Brion wins — the one with stylised nuance or the one with pleasing brawniness?

The invitation from Sanjay Menon (wine importer and, more importantly, possibly the country’s most infectiously enthusiastic wine buff) to attend a Clarence Dillon wine dinner was too good to refuse. After all, this is the company that produces Haut Brion, one of the Bordeaux’s five growths that has earned a permanent place in history, thanks to a classification that dates back to 1855. But, perhaps just as importantly, this is the company that produces another celebrated Bordeaux red, the La Mission Haut Brion, thanks to the acquisition of an estate across the road in 1983.

If Haut Brion is sometimes regarded as the fifth of the five first growths (the others being Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild), it is principally because it produces much less than the others. But there is plenty that signals its uniqueness. It is arguably the oldest Bordeaux in the world; being located in Graves, it is the only non-Medoc wine among the five first growths; the blends lean more heavily on Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon; and it was considerably more famous than its first growth counterparts in the 17th and 18th Centuries, cellared by monarchy in England and immortalised in Samuel Pepys diary over-quoted entry of April 1663, where he recorded drinking “a sort of French wine, called Ho-Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with”.

The evening at Bangalore’s The Leela Palace begins (dare I say it?) on a somewhat prosaic note — with a guilelessly fruity-sweet white and the rose served as aperitifs from the company’s Clarendelle range, conceived as marketing strategy to bring affordable Bordeaux to the masses. But we move quickly to the more serious stuff, starting with the bright youthful La Clarte de Haut Brion, the Semillon-dominated white, which is redolent of lime, tart and sweetish at the same time, and which is another reminder that Bordeaux is more than just reds. (I think back to another first growth tasting a couple of years ago, of Chateau Margaux wines, where I became effusive about the superb Pavillon Blanc over a dinner that was principally geared to showcase its famed red.)

Prince Robert of Luxembourg, who owns the Haut Brion estates, talks us through the wines in an engaging way. Two second wines follow before we are served the La Mission de Haut Brion 2001 with the main course followed by a 1998 vintage of Haut Brion over cheese. The first wine, its reputation consolidated after six vintages were awarded a maximum 100 points by Robert Parker, is markedly bigger, fruitier and silkier (more Parkerised?) than the second, though I suspect I detect a broad unity possibly because the neighbouring terroirs are almost indistinguishable. The second, which seems to take an interesting middle road, is an appealing mix of vigour and soft refinement marked, if anything, by a powerful restraint. Which did I prefer? It took many alternate sips from both glasses before settling for the stylised nuance of the second over the pleasing brawniness of the first.

(mukund.p@thehindu.co.in)