On April 10th 1663, diarist, Cambridge-graduate and upwardly-mobile man-about-town, Samuel Pepys wrote to have “drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryen that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with”, thereby inventing the tasting note.
Haut-Brion, the only Bordeaux first growth based outside the Medoc, was purchased in 1935 by US financier Clarence Dillon, and is now run by Prince Robert of Luxembourg after Dillon’s granddaughter married into the family.
To mark the 350th anniversary of this earliest recorded assessment of the wine, Cambridge University Wine Society arranged a Celebration Dinner, starting with a talk by Dr. Jane Hughes, Samuel Pepys Librarian and Fellow of Magdalene College, on Pepys, the diary and the 1660s.
This was followed by a reception and viewing of the diary entry itself (unintelligible to most as Pepys wrote in shorthand) and an earlier factual record by Charles II’s cellarmaster in Magdalene College’s Pepys library.
The reception, on a sunny spring evening in the college cloisters, featured a Pol Roger 2002 – a beautiful, elegant fizz with wonderful poise – whilst the finale of the evening was a candlelit dinner in the college with wines from the domaine.
Starter: pan-fried scallops with pancetta, garden pea puree and lemon oil
We started with two whites, La Clarte de Haut Brion 2009 and Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc 2003.
La Clarte is a limited bottling of 50% La Mission Blanc (purchased by Domaine Clarence Dillon in 1983) and 50% Haut-Brion Blanc from a very good year indeed; the 2003 is from a very warm year in which the grapes had to be picked as early as August 13th to preserve freshness.
La Clarte de Haut Brion 2009 a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon, just 1,000 cases made; wonderful palate length, complexity and balance. Feels extremely elegant and precise. Really lovely, Very Good Indeed.
Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc 2003 so picked early to maintain freshness; not a wine for long ageing. Starting to tire a little already, the fruit has mostly faded and it lacks the weightiness and length of the 2009. Good fresh acidity.
Main: oven roasted fillet of Norfolk venison with chanterelle mushrooms, rich red wine jus, dauphinoise potatoes, celeriac puree and green beans
Following the school of thought that serves the best wine first when people are more attentive and palates fresher, the main was accompanied by the stand-out wine of the evening, a 1989 Haut-Brion.
In her summing-up at the end, Serena Sutcliffe MW referred to this wine as “a monument” and I was unable to find anyone who did not consider this the best wine of the evening.
Chateau Haut-Brion 1989 still dark in the glass, with few signs of age. Incredible, complex secondary aromas of leather, bell pepper, soy and well-hung game with good fruit; wonderful freshness, matched with elegance and precision. Very Good Indeed – and then some.
Chateau Haut-Brion 1995 lots more ripe fruit on the palate and much less evolution – amazingly youthful for a wine at almost 20 years and feels to have much more life left. Very Good.
Cheese: cheese board with biscuits, grapes and celery
I have never quite understood the idea of matching red wine with cheese – especially young reds with mature, hard yellow cheeses.
Whilst the cheeses were all lovely, for me this was the one part of the meal where the matching did not work.
Le Clarence de Haut-Brion 2008 this could easily be the top wine at any other tasting, but coming after the poise and refined elegance of the previous reds, it feels too young to be drinking now; lots of primary ripe fruit feels like a slap round the chops compared to the preceding wines. Good.
Dessert: traditional creme brulee, shortbread biscuit and seasonal berries
There are few desserts better than a creamily unctuous creme brulee with a thin, crisp, perfectly-browned topping. Add in a rich sticky dessert wine and you have pudding heaven.
A dessert this good needs no additions and the shortbread-and-berry additions were a case of more is less.
Clarendelle Amberwine 2003 lovely dessert wine with peachy, beeswax aromas, waxy texture and plenty of concentrated botrytis. Long on the palate with good fresh acidity; reminds me of a Ruster Ausbruch from Austria, but with just a touch more levity. As expressive and lithe as a ballerina. Very Good.
Domaine Clarence Dillon – website
Copyright Tom Lewis 2013
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