Tag Archives: château haut-brion

Ho Bryan – a great wine brand for 350 years

On April 10 1663 Samuel Pepys made an entry in his diary: “… and there drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.”

The wine? Well, of course it is Château Haut-Brion. One of the five red premier cru wines of Bordeaux. A wine and a brand still on top after 350 years.

Samuel Pepys’ mention of Haut-Brion is the first known where someone actually describes a Bordeaux wine along with its name. Pepys was an English naval adminstrator, renowned for his diaries written in code. And as he also was a man who liked wine, it was not surprising that the note about “Ho Bryan” was made. When he died in 1703 his large collection of books, manuscripts and diaries was bequeathed to Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge where he once graduated. Anyone interested in learning more about Pepys, can visit Pepys library in Cambridge.

I’m interested in brand building and like the story about how Arnaud de Pontac once built the brand Haut-Brion. The following is from an entry I made on this blog about a year ago; Amazing stories of great wine brands.


“One of the stories fascinating me on this theme is the one about “Ho Bryan”. A history stretching centuries back in time. And a story about a brand still on top after 350 years. It must be the first example of conscious brand building in the world of wine.

Hugh Johnson has described the remarkable rise of this luxury brand in the book I love most when it comes to wine history; “The Story of Wine”.

We start around the year 1200. London had then reached the position as the prime export market of Bordeaux wine. The position was realised after a chain of events, which began when the incredible Eleanor of Aquitaine became Queen of England in 1154. It continued when King Richard, known as Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor’s son, wanted wine from Bordeaux to be served on the tables of the royal English court. And was accomplished in 1203 when John Lackland, the next king of England, and the youngest son of Eleanor, removed the heavy taxes on wine exported from the harbour of Bordeaux. His decision opened the gates to London. The claret flowed north, but it was still of ordinary, everyday quality.

We move forward to the 1660s and give the stage for Arnaud de Pontac. Head of the Parliament of Bordeaux and a man determined to take the family wine business to new heights. His plan involved ingredients well known to many modern brand builders.

Arnaud started to differentiate his product from the competitors’ by raising the quality. “Ho Bryan” was a dark coloured wine with a power that outperformed the previously known standard. There were no lack of resources to put into the production, so the quality was presumably achieved by selecting the best grapes and perfecting the winemaking methods.

Additionally, Arnaud took a completely new approach in wine business, when he as the first producer put a trade mark on his wine. It was carefully chosen to show the origin of the wine. The name was that of his family estate south of the town of Bordeaux.

The strategy was to create high demand in England, so marketing was needed. Arnaud selected the channel carefully and put it in total control of the family. In 1666 he opened an exclusive inn, the first real restaurant in London. At “Pontack’s Head” the food and wine were exquisite. So was the price tag. “Ho Bryan” was sold at a price more than three times of an ordinary wine. Arnaud positioned his wine as top-of-the-line, aiming for the market of affluent citizens.

The success came quickly. A luxury brand was born. London cried for Arnaud’s prime brand “Ho Bryan”, as well as the “Pontac” produced at his other estates. The demand drove prices to ever higher levels.

The wine, yes, it is the Haut-Brion. One of the five premier crus of Bordeaux. Still on top after hundreds of years. And an amazing history of the creation of a great brand.”

The 350 year anniversary of Samuel Pepys’ diary entry was celebrated yesterday at a gala dinner hosted by the Cambridge University Wine Society at Magdalene College in Cambridge. At Decanter’s website the event is described together with a picture of the famous diary. Take a look at it, it is really a very special book!

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Heritage, class and red in Pessac-Léognan

I am not going to travel far from the Intendant in the Bordeaux city centre. I thought I should go looking for the home of my January favourite, Château La Garde, in Pessac-Léognan.

Pessac-Léognan is the commune appellation we should remember for three things: heritage, class and red. The heritage is of the very best rank. The classification comprises the best estates, but is often forgotten when talking classifications of Bordeaux. And red? Yes, Pessac-Léognan is in fact dominated by red wines, although I often think of the region south of Bordeaux as white wine country.

It is just a quarter of an hour from the city centre and there, squeezed in among the southern suburbs, the first vineyards are found. An airborne arrival to Bordeaux, that is to the Mérignac airport, implies a landing right in Pessac-Léognan, the most northern part of Graves. The spot where grapes were grown already 2000 years ago. A spot proud of its rich heritage.

