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Mission Complete: La Mission Haut-Brion 1928–2011
BY NEAL MARTIN | SEPTEMBER 16, 2021
One of my most memorable tastings took place in central London a few years back, on a morning devoted to 50-some vintages of La Mission Haut-Brion and Laville Haut-Brion Blanc. I vividly recall entering The Square and setting eyes upon the who’s who of wine. Michael Broadbent was over there, among the bustling sommeliers, inspecting the bottles through his half-moon spectacles. Prince Robert de Luxembourg was deep in conversation with Jean-Philippe Delmas. Steven Spurrier, dapper as ever, laughed at something or other with David Peppercorn. Before the first flight was poured, I was asked if I would comment on one of the flights. Me, an expert in front of these mavens? Still, I was excited, not only by the mind-boggling number of vintages stretching back to the 1920s, but also by the fact that we would taste every vintage from 1957 onward, including rarities such as 1963, 1965 and 1977– vintages that most châteaux are loath to show because Mother Nature nixed any chance of making a half-decent wine. This was going to be La Mission “Complete.”
Well, almost. For some inexplicable reason, there was no 1997 La Mission Haut-Brion, and it remained a gap waiting to be filled in. “Mission incomplete.”
Fast-forward a few years, and at the tail end of 2018, I participated in two magnificent La Mission Haut-Brion–themed dinners. Unfortunately, neither included the 1997. One took place at Amuse Bouche restaurant in Hong Kong, my final soirée before returning to the UK as typhoon Mangkhut bore down on the island. Subsequently, I accreted tasting notes from various private dinners and at the château, and opened off-vintages picked up in the days when La Mission Haut-Brion cost a few pennies. I delayed publishing any notes, thinking that maybe the elusive 1997 would show up somewhere, but it did not. Finally, it was time to pull the trigger and present what remains a comprehensive overview of this château, enhanced by insights from Jean-Philippe Delmas himself. I hope it will give readers a deeper understanding of one of the finest Bordeaux wines.
The façade of La Mission Haut-Brion.
As you would expect given its name and propinquity, the history of La Mission Haut-Brion is entwined with that of its First Growth neighbor, Haut-Brion. If one goes back several centuries, it might be assumed that the land comprising La Mission Haut-Brion was part of Haut-Brion, though Clive Coates MW asserts that it was always treated as a separate entity. In his book Wayward Tendrils of the Vine, published in 1945, Ian Maxwell-Campbell mentions a scurrilous rumor of La Mission Haut-Brion being subsumed into Haut-Brion. Thankfully, it was idle gossip.
La Mission Haut-Brion’s early history consists of a succession of rather itinerant owners. At the beginning of the 16th century, the land was known as “Arregedhuys” and belonged to the Rostaings, lords of the house of La Tour d’Esquivens. It then passed through members of the De Lestonnac family, commencing in 1584 with Arnaud de Lestonnac, who married Marie de Pontac (sister of Jean de Pontac, owner of Haut-Brion at the time). De Lestonnac endeavored to convert much of the land to vine when, of course, it lay beyond the city’s perimeter. Arnaud de Lestonnac was followed by Pierre (1548); Olive (1607), wife of parliamentarian Antoine de Gourgue, who donated enormous sums of money to charity; and then Pierre (1652). Two years later, in 1654, ownership passed to Catherine de Mullet, but in 1664, the property, consisting of approximately 10 hectares of vines as well as a winery and farmhouse, was bequeathed to the clergy.
The garden at La Mission Haut-Brion, with the chapel at the left of the picture.
Jean de Fonteneil ran the property and was succeeded by Monsignor Louis de Bourlemont, who in 1682 transferred the estate to a missionary order, Les Prêcheurs de la Mission, founded in 1634 by Saint-Vincent de Paul and based at the College Lazare in Paris, and commonly known as Lazarites. They were dab hands at this winemaking lark, and they enlarged the vineyard named La Mission Haut-Brion, constructing both a small chapel known as Notre Dame de la Mission in 1698, and the château building in 1713. According to the château’s records, “The Mission Congregation accounts, drawn up on February 13, 1729, counted eight priests, four brothers and five servants. At that time, the estate produced 24 barrels of wine, the equivalent of 21.6 hectoliters.”
