Thu 26 Nov 2009
One of the traditions maintained by “Big John” Grisanti was that the first time a guest visited his wine cellar at home, he or she could pick a bottle of wine to take with them. The task could be overwhelming, so on the occasion of my first visit, struck dumb by the choices, I allowed Grisanti to choose for me, at which prompting he handed me a bottle of Chateau Haut Brion 1975, a First Growth red wine from the Bordeaux region of Graves. I, in turn, gave the bottle to my (former) father-in-law as a housewarming present; he and my mother-in-law had just moved into a new house in East Memphis. (Now a widower, he still lives there, in his mid-90s every bit the gentleman he was raised to be.) He opened the wine for us to enjoy at the Thanksgiving dinner in November 1984.
Records of vines being cultivated at the estate of Haut Brion go back to 1423. The Pontac family built the chateau depicted on the label in 1550. In his diary entry for April 10, 1663, Samuel Pepys mentions a visit to the Royal Oak Tavern in London where “I drank a sort of French wine called Ho-Bryan which hath a good and most particular taste which I never before encountered…..” The estate went through several changes of ownership in the 18th and 19th centuries, and after a period of decline was purchased by the Dillon family in 1935.
Haut Brion was listed as a First Growth in the 1855 Classification of the wines of the Medoc. Whatever variations of quality and fortune it endured through the 20th Century, the estate has performed at the highest level of quality and consistency since 1975. The vineyards at Haut Brion are planted with 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 37 percent merlot and 18 percent cabernet franc; the proportion of grapes in each wine differs according to vintage conditions. The “second” wine of Haut Brion is Bahans Haut Brion. The estate also produces one of the region’s greatest white wines. Production of Chateau Haut Brion is about 11,000 cases annually; Bahans Haut Brion is about 7,300 cases and the blanc is 650 cases.
In Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine (Harcourt, 2002), the British auctioneer and writer gives 1975 a four star rating (out of five stars), though he calls the year “irregular” and “certainly interesting, not to say challenging.” His notes on Haut Brion 1975 are ambivalent, though he rather grudgingly comes around to liking the wine by 1995. Robert M. Parker Jr. calls the year “tricky,” with “the overall quality level … distressingly uneven and the number of failures … too numerous to ignore.” Yikes! Haut Brion 1975, however, Parker rates as “a great wine and one of the top dozen or so wines of the vintage.”
My impression of Haut Brion ’75, on Thanksgiving 1984? Here are my original notes: “A great wine. Surprising color, deep brown, like mahogany. Cedar nose, lead pencil, fruity, quite tannic, emerging fruit, exotic, dry but with an underlying core of succulent sweetness. Years to go.”
At the time, in Memphis, the Haut Brion ’75 sold for $100 to $110.
Well, today we don’t have a Bordeaux First Growth to grace the Thanksgiving board. Instead, there are three bottles of my standard Thanksgiving wine, the Ridge Three Valleys, Sonoma County, this from 2007. For this vintage, the blend is zinfandel (75%), petite sirah (8%), syrah (7%), grenache (6%) and carignane (3%). I also have a bottle of Trefethen Riesling 2007, Napa Valley, because I do like a riesling with the Thanksgiving feast. Some bottles of pinot noir — Morgan, Terlato, Sokol Blosser — await in case our guests’ tastes incline that way. All American wines, yes, because this is, after all, a great American celebration.
On the menu: Clementine-Salted Turkey with Redeye Gravy (a Matt and Ted Lee recipe); Sweet Potato Stuffing with Bacon and Thyme; Wild Mushroom-Collard Green Bundles; green beans, roasted carrots and bacon-topped cornbread. There’s a pumpkin pie for dessert, and a pear crisp with candied ginger. If anyone wants a dessert wine, I have a couple of vintages of Dolce and Beringer Nightingale on hand.
All of that should get the job done.
I hope that all of my readers partake of excellent food and excellent wine today, blessed with family and friends, and remember, while you’re at it, all of those who have neither food nor wine, family nor friends, and let us help them at all times of the year.