Grusiga jordar i Pessac-Léognan. (http://www.crus-classes-de-graves.com/phototheque/LARGE/VIGNOBLES/ROSIERS.jpg)
Gravel soils in Pessac-Léognan. (foto: http://www.crus-classes-de-graves.com/phototheque)

Claret, the light red Bordeaux wine, which won the heart of the Englishmen already in the Middle Ages, came from this neighbourhood. The vineyards in Graves were already well established when the Dutch came to Médoc to fulfil their ditching assignment in the 1700s. During the 300 years when Aquitaine was under English rule, from 1152 to 1453, the claret literally flowed into London from Graves.

Château Haut-Brion, the only estate in Graves classified for red wine in 1855, excelled early. 2013 marks an anniversary! It is 350 years since “Ho Bryan” was established as a luxury brand in London. The owner Arnaud de Pontac had persued a successful strategy and differentiated his wine from the competitors’. Darker, more power – simply one class better. And three times the price. The good Arnaud was a real businessman.

Pessac-Léognan also holds the oldest estate in Bordeaux. Château Pape-Clémant counts 1299 as its birth year. That was the year when the coming Pope Clemant V got the estate as a gift from his older brothers. Today it is considered as one of the best estates of the appellation.

Red, red, red. Delicious wines are made from both blue and green grapes raised on the light gravelly and sandy soils. I often think white when thinking Graves, but the fact is that about 80% of the production in Pessac-Léognan is red wine! The traditional Bordeaux grapes are grown on the appr. 1700 hectares. Cabernet sauvignon is the signature grape for the red wines, with Merlot as runner up. Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon dominate the white.

Pessac-Léognan is an appellation of recent date, born on September 9, 1987. And we should note the for Bordeaux unusual scope; this commune appellation includes both red and white wines.  

You could think that the appellation comprises only the two communes that have given the area its name. But that is not the case. Ten communes, or rather villages, are included; Mérignac, Pessac, Talence, Gradignan, Villenave d’Ornon, Canéjan, Léognan, Cadaujac, Martillac, Saint-Médard-d’Eyrans. Remember them if you can! But no, that is not necessary, Pessac-Léognan will do fine.

Then it is time for the classification. Graves has one of its own, a fact easily forgotten in our eagerness to learn the most distinguished estates in the classification of 1855. All the 16 estates awarded “cru classé” in Graves are located in Pessac-Léognan. The classification, without any internal ranking, was established as late as 1953, with an extension 1959 to the one of today. Six estates are classified for red and white wine, seven for red only and three for white. Château Haut-Brion is of course among the classified estates in Pessac-Léognan too and is thus, as the only estate in Bordeaux,”double classified”. 

What about Château La Garde then, do I find my way there? Yes, but it is a trip that will end as far south as I can come in Pessac-Léognan, in the commune Martillac. On the way south I pass several famous names and the palate starts longing for the delicious liquid. Why not a few drops from one the classified estates such as Domaine de Chevalier, Château Olivier, Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Château Haut-Bailly…

Domaine de Chevalier, Pessac-Léognan. (foto: http://www.crus-classes-de-graves.com/phototheque)
Domaine de Chevalier, Pessac-Léognan. (foto: http://www.crus-classes-de-graves.com/phototheque)

I can also conclude that Pessac-Léognan is André Lurton-land. The renowned winemaker’s properties are not located far from each other. There are the names so well known from the labels of the white wines we often find in Sweden: Château de Cruzeau, Château la Louvière, Château Couhins Lurton, Château de Rochemorin och Château Coucheroy. The latter two reliable, affordable, pure Sauvignon blanc wines, often poured on our tastings as typical examples of a Bordeaux white. But again – red wines are made on all the estates.

So, why not choose a red Pessac-Léognan the next time?

Note. All the 16 classified estates in Pessac-Léognan (Crus Classés de Graves):
  • White wines: Château Couhins, Château Couhins-Lurton, Château Laville Haut-Brion.
  • Red wines: Château Haut-Brion, Château de Fieuzal, Château Haut-Bailly, Château La Mission Haut-Brion, Château La Tour Haut-Brion, Château Pape-Clément, Château Smith Haut Lafitte.
  • Both red and white: Château Bouscaut, Château Carbonnieux, Domaine de Chevalier, Château Latour-Martillac , Château Malartic-Lagravière, Château Olivier.