a group of about 15 people) were assembled as the hand-picked guests of my buddy Jason Whiteside, DWS (Washington Wine Academy instructor, friend of the Dude and frequent guest poster here) to celebrate the achievement of his WSET Diploma in Wine & Spirits (a pre-req for entrance into the Masters of Wine program).  It’s a difficult and hard-earned achievement, well-worthy of opening some special bottles.  As our generous host put it after inspecting the most special of that night’s bottles, “this wine could be deader than Lincoln”

Haut-Brion, of course, has been special for a long time, having first come to the attention of the wine-loving public outside of France in the 1600s – or so goes the story as taken from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, who on April 10, 1663 recorded his first encounter with HB:

“…a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most perticular taste that I never met with.”

Haut-Brion kept up its reputation into the 1800s, being classified as a First Growth in the oft-cited but never-intended-to-have-any-staying-power 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines (the only producer outside of the Medoc to be included in the top tier).  Most  modern critics agree that Haut-Brion has been consistently stellar since the mid-seventies.

1929 is widely regarded as a special and superb vintage for Bordeaux, and it’s been speculated that the dry and warm conditions that year created an almost “cooked must” situation during fermentation that is partly responsible for the longevity and aging potential of that year’s wines.  Rainfall was about half of its normal amount that year, and the temperature sum was 103% of the average at the time.  According to HB itself:

“A hot, extremely dry year, the driest since the start of the century. The juices were very concentrated and the wines characterized by an enormous richness of tannin. Wines slow to mature, but with exceptional structure.”

Now, you’re patiently waiting for the tasting note on that `29, right?

But the theme of this article is anticipation, remember?  So, you’re gonna have to wait.  I know, I’m incorrigible…

Retail prices of the 1929 Haut-Brion reflect its rarity and the general perception of the vintage’s quality.  Expect to spend somewhere around three grand USD for a 750ml bottle (if you can find one).

It was a long lead-up of excellent wine and food pairing courses to the “main event,” and we tasted several stellar wines from Jason’s stash; not that you care, but here’s the list (you see, not unlike those really lengthy and dramatic Catholic weddings, I’m all about keeping you as long as possible from the “consummating act” of this article):

Which leaves us with that `29 HB.

Fortunately, the tales of this wine’s demise were greatly exaggerated.  Improbably, the wine was not only still drinkable, it was downright lively and it still had perceptible fruit.  At 81 years young.  I know, right?!??

Here are my (expanded) tasting notes:

“Visibly aged but still has some shine. The first sniff is a huge whiff of crushed walnut shell that I will probably never forget and will clearly be a reference point for any long-aged wines that I taste from this point onwards.

Seems impossible but there are notes of dried cherry fruit still on the palate once the walnut action calms down, and the fruit is very pure.  A hint of soy on the nose, with smoke and some game, followed by truffle.  Palate is very, very savory and the mouthfeel is really smooth.  “Elegant” and “stately” come to mind.

The most improbable aspect of all is the acid. This wine, at 80+ years on, has enough acid that it could easily be paired with food, which is by any practical measure a chemical miracle. I’m shocked – and would have considered it an impossibility after seeing the crumbled cork and leakage when the bottle was opened.

Still strong after about 20 minutes, but the savory notes are beginning to take over.  Will be gulping the last remnants down before it turns into vinegar in the glass.”

And I did, in fact, gulp the remaining bit down in one big slurp – better to do it then, I figured, and enjoy it, than to wait until it was nigh-undrinkable.

I’m tempted to say that this was a once in a lifetime experience, but I think that Jason has a second bottle in even better condition… so I plan on staying on his good side for the foreseeable future…

Cheers!

25

 

 

    Comments

  • John Watson


    Consider me a wine-chemistry noob, but why would surviving acidity be a miracle? Vinegar is acetic acid and it certainly survives. Wouldn’t the acidity be the one thing that would survive, no matter what?

    Thanks,

    John Watson

    • 1WineDude


      Hi John – you may be right but I guess what I was aiming for was the fact that the acidity was lively (vs. being tart) and the wine still had some balance. So I probably should have stated that the liveliness and balance were what had impressed me as miraculous. Cheers!

  • Evan Dawson


    Great stuff, and love the tasting note on the '29. For those of us who have enjoyed aged Bordeaux, there are hallmarks that ripple through so many top aged wines. But the crushed walnut shell us fascinating and full of awesome victory. Most important, it's easy to take a confirmation bias in to such a tasting – meaning you really WANT to love a wine, so psychologically you've made up your mind before the empiricism of the actual tasting tajes over. But clearly you appreciated your friend's generosity no matter the outcome, and the wine's freshness becomes an enormous bonus. Cheers.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Evan – that all makes sense. Had the wine been vinegar I don't think we would have said it was awesome, but I do take your point about the bias (for that reason – among others – I didn't "rate" any of the wines that evening, just took notes and enjoyed them. Cheers!

