Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Vertical tasting of la Mission Haut-Brion

March 2011. The Graves region of Bordeaux covers some 2570 hectares of vineyard south of the city and good wines are produced all over. The most prestigious properties, though, are all found at the northern end, in an enclave called Pessac-Léognan, the part closest to Bordeaux. The area under vine there is 1130 hectares, about 250 of which produce white wines.


Years ago Jacques Marly, late owner of Château Malartic-Lagravière, declared to me: “No single Graves château is absolutely typical. They’re all different. Pape Clément is uniquely Pape CIément. Domaine de Chevalier has a style of its own. Haut-Bailly is more Iike a Pomerol than a Graves. Malartic is Malartic. Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion are next door to each other but completely different…”


If all Graves are different some are more different than others. And the most different of the lot is surely La Mission Haut-Brion. It has the most pronounced personality of all. It’s bigger, burlier, than the rest, with a musculature that gives it an affinity with an Hermitage in a top vintage, sharing that growth’s “masculine” style. On balance, though, it has most in common with a foremost Saint-Estèphe – Montrose for example. Sinewy, even wiry, in youth, it fills the mouth with emphatic fruit bolstered by firm tannins. As it ages, it develops a harmony and poise that places it among the most intricate and profound of clarets.


La Mission was owned and run for many decades by the Woltner family, under whose stewardship the château earned the reputation as closest rival to Haut-Brion. In 1983 it was acquired by Domaine Clarence Dillon, who were already proprietors of Haut-Brion, which in 1855 had achieved the unique distinction of being co-opted to First Growth status in the official classification of the Médoc.
Fears were expressed at the time of the takeover that the distinctions between the two might become blurred.


I was a fairly frequent visitor in those days, when I was invariably received by Jean-Bernard Delmas. who continued to vinify both wines (and a couple others) into the 2000s, before being succeeded by his son, Jean-Philippe Delmas. (Though in his mid-70s, Jean-Bernard did not retire: very aptly he took over the running of …Château Montrose in Saint-Estèphe!)


At my prompting, Jean-Bernard Delmas often talked about the possible reasons why La Mission Haut-Brion was so different from Haut-Brion. “The wines are very distinct,” he said, “and we don’t really know why. We can’t find any objective differences in the soils – though there may be! – only that the stones at Haut-Brion are bigger. Another factor might be the difference in the vats at the two properties. Those at La Mission are short, squat. They have to be, to fit into the cellars there. Short, wide vats give more skin contact and greater extraction than high, narrow ones, such as those at Haut-Brion. That might explain why La Mission usually has a deeper colour and more power than Haut Brion.”


Yet another factor (in those days at least) was the grape-mix. La Mission was then planted with 60% Cabernet-Sauvignon, which gives dark, tannic wines, while Haut-Brion had only 55% – a difference of almost 10%.


Intriguingly, the proportions at both have changed radically over the intervening years, with the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon dropping considerably. They now stand at 44% at Haut-Brion and 47% at La Mission. Both now have 10% Cabernet-Franc. which Delmas père greatly valued for its “extreme finesse.”


The impressive portal of Château La Mission Haut-Brion, "one of the most intricate and profound of clarets".

Now to the tasting, which was hosted by the Masters of Wine and presided over by Prince Robert of Luxembourg, representing the Dillon family, and by Jean-Philippe Delmas.


“We have many different root stocks and a very varied terroir,” declared M. Delmas, who shows the same commitment to quality as his father. “We manage each individual plot as if it were a single vineyard. As to wood, we never use 100% new oak, just 70 to 75%. We only use three suppliers of oak, with Moreau” (a highly prestigious cooper) – “accounting for about 80% of the total. We produce the actual casks ourselves, with coopers from Moreau working at the Château”.


In round terms, the La Mission vineyard is currently planted with 45% each Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot, with the Cabernet-Franc accounting for the 10% balance. “The Cabernet-Franc only gives of its best every five years or so. Then it’s great. In some vintages the Cabernet-Sauvignon dominates, in others it’s the Merlot. In one year – 2003 – the Cabernet-Sauvignon was very much in the majority.”


****


2006 LA CHAPELLE DE LA MISSION HAUT-BRION (La Mission’s second wine) ***

This has a limpid plum-purple “robe” and an elegant, cedary smell of plum, prune, chocolate, and underbrush. Contact with the air brings forth supplementary scents of cinnamon and cherry compote.


The full, earthy flavour is initially dominated by the round, voluptuous Merlot grape while the denser Cabernet-Sauvignon is relatively subdued. The wine grows more intricate, showing good texture and length without any false note. Approachable in three years’ time, it should improve for a further 10-12.


