Last Thursday I was privileged to have been invited to attend the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion vertical tasting hosted by HRH Prince Robert of Luxembourg and Jean-Philippe Delmas at The Institute of Masters of Wine in London. On the docket were 7 vintages of La Mission, along with additional vintages of La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion and Laville Haut-Brion (aka La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc) thrown in for good measure.
Moderated by Richard Bampfield, MW and with an enlightening introduction by John Salvi, MW (who has served as The Antique Wine Company’s consultant in Bordeaux for the past 20 years), the tasting offered some superb insight into the history, viticulture and winemaking practices of the La Mission estate. Among Bordeaux enthusiasts and experts La Mission is often regarded as the, ‘6th Great Growth’. On this occasion the wines continued to live up to their reputation, providing nearly 3 hours of pure tasting pleasure!
[Photo: (L-R) Richard Bampfield, MW, HRH Prince Robert of Luxembourg and Jean-Philippe Delmas]
A few salient points from the discussion and introduction:
- 2010 marked the 75th Anniversary of Clarence Dillon acquiring neighbouring property Chateau Haut-Brion in 1935. At the time of the purchase, Georges Delmas had already been director of the estate for 14 years and Seymour Weller (the newly appointed president of the company which would later became Domaine Clarence Dillon SA) retained him in that role. Today, along with HRH Prince Robert, the Delmas family is still part of the Haut-Brion legacy as embodied by estate manager Jean-Philippe, who is Georges’ grandson. When Clarence Dillon SA purchased La Mission Haut-Brion in 1983, the Delmas family also became integral to the success of the new estate, where Jean-Philippe additionally serves as manager. It certainly was a privilege to enjoy such wines in the presence of both the owner and winemaker of the chateau.
- Production levels are much lower than those of similar top properties. At only 26 ha in size, La Mission’s vineyard area is less than 50% of the size of Haut-Brion’s (which in turn is less than half the size of Lafite’s). La Mission’s vines average 26 years of age, whereas Haut-Brion’s average 36 years old.
- Some discussion took place regarding the micro-climate at the estate. Urban sprawl is taking a toll as spreading development means that new pavement absorbs and radiates heat back into the surrounding environment. Average temperatures in Bordeaux continue to get warmer and warmer each year and the average level of precipitation is also dropping. This is making it more difficult to find balance in the blending process and means that Cabernet Sauvignon is becoming consistently more prevalent than Merlot. Petit Verdot may become a variety which is also used more often because of these climate changes. Temperatures at Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion are routinely 1-2˚C higher than at Lafite. Additionally, until 1990 chapitalization was almost always necessary and now it is hardly ever practiced.
[Photo: The Tasting Panel (L-R) - John Salvi, MW, Jean-Philippe Delmas, HRH Prince Robert of Luxembourg, and Richard Bampfield, MW]
- In order to maintain quality and control alcohol, extensive measures are taken in the vineyard including the use of special clones bred for the local ecosystem. The vineyard managers follow the individual progress of as many as 5000 vines at a time. Despite the estate’s best efforts (and to their dismay), alcohol levels continue to creep up each vintage. It was hinted that 2010 may be as high as 15% ABV.
- The barrel programme for the Grand Vin is never 100% new oak, but instead hovers around the 75% level in order to improve the fine tannin integration. By owning a cooperage, the estate also ensures that the correct level of barrel toast is properly managed.
Tasting Notes -
2006 La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion (2nd Wine)
“Touch of cinnamon on the aroma. Slight clarity at the rim. Great fruit. Mineral characteristics persist on the palate.”
John Salvi, MW - “Brilliant colour, but not deep. Clean, fresh gentle fruit on nose. Bright acidity. Very ripe. Long and mouth-filling. Rich finish. Growing and expanding. Lingering. Long, ripe aftertaste. Rich and delicious.”
2005 La Mission Haut-Brion
“Nose a bit closed but completely clean. Solid acid on the palate with liquorice, coffee and excellent texture. Long finish. How is this freshness attained despite the high (but still balanced) alcohol levels? Amazing.” Note: Prince Robert commented here, “We have never sought wines with over-extraction at the expense of sacrificing acidity.”
John Salvi, MW - “Deep vivid colour. Powerful nose, still integrating steadily and smoothly. Bright, crisp, slightly lemony acidity. Lovely balance. Nowhere near ready but will last a long time. A very dry year giving a very concentrated taste.”
2003 La Mission Haut-Brion
“Colour a bit more faded than the 2005 but with more red fruit present. Fairly ripe tannins and a slightly fading finish. More Cabernet in the blend at approx. 52%.”