The château’s reputation grew throughout the 1700s, and unlike Pape-Clément, whose wines were reserved for the clergy, La Mission Haut-Brion was traded on the Bordeaux market. The estate was confiscated and declared a bien national during the Revolution and subsequently acquired on November 14, 1792 by Martial-Victor and Adelaïde-Marie Vaillant for 302,000 livres, a considerable sum commensurate with its standing. It then passed through the Ledoux and De Catalan families before falling into American hands in 1821– namely, the hands of a New Orleans–born repatriated colonel, Célestin Coudrin-Chiapella. From 1867, together with his son Jérôme, Coudrin-Chiapella managed and enhanced the reputation of several other Bordeaux properties, including Cos d’Estournel.
Given its trajectory, one would have expected La Mission Haut-Brion to be considered for the 1855 Classification, at the very least as a Deuxième Cru. In Cocks’s classification of 1846, it appears among the Fourth and Fifth Growths. Alas, while its neighbor was given special dispensation due to its history and anointed as one of four Premier Crus, La Mission Haut-Brion’s location outside the Médoc meant that it was left out of the classification. After 1855, the state of the château building and the volume of production both appear to have declined, though quality seems to have been maintained, since market prices kept pace with those of other Deuxième Crus. In 1884 La Mission Haut-Brion was purchased by Établissements Duval in Paris, which in turn sold it in 1895 to Léon-Ferdinand de Constans of Bordeaux négociants Schröder. In 1903 it changed hands yet again when it was acquired by Victor Coustau.
The cross, the emblem of La Mission Haut-Brion, can be found all around the château and indeed on the bottles themselves.
The Woltner Era
One gets the impression of a jewel that, until this point, never settled down with a single proprietor. That changed in 1919. Finally, the property found a man who would dedicate his life to the vineyard: Frédéric Otto Woltner, who, together with his wife Agnès, revitalized the estate. Born in Riga in 1865, Woltner already had a connection with La Mission, since he worked for Schröder and was acquainted with the De Constans. Victor Coustau had purportedly promised Woltner first refusal if he ever decided to sell, and he kept his word when he retired in 1916. The deal was signed three years later, presumably postponed until after World War I.
Frédéric Woltner took charge in the first years of his family’s reign. There was a lot to do. The vineyard had been neglected for many years, and the winery was in poor condition. Woltner rolled up his sleeves and in 1926, installed revolutionary glass-lined steel fermentation vats instead of orthodox wooden vessels. This enabled his team to control fermentation temperatures more easily, as well as improving sanitary conditions. Upon Frédéric Woltner’s passing in 1933, he was succeeded by his son Henri, who had studied oenology at the nearby University of Bordeaux. His scientific learning inspired him to introduce cooler alcoholic fermentation, capping the temperature at around 28°C instead of letting it rise to 35°C and inviting volatility. This pioneering approach is commonplace, but back then it essentially rewrote the rules of winemaking and led to fewer faulty wines.
Henri Woltner remained at the helm of La Mission Haut-Brion until his death in October 1974. During that period, he oversaw legends such as 1945, 1955 and 1961, some of the greatest Bordeaux that I have ever tasted. La Mission Haut-Brion became renowned for its consistency, partly because of the changes made to the fermentation process. Woltner had also taken over La Tour Haut-Brion, initially via an en fermage agreement when Victor Coustau retired. He assumed proprietorship when Coustau’s widow bequeathed the property to Woltner’s wife, a lifelong friend. The overall running of both properties passed to Woltner’s nephew, Francis Dewavrin, and his sister Françoise. Francis became the consummate ambassador for the estate, leaving the day-to-day running to régisseur Henri Lagardère, who had joined in 1954 along with his son Michel. Unfortunately, there was disagreement about how the profits were to be distributed between the Woltner and Dewavrin families, and in 1983 the estate was put up for sale.
