A window to wine’s past

The library of rare books being assembled at Château Haut-Brion offers a glimpse into the evolution of food and wine. Felicity Carter paid a visit.

The library at Château Haut-Brion
The library at Château Haut-Brion

Alain Puginier, archivist and historian at Château Haut-Brion, pauses in front of the glass cases. “Etruscan, Greek, Roman,” he says, pointing to the pottery.

That Château Haut-Brion has a collection of wine antiquities is not surprising, because it has itself played an important role in wine history: the Romans first planted vineyards here two thousand years ago. Then, in 1663, British diarist Samuel Pepys mentioned “a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with” — the first known reference to wine from a specific estate. Puginier heads to the château’s library, wood panelled and round, with shelves rising over two floors to the ceiling. Many of the shelves are still empty. This library is a work in-progress, which will eventually become a source of knowledge about the history of food and wine.

Tandem development

Puginier pulls out some books he thinks are particularly interesting. There’s The Compleat Cook from 1662, which teaches the correct way to dress meat and make pastry. There is a 1775 book by Sir Edward Barry that charts the development of winemaking from ancient times. And then there is a signed cookbook written by Marie-Antonin Carême, the first cook to be called ‘chef’. Known as the ‘king of chefs and chef of kings’, he was the personal chef to Talleyrand, one-time owner of the château and foreign minister of Napoleon. Collectively, these books show how wine and fine food developed in tandem, says Puginier. There is also the collection of menus from important historic dinners, offering an insight into the development of fine dining. 

Permanent record

In 2010, Prince Robert of Luxembourg decided to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the acquisition of Château Haut-Brion by his ancestor, American financier Clarence Dillon. Prince Robert’s idea was to create events that reflected the history of the Sign of Pontac’s Head, one of Europe’s first modern restaurants. François-Auguste de Pontac, whose family then owned the château, opened Pontac’s Head tavern in London in 1666, where Haut-Brion wines were served alongside the food. The tavern not only attracted the leading intellectual and cultural lights of the day, but helped to establish the practice of food and wine matching. “The restaurant was open for 125 years,” explains Prince Robert, saying it attracted everyone from writer Daniel Dafoe to scientist Isaac Newton. For the anniversary, Prince Robert set out to resurrect the tavern’s intellectual spirit. “There were 75 people for each dinner – heads of industry, the arts, science and theatre and sports.”

That was also the year that Prince Robert created the library, which celebrates the great thinkers and historic milestones of food and wine. The spirit of the Enlightenment infuses many of Prince Robert’s undertakings: his Paris restaurant La Clarence, opened in 2015, has something of the library’s aesthetic, while its gastronomy is an updated homage to classic French cuisine. He is open to the idea of recreating famous dinners one day, if the chef is willing to do so. “We have a deep culture of history around wine and gastronomy,” he says, adding that he also collects historic wine tools he hopes to display in future. 

The library is private, although Prince Robert says it will be available to serious researchers. If it expands as planned, there will be many visitors in the future, because the history of how wine grew up alongside food is as fascinating – and as poorly understood – as the history of ancient wine itself.

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