This would show well with calf’s sweetbreads with morels in veal gravy…


2005 CHATEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION ****(*) 14.5° alc.

Rich in pigment, this has a dense, complex nose of black fruits, smoke, sweet prune, and swarf. Packed with La Mission personality, its Cabernet and Merlot components are seamlessly melded. Despite the unwontedly high alcohol, and the wine’s sheer power, it shows balance and restraint, with all manner of sub-flavours presenting themselves in sequence on a long finish that turns increasingly mineral. A wine to forget for 8-10 years as a prelude to 18-20 more of sublime drinkability.


2003 CHATEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION ***(*) 13° alc.

A dark and brawny wine that smells of roast chestnut, cherry jam, chocolate, and underbrush. Though very dense it has an aerial quality too – an essential attribute in so hot a vintage, when many wines are heavy and drily tannic. The Cabernet-Sauvignon is in the ascendant, accentuating the wine’s massiveness and firm tannic structure. Truffle is one of the many rivulets of sub-flavour. After an hour or so it gets still more tannic, even bitter, which sets off warning signals: is it too dry, too wirily tannic? But no: it rounds out again after a while, showing sweetness and roundness.

This is a firm, very tannic wine similar to a “good” 1975 – one with enough fruit to outlive the more abrasive elements. Indeed, it may turn out similar to La Mission’s own 1975 – one of the greatest three or four wines of that vintage. A long-lived wine, at best around 2023 – 45.


2001 CHATEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION ****(*) 13.5° alc.

The silky, close-meshed aroma exhales a meld of elderberry, truffle, black fruits, and dark chocolate. The dense Cabernet-Sauvignon is at the wine’s core, while the fleshy Merlot imparts a flowery (carnation) element. The nose soon expands to incorporate fig and pitch and shows real distinction. The vinous flavour is fresh and harmonious, with optimal concentration, suggesting black cherry, truffle, smoke, and espresso. The tannic aftertaste is assertive, and I find myself thinking of Château Montrose…

A poised, intense wine of excellent balance, to enjoy around 2020-40. And it only costs a fraction of the 2000!


2000 CHATEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION ***** 13° alc.

The very colour – a glorious black-purple with winking scarlet highlights – promises greatness. This is confirmed by a magnificent aroma that’s immensely complex and as round as a globe. A seamless meld of Cabernet and Merlot fruit generates gusts of black cherry, cigarbox, truffle, and violet. It’s a bouquet that never ceases to develop. The flavour, flawlessly balanced, is exceptionally pure; it is given tension by perfect tannins. After 20 minutes the diffident Cabernet-Franc imparts a touch of graphite (clearly that variety is on top form in 2000). A truly great La Mission that will improve for at least 40 years.


1998 CHATEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION *** 13° alc.

A touch paler than the others, the ‘’98 has a round, juicy aroma of cherry, pitch, and carnation. That the latter smell is so prevalent suggests that the Merlot grape dominates in this vintage. This tallies with a texture that is smoother and more sensuous than usual – and less tannic. It’s the most forward wine in the tasting, and the lightest. It’s also the one with the least pronounced La Mission character. That doesn’t stop it being a very good wine that will drink very well up to 2025 and possibly beyond.


(It transpired that the Merlot accounted for 50% of this bottling, with the Cabernet-Franc (another lighter variety) representing 15%; the heavyweight Cabernet-Sauvignon’s share was thus a mere 37%.).


1990 CHATEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION ***** 13° alc.

This 20-year-old’s “robe” is a feast for a claret lover’s eye, for that nuanced, glowing colour is only found in top wines that have developed tertiary aromas, those that come with maturity. The gamy (well-hung hare) aroma is very evolved, exhaling truffle, strawberry compote, and prune. It’s so sweetly aromatic, in fact, that you could almost mistake it for a Vosne-Romanée. The flavour is quite Burgundian, too, but in the end Pessac earthiness and Cabernet rigour assert themselves. The finish is buoyant and very mineral and the truffle element is strengthened. This is lovely now but will get even better over the next 15 years at least. It cries out for a truffled dish.


1985 CHATEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION ***(*)

A nuanced plum-purple (maturity gives gradations of colour), this has a noble, smoky bouquet of bilberry, damson, and lead pencil (from the Cabernet-Franc). It’s a beautifully poised aroma, faintly gamey, a delicate tracery of scents. On the palate, it’s more reserved than the flamboyant ’90, but just a bit dry on the finish (odd, in an ‘85, the most succulent vintage of the ‘80s). Very good, but not a top ‘85, to drink over the coming decade, even if unlikely to improve. Good with leg or shoulder of lamb.

The great Chai itself - "a modern cathedral of wine" - packed with barrels filled to the brim with maturing La Mission Haut-Brion.

