The Journal / Breath

Duhart-Milon: the winds of history

How did a Louis XV privateer come to give his name to one of Pauillac's greatest wines? Historian Laurent Chavier discovers an answer in the Lafite archives.

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Wine lovers know how to read labels. But do they always look at the details? Take Château Duhart-Milon, for example.

Château Duhart-Milon in the book Bordeaux et ses vins by Charles Cocks and Edouard Féret (7th edition, 1898)

The illustration, dating from 1898, shows the estate and the richly wooded banks of the Gironde… in the foreground, a moored boat with its sails lowered. Nothing too surprising, one might think. But what about that tricolour flag flying from the top of the mast?

Behind this image, so peaceful at first glance, lies a story full of adventures still largely unknown. This boat and this flag are the mark of the man who gave his name to the Château: Sir Jean Duhart, a privateer under Louis XV, who came to end his days in the port of Pauillac.

A privateer! Those elite sailors of the high seas, both merchants and masters of naval battle, adventurers of the new world trade.

Smaller and faster: privateer ships were specially armed for “racing”.

But be careful not to confuse privateers with pirates. Pirates operated on their own behalf, scouring the seas for ships to plunder and dividing up the booty amongst themselves, with little code other than that of honour. Privateers, on the other hand, operated on behalf of the King and obeyed strict rules. They could only act in times of war, and a “letter of marque” authorised them to capture enemy vessels.

The name ‘corsair’ comes from the Latin “corsa“: the race. The aim was to outrun the enemy, manoeuvring in such a way as to be able to board and seize the enemy ship – and its merchandise. The goods were then sold at the next disembarkation port, with the state taking a percentage of the proceeds. Captured enemy sailors were considered prisoners of war, and often exchanged for ransom.

Famous privateers

It is estimated that there were just over 1,000 French privateers in the 18th century – men whose memories have mostly been lost, apart from the great captains Jean Bart, the northerner, and Surcouf the Malouin, nicknamed ‘king of privateers’ in 1800.

… And what about Sir Duhart? Truth or legend?

For a long time, we didn’t know much about him. But now art historian Laurent Chavier, who is working with Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite to establish the history of the Château, has found traces of Sir Jean Duhart in a document dated 1774, which recounts the beginning of our namesake’s seafaring career.

Jean Duhart’s captain’s commission, 1774 (source: Bordeaux archives)

This document is a commission issued by the Admiralty of Guyenne, recognising him as a ‘captain, master and skipper’ of a ship, and lists his service records.

It states that Jean Duhart embarked for the first time in 1752 as a volunteer, probably as an ‘apprentice sailor’ bound for Quebec, on the ship ‘La Renomée’ [Editor’s note: as this archive proves, spelling was not a concern in the 18th century… even in official documents]. He returned to Canada in 1760, in the middle of the war against England. And not just any war! The “7 Years’ War” (1756-1763) took place in Europe, but also in Africa, North America, and the West Indies, where the two powers were already expanding their colonial empires. Historians sometimes refer to this conflict as the real First World War. We can already imagine Jean Duhart, a young sailor tempted by adventure, boarding a merchant ship, holds packed with supplies and decks armed with cannons to face the English ships.

The next line brought us the proof we were looking for: in 1762, he was ‘burnt in action by the pursuit of the English’, on the (very poorly named) ship “L’Heureux”. 

Burnt in action’? The document tells us nothing more, but we have our proof: Jean Duhart was indeed a privateer.

In 1763, the Treaty of Paris declared peace between France and England. Jean Duhart returned to the merchant navy. But that did not mean the end of the adventure! Pirates were still prowling the seas, and the risks were constant, on voyages that could last several months. Still based in Bordeaux, Duhart went on one transatlantic mission after another. His ships were called “Le César”, “L’Éléphant”, “La Henryette”, and “L’Amitiés” (sic). Destinations? Louisiana, Santo Domingo, Cayenne, and Martinique, with stopovers in Marseille or on the Spanish coast.

1. In 1771, Jean Duhart set sail for Cayenne on the Bélisaire. 2. The Bélisaire’s cargo: wine, flour, and other “victuals”. (source: Bordeaux archives)

What was it carrying? The captain’s commission does not specify, but we know that the port of Bordeaux was developing at that time thanks to ‘direct trade’ with the colonies. The ships carried wine, cloth, clothing, and all the tools the colonists might need. History dictates that sometimes they also took on slaves from Africa, even though this ‘slave trade’ mainly developed in Bordeaux towards the end of the century. After a few weeks, the ship and its crew set sail again for Bordeaux, their holds loaded with sugar, cotton, spices, coffee, and cocoa.

“At the time, Bordeaux wine was already being exported all over the world,” explains historian Laurent Chavier. “And Pauillac wine was among the most famous”. It was this wine that changed Jean Duhart’s destiny. After becoming a captain in 1774, the former privateer married Suzanne Casteja, heiress to a large Bordeaux family with vineyards in the Médoc, in 1778. “We can imagine that Jean Duhart got to know the Casteja family because their boats loaded wine at the port of Pauillac,” continues Laurent Chavier. This hypothesis is reinforced by Jean and Suzanne’s marriage contract.

1778: Jean Duhart and Suzanne Casteja get married at Pauillac Town Hall

The register shows Duhart’s best man was Nicolas Cochon, a ‘merchant in Bordeaux’. Duhart and Cochon are two surnames that appear together in the registers of merchant ships in 1774 and 1777; the overall picture begins to take shape.

The Duhart couple settled on the Milon hillside, already a vineyard area, and a new story began.

Suzanne and Jean were an alliance between land and sea: the wealthy landowner and the maritime adventurer.

But the rest of their story can only be the stuff of legend; after their marriage, sources dry up.

Did Jean mellow out or pursue his career? How did the Duhart couple cope with the French Revolution? Perhaps we will find out one day. But for now, the archives are silent. We find their name in an inheritance dispute within the Casteja family dated 1806. Then nothing more until 1839, when Suzanne died. Her tombstone reads simply ‘Jeanne-Suzanne Casteja, widow of Mr Jean Duhart’. She is buried alone.

There is every reason to believe that Jean Duhart, the young man who had left to seek his fortune at sea, also died there. But it is on land that his memory lives on, in a grand cru that bears his name.


The rest of the story

When Suzanne Casteja died in 1838, the wine did not yet bear her late husband’s name.

As the couple had no children, Suzanne’s nephew, Pierre Casteja, inherited the 14 hectares of vines. The man who would later become mayor of Bordeaux combined them with other plots, but it would be another 30 years (in 1868) before the estate’s wine took on the Duhart-Milon name. 

The land remained in the Casteja family until 1937. Afterwards, the estate was divided between five successive owners. In 1962, the estate was bought by DBR Lafite. The vineyards were gradually reformed, and by the 1970s the estate had regained its splendour. The cellars were renovated in 2003. Today, Jean Duhart’s home has disappeared. What remains is his name and his legend, now restored.

Château Duhart-Milon 1995 label

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