On November 2 of that year, La Mission Haut-Brion was bought by Domaine Clarence Dillon S.A., owners of Château Haut-Brion. According to Clive Coates, the price was 75 million Francs plus 20 million Francs from revenues derived from the two most recent vintages. Lagardère made way for Jean-Bernard Delmas, who took over at Haut-Brion from his father, Georges, in 1961. La Mission Haut-Brion could legally have been absorbed into the First Growth, though that idea was never entertained despite the financial benefits.
Jean-Bernard Delmas with his son Jean-Philippe.
I asked Jean-Philippe Delmas whether his father, Jean-Bernard, had ever described how it felt to have both Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion in his charge.
“My father, who was born in Haut-Brion, was absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to also take care of La Mission,” Delmas told me. “He said that it was a small wonder, and that we would have to continue the work of his predecessors and try to improve still further.”
I wanted to know whether he changed the modus operandi at La Mission.
“My father started, of course, by working in the vineyard. This is where La Mission and where all wine is born. He replanted a number of plots that were in great need of renewal and suggested that the Dillon family create a second wine, La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion, in order to keep only the very best fruit for the Grand Vin. Next, he designed a new style of tank, with two levels separated from each other, in order to facilitate the deposit of fermentation residues, the draining of the must and the evacuation of the marc, making it safer for the people who worked in the cellar. This state-of-the-art vat room was inaugurated and implemented with the 1987 vintage. The result was so convincing that my father installed the same type of vat room in 1991 at Haut-Brion. He also decided to harvest the grapes at a higher level of maturity than the Woltner family, who picked quite early and increased the percentage of new oak barrels used during aging. All this was accomplished while respecting what was most important to him, in Haut-Brion as in La Mission: respect for the terroir and harmony (in the sense of balance) in all the components of the wine.”
Turning my attention to Jean-Philippe Delmas, I asked about an aspect of his early life that he had mentioned en passant during my previous visit: his aspirations toward becoming an army pilot. Delmas said that in the end, the lure of winemaking proved stronger than that of becoming a Pessac-Léognan “top gun.” Jean-Philippe Delmas succeeded his father in January 2004 after the blending, though he had already attended assemblages with the technical team. Delmas used the expression that he was already “in the bath” before his 2004 debut, where he had complete control from vine to bottle. I asked what he learned from his father versus what he learned during his studies.
“After I got my oenology diploma in Bordeaux, I did internships abroad in order to understand other ways of thinking about and making wine. Then, in 1994, I joined Domaine Clarence Dillon, initially as a sales representative, in order to get to know all the actors of the Bordeaux wine world. From that moment, my father started teaching me how he worked. In January 2004, I was very fortunate that the Dillon family trusted me to succeed my grandfather and my father as estate manager. Like everyone else before me, when I left university, I had a good theoretical understanding of vines, wine and tasting, but I learned the essentials from my father. He passed on his knowledge of the Haut-Brion terroir, which he himself had inherited from his father. The Haut-Brion terrace, where Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion are located, is a unique ecosystem in the world that gives birth to unique wines. The wines of Domaine Clarence Dillon must remain impervious to any fad.”
“My father taught me something that has become my personal method: to treat La Mission just like Haut-Brion insofar as it must be very good every year, whether drinking it young or after several years in the cellar, and to respect its style and climatic signature in accordance with the vintage.”
Like previous château profiles, such as Lagrange and Grand Mayne, I present the next section as a Q&A session with Jean-Philippe Delmas. We commenced with an examination of the vineyard.
The ornate wrought iron gates that lie directly opposite the entrance to Haut-Brion.
Neal Martin: Can you describe the vineyard in detail? What is the size? How is it divided into sub-plots? Isn't the vineyard traversed by the train track, and does that pose any problems?
Jean-Philippe Delmas: The planted area is currently 29.16 hectares, mainly located in the communes of Talence and two plots in the town of Pessac. The vineyard sits between two streams, the Ars and the Peugue, on two ridges of Graves that are characteristic of the left bank and of the Pessac-Léognan appellation. The plots of La Mission are very close to each other and some of them overlap with the plots of Château Haut-Brion. They have an average area of around one hectare. With regard to the railway, it has no impact.