John Salvi, MW - “Powerful wine. Deep concentration. Excessively hot year but brilliant winemaking has preserved freshness and crisp acidities. Rich, deep fruit. Totally Cabernet Sauvignon dominated. Solid structure, long finish. Wonderful huge wine. May not last as long as originally expected.”
2001 La Mission Haut-Brion
“Quite good colour and no faults. Much lighter weight and thinning a touch on the finish. Unusually high percentage of Merlot (62%).”
John Salvi, MW - “Above all, has charm. This is a gracious, elegant, pure wine of great finesse. Drink now with pleasure or keep for many more years. Silky, integrated tannins. A joy to taste.”
2000 La Mission Haut-Brion
“Huge difference from the 2001. Deep colour, solid to the rim. Sweet and dense. Chewy tannins which dominate but are fully integrated. A big wine with a long finish and an extended life ahead of it. Bravo!”
John Salvi, MW - “Deep fine colour. Gorgeous, deep focused nose. A very big, deep wine still relatively closed today on nose. Acids however are fresh and bright. Powerful flavours. Long in mouth and lingering on the aftertaste. Wait patiently and this will be a stunning wine. Flavours are intense but will smooth out to show great beauty.”
1998 La Mission Haut-Brion
“Another Merlot dominated blend. Very elegant and expressive aroma. Nose is complex rather than powerful. Raisins and dried fruits on the palate, lovely sweet taste. Typically elegant Bordeaux. Classical. Perfect maturity to drink today.”
John Salvi, MW - “The first wine beginning to show maturity. Deep rich colour. Lovely pure fruit nose of Cabernet Sauvignon. Great finesse and purity. Smooth yet powerful. Gracious, long, balanced and elegant. Perfect example of an iron fist in a velvet glove. Will last for many more years.”
1990 La Mission Haut-Brion
“Mushrooms and forest floor on the nose. A pleasing gamey note adds complexity. Lovely nutty oloroso colour. Low alcohol. Leather, sweet raisins, pencil lead and cedar. Brilliant wine!”
John Salvi, MW - “Possibly my favourite wine today. Combines ripeness and richness with delicacy, freshness, purity and elegance. A rare work of art. Strong flavours with voluminous tannins perfectly integrated. Total individuality. It is coming out now from the shadow of the ultra-concentrated 1989. Will last many years.”
1985 La Mission Haut-Brion
“Nose not so expressive, but has a clean aroma with a touch of thyme and wild herbs. Orange tinged colour. Delightful texture on the palate with mineral notes. Medium weight, not jammy. Very elegant with a long finish.”
John Salvi, MW - “Wonderful youthful colour and freshness. This is a great wine and today many preferred it to the 1990 (but not me!). Smooth, gentle, mature yet vigorous and vital with bright, clean, young-tasting acids. Silky soft yet with the intense energy of a younger wine. A great lesson on how to mature gracefully. Wine will be good for another 30 years.”
2006 Laville Haut-Brion (aka La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc)
“Lime and lemongrass on the nose. Bright straw gold colour. Sauvignon gooseberry fruit comes to the fore and is more present than the Semillon. High acidity, delightfully youthful.”
John Salvi, MW - “Cask fermented. Matured on lees with stirring for 10 months. No malolactic. Sauvignon fresh with lemon/lime crisp acids. Mineral and fresh energy. Drinks as of now and is hugely satisfying.”
Note: This wine was barrel fermented and aged sur lie in 55% new oak. It did not undergo malolactic fermentation during the 10 months it spent in barrel but was subjected to regular battonage. Between 200 and 800 cases of this wine are produced each year from a 3.5 ha parcel which is 85% Semillon (although the blend varies from year to year).
During the post-tasting discussion, many questions were asked regarding the status of the 2010 vintage. All of the tasters wanted to know what to expect during our forthcoming annual pilgrimage to taste the wines in April. It was revealed that at both Haut Brion and La Mission, the final Grand Vin blends are assembled before the wines go into to cask, not afterwards. This is unusual and is not the practice at most chateaux. Consequentially, the wines we taste at Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion during en primeur week are not special ‘one off’ samples but are instead tastes of the actual wine that will be bottled. For the 2010 Grand Vin, the estate conducted between 20 and 30 different blending trials in order to pinpoint exactly what they wanted the final blend to be.
Of course the 2010 vintage is yet to be tasted, but the talk is that the vintage has proven to be another great year, and La Mission and has the potential to be even better than 2009.
Chateau La Mission Haut Brion remains one of my favourite estates. The wines are comparable to those of any other top chateau in Bordeaux and they continue to show an exceptional capacity for ageing.
Contact us to enquire about our current availability of La Mission Haut Brion.