      • Evan Dawson


        Joe – I wrote the comment between early morning news live shots, so I hope it was coherent. Understand that my main point was that I was impressed that you were very open about the potential for such an inspiring bottle to have turned to vinegar. Some people would never admit such a thing. Your discussion of that potential only further validates the awesomesauce that it was. I mean, we're talking a $3k bottle from a first growth, 81 years old. Anyone would want it to rock! But that's the beauty of wine. Sometimes a real surprise is a low-pedigree wine doing awesome things, and sometimes it's a first-growth holding up after LEAKING! To me, it's more evidence of the structure and resiliency of those wines. Thanks again for the post.

        • 1WineDude


          My pleasure Evan and don't worry, it was totally coherent. It's easy for me to say the wine could be dead – I didn't pay for it! :-)

          Of course, it says a lot about my buddy Jason that he was willing to accept the possibility of the wine being a dud as well.

          Cheers!

      • Evan Dawson


        Joe – I wrote the comment between early morning news live shots, so I hope it was coherent. Understand that my main point was that I was impressed that you were very open about the potential for such an inspiring bottle to have turned to vinegar. Some people would never admit such a thing. Your discussion of that potential only further validates the awesomesauce that it was. I mean, we're talking a $3k bottle from a first growth, 81 years old. Anyone would want it to rock! But that's the beauty of wine. Sometimes a real surprise is a low-pedigree wine doing awesome things, and sometimes it's a first-growth holding up after LEAKING! To me, it's more evidence of the structure and resiliency of those wines. Thanks again for the post.

  • wineaccguy


    Haha, I totally agree with Evan. That's one of those major victories that you'll be telling people about for years. When I got to the part where you said it leaked I did a double take, hoping, PRAYING that I'd misread and that you meant that word of the wine tasting had leaked to some people who weren't supposed to know about it. After I realized you meant the cork had crumbled, I was partially devastated. When you said it maintained its flavor, my joy did backflips in my head.

    Very, very well described. I was definitely along for the ride.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, accguy! Trust me, brother, I was praying right along with you when had first examined that cork! :-)

  • Jon


    Awesome write-up, dude! Always fun to hear about those special, rare bottles… it's second only to actually experiencing them! I'm probably the only person that's wondering – what Grand Cru was the Fevre? I tried the '05 Les Clos recently and was blown away but it probably could have used another 10 years.

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Jon – need to check my notes on that one (sorry – don't have them at the office).

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Jon – need to check my notes on that one (sorry – don't have them at the office).

    • 1WineDude


      Hey Jon – need to check my notes on that one (sorry – don't have them at the office).

      • Jon


        easy to see how it could get lost in the shuffle with those bordeaux and champagne bottles!

  • Gary R. Cox


    Have you ever tasted a pre-pyhlloxera French Bordeaux Wine (<1856)? I collaborate with a Master Sommelier (MS) who worked at Ceaser's Palace in Las Vegas. A high roller comes in, orders up said bottle, and as the MS he proceeds to open/decant and taste a small amount to ensure it's good. He registers this taste in his memory bank and year's later he proceeds to repeat this process with his first Washington State Bordeaux Blend (circa 1980's). This triggers the memory bank to the pre-phylloxera French Bordeaux Wine. Upon further investigation/reserach he finds that Washington has no phylloxera/grows all wine grapes on true rootstock allowing for varietal characteristics to manifest themselves. Washington State produced wines now are ranked as some of the World's best, but I have never seen an independent verification of this premise, i.e. true rootstock produced wines allow for better flavor developement/true varietal characteristics to manifest themselves. Me thinks this experiment would be worthy of carrying out to determine if true rootstock levies an advantage in flavor profile over grafted rootstock? It begs an important question, eh?

    • 1WineDude


      Pretty heady stuff, Gary! My understanding is that the same situation (vines on original rootstock) is the case for some Chilean vineyards as well. A piece of worldwide investigative journalism just waiting to happen there…

      Cheers!

  • fgj1013


    Good stuff Dude! I may have to go and find me some Ho Bryan.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks – Heeey! Ho! Heeeeey! Ho!

  • Gary R. Cox


    Joe- I concur and will bring the Washington Bordeuax Blends to the party if you can scare up the pre-phylloxera French Bordeaux, eh? I can see the French shakin' in their boots as we speak.

    P.S. Throw Argentinian Bordeaux Blends into the true rooted hopper as well.

    • 1WineDude


      Gary – some Mosel Riesling vines are also on original rootstock (not sure but maybe the louse don't like incredibly steep hillside inclines?).

  • @suburbanwino


    Sounds like an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    Yet, while the Haut-Brion DOES sound intriguing, did you know that I can get 35 bottles each of ALL of Boone's Farm's 28 flavors for the same price?? Maybe I'll become an eccentric millionaire and have a cellar full of Boone's Farm.

    "Sir, would you care for the '29 Haut-Brion, or the Boone's Farm 'Extreme Margarita Colada', 2010? Both excellent choices, indeed."

    • 1WineDude


      HA!

      I need to know those other Boon's Farm flavors!

    • 1WineDude


      HA!

      I need to know those other Boon's Farm flavors!

  • 1WineDude


    Jeff, is that color green?

    Look at it this way – you'll always be better-looking and more talented than I am! :)

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