NM: What is the soil type, and does it vary across the vineyard? Is it very different from Haut-Brion?
J-PD: The soils are made up of a mixture of sand and gravel [20cm to 300cm thick], forming a clay-sandy puzzle on the surface, over a clay-limestone subsoil that varies in depth depending on the area. The looser soils let water flow naturally during the winter, and then the clays release stored water in the summer. These soils are very similar to those of Château Haut-Brion and have a very high qualitative potential for viticulture.
NM: Does the vineyard enjoy a different microclimate because of its location in the city? I would expect temperatures to be slightly warmer than in the Médoc.
J-PD: The grapes are generally ripe 8–10 days before our neighbors from the Médoc. But this precocity already existed in the Middle Ages, before the city was present. It is linked to the terroir, soil, climate and human decisions. The presence of the city today certainly has an influence, making temperatures a little warmer, but this impact on the vineyard seems very marginal to us. In 2017, for example, during a significant frost episode in the Bordeaux vineyards, we were generally spared, mainly due to the topography of our land. The gentle slopes allow cold air masses to flow. The microclimate we enjoy is linked to our environment, our Graves soils and their topography. It is a set of elements.
NM: What is the composition of the vineyard? Has it changed over the years and what is the average vine age and planting density?
J-PD: The current composition for red wines is 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc. For the white wines, it’s 63% Sémillon and 37% Sauvignon Blanc. The proportions evolve over time, and we take care to preserve diversity and match soil to grape variety. The goal is to get the most out of each variety in a given vintage and then develop a balanced blended wine. Since 1983 at La Mission Haut-Brion, we have attached great importance to the renewal of the vineyard in order to maintain consistent quality over time.
In recent years, for the white wines, we replaced one hectare of Sémillon with two-thirds Sauvignon Blanc and one-third Sauvignon Gris, the latter in 2009. For the red wines, we’ve reduced the share of Cabernet Franc in favor of Merlot. Knowledge of the adaptation of the grape variety to the terroir has led us to make these modifications, which seem to us to be better suited to the soils and current climatic conditions. When we had the opportunity, we acquired quality land contiguous to the vineyard and planted more vines. The average age of the plots in La Mission Haut-Brion is 34 years. The density is 10,000 plants per hectare.
NM: How do you approach replanting vines? Are diseases like Esca a problem, and if so, how do you control them?
J-PD: We have a replanting policy that requires us to renew the plots on average every 60 years, or when the health of a plot is degraded. When we decide to uproot and replant, we choose the plant material most suited to the plot, regardless of its sensitivity to Esca. So we are not increasing our proportion of Merlot to escape Esca. Within the plots in production, each year we cut the dead legs and pull out the dead feet, and we regularly replace the torn feet.
NM: What rootstock is used at La Mission?
J-PD: The rootstocks vary. They’re chosen according to the soil and the grape variety. To adapt to global warming, we currently tend to use those that are later and more resistant to drought. The rootstocks chosen in recent years are, for example, Gravezac, 420A, 3309 and 101.14.
NM: Both Haut-Brion and La Mission have been involved in clonal research. I remember visiting the laboratory on my first visit in the late 1990s with your father. Can you explain how this has been applied at La Mission Haut-Brion?
J-PD: Clonal selection began in 1978 in Haut-Brion under the leadership of Jean-Bernard Delmas. It involves identifying vines that are remarkably well-suited to our terroir, studying their oenological characteristics and planting them on selected plots, and then using them for re-planting. Since 1983, we’ve been choosing clones from our selection for our plots in Mission Haut-Brion, as for the plots in Haut-Brion. Over time, the selection criteria shifted to take climate change into account. We currently favor two criteria: the Total Polyphenol Index (TPI) and yields that are not too low. We no longer rely on the amount of sugar and low acidity as before.
NM: How do you determine the date that you will commence picking?
J-PD: The harvest date depends on the ripeness checks carried out in our laboratory, the weather, the sanitary conditions, and the berry tasting conducted by the technical team.
NM: How many harvesters do you normally use and where do you recruit them from?
