Great Bordeaux – Thomas Jefferson's Favorite – Produced by an American-born Duchess

Elle International

July 1986

The Duchesse de Mouchy watches the tractors haul in their loads of grapes. These are black merlot, the first red grapes of the 1985 harvest, so perfectly ripe that many fall off the bunches as they tumble into the red-tiled pit. The Duchesse (née Joan Dillon) is happy with this healthy crop, but there is some anxiety in her smile. After all, this is the moment the whole year has been building up to. The sun is shining, the thermometer reads 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and all seems well. But rainstorms or hail could follow the heat. Picking of the late-ripening cabernet grapes has not begun, and these account for half the 171 acres of vineyards managed by Joan de Mouchy as general director of the Domaine Clarence Dillon Company.

To Joan's late grandfather Clarence Dillon, the banker and financier, goes the distinction of being the first American to own a Bordeaux premier cru. His granddaughter and her husband, Philippe, Duc de Mouchy, come down every month from their château near Beauvais, 37 miles north of Paris. At harvesttime, her father, C. Douglas Dillon (ambassador to France under Eisenhower, and later Kennedy's secretary of the Treasury) and his wife, Susan, come over from the United States; last year he came twice, the first time in order to attend the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Dillons' purchase of Haut-Brion.

The estate, which is at Pessac, a suburb of Bordeaux, first began to produce wine under Jean de Pontac, who acquired it in 1525 as part of his wife's dowry, and who built the château. Under his great-grandson, Arnaud III de Pontac, Haut-Brion was the first Bordeaux estate wine to be sold under its own name rather than as generic Graves. It was mentioned by Samuel Pepys in 1663 as "Ho-Bryan." In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, an early American envoy to France, ordered from Haut-Brion some of the famous 1784 vintage, and later that year he visited the château. Thanks to Jefferson's shipments and advice, Haut-Brion was served at the White House by Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.

One famous owner of Haut-Brion was Talleyrand, Napoleon's as well as Louis XVIII's foreign minister. He was also known for his brilliant receptions and the glorious cuisine of his renowned chef, Carême, which was, of course, accompanied by Haut-Brion wines – all tactical weapons of Talleyrand's tortuous diplomacy. At the Congress of Vienna he is reported to have said to a courier bringing him instructions from Paris: "Instructions? I don't need instructions. Bring me pots and pans!"

During World War II the château was used to quarter Luftwaffe bomber pilots, who made a mess of the interior with military paint and indiscriminate target practice. When Joan de Mouchy, then married to Prince Charles of Luxembourg, took over in 1975, it was in bad need of redecorating. This she did handsomely – also adding a pillared barrel cellar and complete air-conditioning of the winery to assure constant cool temperatures. Administrative duties require the couple's frequent presence at the château and a tight schedule. By day, clothes and meals are simple: Lunch might be a buffet of salads, poached eggs and ham on toast, noodles with basil and tomato sauce, and the wines, too, are simple (a favorite is a cabernet rosé reserved for family use). Evenings are more formal. Even en famille, the Mouchys and Dillons dress for dinner. This is the moment for Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, or La Tour Haut-Brion. The first course is often fish, which calls for the remarkable white Haut-Brion or Laville Haut-Brion, both made from sémillon and sauvignon-blanc. The glasses and silver gleam and tinkle, and conversation is lively – la vie de château at its best – while in the cellars below, the next vintages continue to mature in cool, quiet vaults.