BOOK REVIEW / Excellent wine, pity about the storyteller: Haut Brion: An Illustrious Lineage - Asa Briggs: Faber & Faber, pounds 25

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The Independent Online
WHEN Alan Lomax went around New Orleans in the early 1930s he was lucky enough to find one elderly musician who boasted: 'I was there when the birth of jazz originated.' Well, Chateau Haut Brion was where the birth of claret originated.

It's an exciting story, though you wouldn't believe it from reading Lord Briggs's account. The most kindly description is that it is an urbane tribute, generously larded with gracious acknowledgements to every author and journalist who has ever visited the place. Me, I found it rambling and muddled, a miserable contrast to Victorian Cities, the book in which a younger Asa Briggs found considerable excitement in the story of Middlesbrough, of all unlikely places.

The birth of claret can be summed up in two well- known quotations. In April 1663 Samuel Pepys drank 'a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan', which had 'a good and most particular taste'. The cafe where he drank it was named Pontack's. The wine's superiority was explained by John Locke on a visit to Bordeaux 15 years later. He noted how 'Pontac, so much esteemed in England, grows on a rise of ground, openmost to the west . . . in pure white sand, mixed with a little gravell . . . One would imagine it scarce fit to bear anything . . .'

This is the heart of the matter: the poverty of the soil prevents the vines from over- producing and concentrates the taste of the grapes and thus of the wine. But it escapes Briggs almost entirely. He writes of the wine's 'balance', its 'harmony', the fact that in some vintages it can be 'flinty'. He does not explain how, like all the finest wines from the Graves, the gravel slopes just south of Bordeaux, the wine reminds even unpoetic tasters of an old brick garden wall warmed by the summer sun that has absorbed the flavours of the peaches and apricots growing within.

Some of the estate's owners understood the glory of the wine. The Pontacks were the models for the class of parlementaires, the legal aristocracy that invested heavily in vineyards in the late 17th and 18th centuries. And the present owner, the Duchesse de Mouchy, is the grand-daughter of Clarence Dillon, the American banker who bought the estate in 1935 (his son Douglas, the duchess's father, was Kennedy's Secretary of the Treasury).

But the history of a Bordeaux estate is more than that of the soil, the wine and the owners. It is also, especially at Haut Brion, that of the regisseurs, the 'bailiffs' who actually ran the place. Here Haut Brion has been lucky: at some time in the 1920s - Briggs doesn't give the date of this important event - one Georges Delmas took over, to be succeeded in 1961 by his son Jean-Bernard. They have ensured that the wine has varied between excellent and superb. Jean-Bernard himself has been in the forefront of the technical revolution that has transformed Bordeaux in the past 30 years and has built up a unique collection of vine plants. His departure at the end of the year will be traumatic: let us hope that the highly articulate Delmas will provide us with a book worthy of the subject.

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