J-PD: We have a team of 50 people, recruited locally in the Bordeaux area.
NM: Can you explain the sorting procedure at reception and how it has changed over the years? For example, which vintages saw the introduction of sorting tables and/or optical sorting? And do you have any idea how vintages in the 1950s or 1960s were sorted, if at all?
J-PD: The harvest has always been done by hand, and the grape pickers are responsible for sorting. So the harvest has always been sorted, even in the Fifties and Sixties. Sorting is now done in the vineyard and in the cellar, at the harvest reception, with sorting tables and a densiometric bath since 2014. This bath makes it possible to separate the sweetest berries from those that are less sweet.
A very pretty night shot of La Mission Haut-Brion.
NM: Do you conduct a pre-ferment cold maceration?
J-PD: No, we do not carry out pre-fermentation maceration.
NM: Can you describe the winery in detail?
J-PD: The La Mission Haut-Brion vat room consists of twelve 180hl vats dedicated to alcoholic fermentation and twelve 120hl vats reserved for malolactic fermentation, as well as a battery of small vats for the management of white wines and press wines. The tanks are equipped with thermoregulation and programmable pumping, with or without oxygen supply. The temperature and pumping-over procedures and the oxygen supply are adapted to the characteristics of the grapes in each vat and to the daily evolution of the fermenting wine. Depending on the results of the tasting, the regimen is constantly tweaked.
NM: What is the approach in terms of alcoholic fermentation for La Mission Haut-Brion? Is it different from that of Haut-Brion?
J-PD: The approach is to let the terroir speak, to take the best of what nature has given us. There is no notable difference between the two growths. For both, we adapt to the grapes in the tank, in terms of temperature kinetics, frequency and duration of pumping over.
NM: Can you explain the skin maceration techniques? Have these changed over the years?
J-PD: At the end of alcoholic fermentation, we leave the skins in contact with the fermented juice. This maceration makes it possible to continue extracting the tannins present in the skins. The question is when to stop it; tasting every day determines whether to continue or end this maceration. The tannins must remain supple and silky. The factors in play are temperature and time, the fundamental idea being to find balance regardless of the size of the tank. For the past 30 years, the search for a post-fermentation maceration at 30°C has not been on the agenda, given the levels of maturity obtained today by the grapes.
The current vat room at La Mission Haut-Brion.
NM: What is the average length of time the wine is aged in barrel? Has it always been the same?
J-PD: Aging in barrels now lasts about 16 months. That’s a little less than 30 years ago, when it tended to be around 18 months. The tannic material obtained today is indeed different from that obtained 30 years ago, and today it’s the shorter duration that we feel is most suitable.
NM: How much new oak is used and has that changed over the years? And what cooperages and toasting are used for La Mission?
J-PD: For the reds, on average, 75% new wood is used for the first wine. This proportion varies each year, between 60% and 85%, adapted to the vintage and in particular to the tannic load of the wine. Over time, we tend to reduce the proportion of new wood, to make wines that are not too woody and to favor the balance of tannins. The oak should support the wine without dominating it. The majority of the barrels come from Seguin Moreau. Their cooperage is present on the site, which allows the technical director to adjust the heating of the wood with the cooper. Others are Taransaud and Demptos. The toast is medium. We have always worked this way, with a percentage of reused barrels.
For the whites, we work with Seguin Moreau, Francis, Taransaud, Demptos and Plantagenet. These are now completely different barrels from those chosen for red wines. The percentage of new wood is around 40% to 45%. The barrels have volumes of 225 liters, 350 liters and 500 liters.
NM: How often is the wine racked?
J-PD: Racking takes place every three months for red wines. For white wines, the aging is on total lees and without racking. We do a traditional fining with egg white during the winter following the setting in barrels, and a final filtration is carried out before bottling.
NM: What is the normal production of the Grand Vin and the Second Wine?
The average production of the Grand Vin is 80,000 bottles per year. For the Second Wine, it’s 40,000 bottles per year.
The barrel cellar at La Mission Haut-Brion.
NM: How would you describe the style of La Mission Haut-Brion?
