A European walk through Bordeaux 25
John Locke's "Studies".
1, rue des Piliers de Tutelle.
In the 16th century, there was a Renaissance residence called the Maison dorée [golden house], on account of its rich decorations. It belonged to Jean de Pontac, “chief clerk to the Parliament.” More than any other family, the Pontac family are an institution in Bordeaux. Jean de Pontac had three sons. The first two – Arnaud de Pontac, bishop of Bazas, and his brother Raymond, who became president of investigations for Bordeaux – entered the judiciary and were forever faithful to the noble traditions of their ancestors. The third preferred a military career. The family counted several presidents, counsellors, public prosecutors and chief clerks of the Bordeaux parliament, treasurers of France, a First President to the taxation court, and the list goes on. To the point that, according to legend, Arnaud de Pontac (1599-1681) had four “P”s cut in stone above his door, for Pontac Premier Président du Parlement [Pontac First President of the Parliament]. Legend also has it that, because at the time justice was slow, the inhabitants of Bordeaux, derisively, assigned another meaning to the inscription: Pauvres Plaideurs, Prenez Patience [poor litigants, be patient]. The Pontacs also owned Château Haut-Brion.
Arnaud de Pontac knew from experience that the British aristocracy, a rich clientele par excellence, remained faithful by tradition to the wines of Bordeaux. He came up with the idea of proposing a totally different wine for them, sold at a more expensive price and with an immediately recognisable brand name. On 10 April 1663, a London diarist, Samuel Pepys, noted in his diary that he had been fully satisfied by the distinctive taste of a French wine called Ho Bryan, which he had drunk at the Royal Oak Tavern. In the same year, Arnaud de Pontac decided to send his son to London to set up a fashionable tavern, where his family’s wines were sold. It was called The Pontack’s Head. The wine, sold at a price almost four times higher than traditional claret, was an immediate commercial success. Ho Bryan was of course Haut-Brion. It was sought by the finest minds in London: Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and the English philosopher John Locke (1602-1734) all flocked to The Pontack’s Head to taste this fashionable nectar.
Some twelve years later, in 1675, John Locke, author of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Civil Government, who was severely asthmatic and had therefore travelled to the south of France in search of a milder climate, remembered it. He arrived at Bordeaux on Monday 5 April 1677, having travelled through Agen, Tonneins and Cadillac. He visited Château Trompette, “a very strong fortress north of the river, with four bastions, that brought four churches to the ground without firing a single cannon...” He remembered The Pontack’s Head and so, uncertain given the price of Haut-Brion wines, went to the château four days before leaving for Paris, on 14 May, one hundred and nine years before Thomas Jefferson. He made the following observations: “The Pontac vineyard [...] grows on a hilltop that is oriented to the west; the soil, which looks like it could produce nothing, is composed of white sand mixed with a bit of gravel.” He had studied the direct relationship between the soil and the quality of the wines, re-proclaimed the consubstantial link between the distinctive features of a product and this “bit of gravel” in the soil. In Bordeaux, the Ho Bryan was not apparently his only object of study. Another can be found in his Journal, between 26 March and 9 May 1677, one of his few writings devoted to education, an essay entitled Study.
Return to opposite the Grand Théâtre.