J-PD: Château La Mission Haut-Brion is above all the alliance of ripe, warm Merlot with the power and strength of Cabernet Sauvignon and the finesse of Cabernet Franc. The blend is often obvious, revealing very ripe red and black fruits on the nose, with spicy notes.
NM: The inevitable question: How does La Mission differ from Haut-Brion, and what are the factors that determine those differences?
J-PD: The plot of Château Haut-Brion and the plot of La Mission are similar, and the management of the vines is comparable. The framework is therefore identical, but every year we see a detailed specificity to each wine. It’s the magic of the terroir!
NM: In my experience, La Mission Haut-Brion can age as well as any Bordeaux. What enables a wine like that to age over so many years? Is it important that wines can be cellared long-term, or is approachability now more important?
J-PD: Both parameters are important: accessibility and retention over time. Wines made in later years may be affordable more quickly than in the past, but their age-ability has not changed.
NM: What is your favorite vintage to drink now?
J-PD: The 1998 La Mission Haut-Brion red is perfect for your next dinner with guests you care about.
NM: What is the greatest La Mission Haut-Brion that you have ever tasted? Conversely, are there vintages where you look back and think, that might have been better?
J-PD: My best memory is a vertical tasting of La Mission Haut-Brion with a group of amateurs, carried out over an entire weekend in Rio de Janeiro. The 1953, 1955 and 1959 were absolutely brilliant! Otherwise, from the vintages made by my father, another extraordinary trilogy would be 1988, 1989 and 1990.
The oldest La Mission Haut-Brion that I have tasted is the 1928, at the Amuse Bouche tasting in Hong Kong. This being the epicenter of fine wine, the La Mission naturally came in magnum. It was wonderful – ineffably complex on the nose and still sappy and quite structured on the finish – albeit not a vintage that I would cellar long-term. Still, if provenance is sound, you will find the 1928 in graceful, glacial decline. I have encountered its partner in crime, the 1929 La Mission Haut-Brion, on one occasion, and even though this came directly from the estate, it showed some volatility and a little more dryness toward the finish. I suspect there are better bottles out there. I have never tasted any vintages from the 1930s but have heard good reports on the 1934. Just a few months ago I celebrated the 1945, a perfect wine that can never receive enough superlatives. I unearthed a tasting note from a rare war vintage, a 1943 La Mission Haut-Brion that was poured blind at Saint-Julien restaurant; it was noble despite its ragged finish.
At Amuse Bouche, we enjoyed the 1950 La Mission Haut-Brion. It’s a little frail and slightly fatigued on the nose, though the palate is surprisingly vital, with only a touch of dryness surfacing toward the finish. But this pales against three legendary wines of the Fifties: 1953, 1955 and 1959. I’ve already written about the two bottles of the 1959 that I drank in Beaune and Bordeaux. The 1953 stands as one of the greatest wines of that year, and whereas some of its peers are in decline (if from lofty peaks), this possesses such density and power that I envisage it outlasting nearly every other claret.
However, if you want perfection, then we must talk about the 1955 La Mission Haut-Brion. I first encountered this at an early Southwold tasting. The late John Avery nonchalantly told our group how he was rifling through his cellar when he stubbed his foot against a dusty old case. Prying it open, he found a pristine case of 1955s still in their wrappers. (I wish that sort of thing happened at my house.) I have tasted the 1955 a few times since. This bottle at Amuse Bouche was, yet again, an easy triple-digit score, towering above almost every other claret I have tasted. Crystalline and pure with unerring symmetry, it is a finely chiseled La Mission-Haut-Brion that shows barely any signs of degradation. I would place this in my top five Bordeaux of all time. I also include notes from 1957 and 1958, off-vintages that show the estate’s knack for conjuring very good wines in challenging growing seasons.
The 1960s were a challenging decade for Bordeaux, with the exception of 1961 and 1966 (plus 1964 on the Right Bank). The 1961 La Mission Haut-Brion, opened in Hong Kong, flirts with perfection; this may be the best bottle of several encountered over the years. It has that tang of brine and Japanese nori on the nose, and exquisite balance and power on the palate, which is less sensual than the 1959, yet incredibly long, maintaining insistent grip on the finish. Certainly, the best of this decade is the 1966 La Mission Haut-Brion. This particular note relates to a half-bottle brushed off for dinner at the Four Seasons in London. Cedary, a little austere and lacking the breeding of the 1961, it will appeal to those who lament the loss of “proper claret,” whatever that means. I feel this is approaching the end of its drinking plateau, although large formats are probably chugging along nicely. Elsewhere, the 1964 is holding up well, even if it pales against the 1961 and the top Right Banks that year. I include notes from the original vertical in London that, uniquely, include all those terrible off-vintages that you hardly ever see, such as 1960, 1963 and 1965. Even La Mission Haut-Brion is unable to shrug off these rain- and rot-afflicted growing seasons, reeking of overcooked cabbage on the nose. These wines are of curiosity value only, with one exception: the 1967 La Mission Haut-Brion has a gamy allure despite some brettanomyces.
Again, the 1970s are marred by some very difficult vintages in the early years, though do not dismiss the 1974 La Mission Haut-Brion lightly. I used to taste this regularly at The Arches back in the day when it was on the list for almost nothing. If you can abide Bordeaux as bucolic as Worzel Gummidge, then you might appreciate this robust Pessac-Léognan. Controversially, I have never been an ardent fan of the lauded 1975 La Mission Haut-Brion. This is a wine that was put on a pedestal by its perfect score from Robert Parker, and I’ve never felt that it fully deserved it. Brutish and muscular, it’s a wine designed to impress rather than please the senses. It is very good, but I much prefer the 1978 La Mission Haut-Brion, which I have tasted several times. You’ll find a few notes in the database already.
The 1980s witnessed the changeover in ownership. I often forget when comparing the 1982 La Mission Haut-Brion with the 1982 Haut-Brion that the La Mission predates Domaine Clarence Dillon’s acquisition by a year. Tasted once again at the Hong Kong vertical, it’s a winsome, heart-warming Pessac-Léognan that is quintessentially 1982. While it doesn’t quite match the First Growth, you can guarantee that you will rue finishing your glass. This is at its peak now, but I foresee a very gradual decline. It was intriguing to examine this side-by-side with the follow-up. The 1983 La Mission Haut-Brion does not possess the depth of the 1982, but again, its sheer drinkability cannot be denied. Considering that this was Jean-Bernard Delmas’s maiden La Mission, he succeeded admirably in a less benevolent season. In the mid-Eighties, I have always far preferred the fleshier 1985 to the austere 1986, which lacks a bit of charm. Of course, these were precursors to the magnificent 1989 La Mission Haut-Brion, which I was able to compare directly with the 1990.
Having been fortunate enough to taste the 1989 La Mission Haut-Brion and the 1989 Haut-Brion side by side on a number of occasions, including at the château, I believe that after years of letting Haut-Brion hog the limelight, the 1989 La Mission Haut-Brion has now decided to shine. This is a stunning wine that has proven to be a little more consistent over the last four or five years than the 1989 Haut-Brion. Multi-dimensional, ineffably complex and astonishingly long, it possesses the pixelated nature of the 1955, and you come away with the feeling that it’s only just beginning to flex its muscles. At the end of the day, both are fabulous wines that put the other First Growths in the shade.
The 1989 La Mission Haut-Brion is such a brilliant wine that it overshadows the 1990 La Mission Haut-Brion. Here, the 1990 shows immense precision that you would never expect in a season that yielded powerful, rich wines. Full-bodied yet paradoxically weightless, it fans out wonderfully toward the finish, leaving behind touches of clove and white pepper. While it doesn’t quite have the otherworldly focus of the previous vintage, it ranks as one of 1990’s strongest wines. In subsequent years, I feel that La Mission Haut-Brion lost its way a little. Bottles from the early 1990s are competent yet can never hope to match the 1989 or 1990.
Though the 1992 La Mission Haut-Brion seems compromised by the challenging growing season, the 1991, 1993 and 1994 surpass modest expectations. Indeed, there was a time when the 1994 was so keenly priced in London restaurants that I found myself drinking “quite a few” bottles. Perhaps that’s why I find the 1995 a little underwhelming. It’s slightly gamy and lacking some charm, and personally, I prefer the more structured 1996.
The crowning achievement of the decade is, without question, the superb 1998 La Mission Haut-Brion. Often overlooked because the cognoscenti focus on the Right Bank, Pessac-Léognan in fact performed better than the Médoc in this year. Tasted at a dinner at Chez Bruce, the 1998 is a glorious, quite sumptuous wine with all the aromas you expect, such as hints of black olive and fresh tobacco. It’s precocious on the palate, leading to a velvety-smooth finish. I remember tasting this out of barrel in one of my first en primeur visits, and I love it now as much as I loved it then.
Since the turn of the millennium, La Mission Haut-Brion has stepped up another level, and vintages throughout the Noughties are certainly more consistent than those of the previous decade. The 2005 La Mission Haut-Brion is an outstanding wine displaying density and backbone, and certainly one to cellar for another 10 years. I have covered other vintages, such as 2009 and 2010, in previous reports, so they are already in the database. I have included the 2000 and 2001 La Mission Haut-Brion in this article; Jean-Philippe Delmas and I tasted them in June this year alongside Haut-Brion, which you will find in my upcoming “Bordeaux 2000 Versus 2001” article. On this occasion, I leaned toward the 2000 for its balance and salinity and its sensual finish. Great as it is, the 2001 does not quite deliver the same dimension or complexity.
The youngest vintage here is the 10-year-old 2011 La Mission Haut-Brion, which had the unenviable task of following 2009 and 2010. It showed well at a private dinner back when it was poured blind, robed in smooth tannins and perhaps revealing just a little new oak to be subsumed. Readers should note that I will re-taste this vintage blind as part of my “10 Years On” review. I’ve included a note here for later comparison.
I tasted the 2000 and 2001 La Mission Haut-Brion with Haut-Brion at the château with Jean-Philippe Delmas in June 2021. Readers will find the notes for the latter in my upcoming 2000 Versus 2001 Bordeaux article.
So, there we have it: La Mission Haut-Brion. This armada of tasting notes means that the Vinous database now covers every vintage from 1957 onward –including that missing 1997 La Mission Haut-Brion! I found a bottle at a decent price and with sound provenance from a merchant friend, and opened it over dinner in March 2021 to complete the set. Was it a revelation? Did it rank alongside the 1955 or 1989? Not quite. But it was a decent showing, and I must admit to some satisfaction at finally being able to cross this one off.
La Mission Haut-Brion has been one of my go-to Bordeaux wines since the salad days of my career, and it formed part of my education. Having tasted most of the First Growths since the 1950s on a number of occasions, I contend that La Mission Haut-Brion is their equal in breeding and complexity. And with the possible exception of Latour, it is certainly more consistent. Had it been included in the 1855 classification, La Mission Haut-Brion would have had a chance of becoming a First Growth, given market prices at the time of assessment. Alas, I can no longer afford to pick it off restaurant lists as I once did because prices have increased, which is a pity.
One notable change in recent years is the effect of global warming on alcohol levels. La Mission Haut-Brion can nowadays touch 15 degrees, whereas the 2000 and 2001 were 13.4 and 13.2 degrees, respectively. A combination of terroir and winemaking skill has managed to retain balance so that the elevated alcohol is barely noticeable. Time will tell how the wines will age.
At its peak, La Mission Haut-Brion is unmatched. The 1955 stands as one of the pinnacles of the 20th century, part of an exclusive club whose other members include the 1953 Lafite-Rothschild, the 1961 Latour, the 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, the 1983 Château Margaux and the 1989 Haut-Brion (which, with continued bottle age, the 1989 La Mission Haut-Brion may well surpass). But this estate also offers so much in off-vintages. While my notes don’t pull any punches, since there are vintages that didn’t make the grade, La Mission Haut-Brion has transcended many challenging growing seasons – including 1997. Mission complete.
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