A tasting of seven vintages of a great wine is a notable occasion, even if it can prompt as many questions as it answers. How do the Dillon vintages compare with those of the Woltner era? In what way have changes in vinification and alterations in the grape-mix impacted on the supposedly innate characteristics of the two growths? Are the differences less pronounced now, or more so? Or have they grown more similar, exhibiting a kind of house style, no matter how refined? It would require a vast comparative tasting of dozens of vintages from both regimes to answer these very pertinent questions.


I could at least, on my return home, sample what few vintages I possessed of La Mission. The choice was not great: just three. Only one of these was from the Woltner period : the 1961. Of good appearance, with a level into neck, it had a good label and the capsule was intact. I’d bought it in Sweden, many years ago, from a state monopoly shop. It cost SEK 100, equivalent in today’s prices to around £80.


It was unlikely to be in perfect condition however. I’d initially stored it at a tiny country cottage we’d owned, out in the Stockholm archipelago, in a very small, shallow cellar that got so cold in winter that I’d had to install a thermostatic heater in it, to prevent the temperature from falling too low. Unfortunately, the heater had broken down in mid-winter, when we’d been absent for a couple of months, and the precious bottle (and some others) had been exposed to sub-zero temperatures for some time. I then moved the bottle to our Stockholm flat, storing it in a dark cubby-hole that, while not ideal, was the best we could manage. When I moved back to the UK in 1987 I’d brought it with me: at long last it could repose in a perfect cellar.


A bit of googling elicted the fact that this 50-year-old glass cylinder, filled with a dark-red liquid of conjectural quality, would now command a price of around £1400-1500.


Clearly, the sensible thing to do would be to sell it, and use the proceeds to acquire 10-20 bottles of other coveted, but more reasonably priced, wines. Only a fool, or somebody deluded, would do otherwise.

So I opened the bottle.

The top of the capsule came away neatly, but the cork broke, leaving the very crumbly bottom third still in the neck of the bottle. Somehow I was able to extract that intractable little wodge without any fragments falling into the wine, which was then decanted with extra special care.


The colour was a promisingly deep aubergine purple, with an oxblood rim. The bouquet, initially shy, quickly expanded, sending up subtle wafts of sealing wax, mushroom, prune, and dried fig. It filled out in the glass, growing distinctly truffly, with a smoky aspect and a degree of tannic rigour. After a while I could smell molasses too (typical of clarets from the era).


What was clear was that, au fond, this was a great wine but not a great bottle – the stresses and strains it had undergone over the years precluded that. Had the bottle been stored under perfect conditions it would have been of mind-blowing quality, the kind of wine one can compare, in terms of balance, complexity, and sheer excellence, with a Beethoven symphony or the facade of a great cathedral. Even so, it was eminently drinkable, not to say memorable…


Of my other two vintages, the ’86 (still fairly closed up) was left untouched, but I did uncork the more accessible 1988. Here’s how it showed:


1988 CHATEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION ***(*)

A solid black-purple, with very slight browning, this has a  fine, elegant aroma with a discernable Cabernet-Franc (graphite, purple cherry) component within the dominant Cabernet-Sauvignon scent of damson and black cherry. As always with complex wine, the nose continues to expand, bringing a fresh wave of scents: cigarbox, prune, blackcurrant, chocolate. This very precise smell leads into a flavour along the same lines. Elegant, harmonious, and long, with a touch of liquorice on the finale. At this stage, though, the wine’s a bit on the light side. One would welcome a bit more volume. The decanter, still half full, is set aside, to be re-tasted the next day.


Sampling it again 24 hours later is an illuminating experience, very revealing about the true nature of Château La Mission Haut-Brion. There was no oxidation whatever. In fact, the wine had grown fuller, rounder, fresher, and deeper. At this stage one was confronted by a really exceptional wine, one that was sure to go on improving for a decade or two. I couldn’t help reflecting that, if I hadn’t re-tasted the wine a full day later, I would not have known this. One thing was sure: a 22-year-old wine from a middling vintage that can perform like this must possess an unusual capacity to age extremely well. And such a wine could only come from a terroir that is well and truly exceptional. And that is precisely what Château La Mission Haut-Brion, leading growth of Pessac-Léognan, is all about.

The entrance to La Mission's Chai is as monumental and striking as the wine itself. The ecclesiastical style is explained by the fact that the estate was owned by a religious order in the 18th century.

The Masters of Wine tasting also featured one vintage of La Mission’s famous white wine, Château Laville Haut-Brion (to be called Château La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc from the 2009 vintage):


2006 CHATEAU LAVILLE HAUT-BRION ****

The colour is that luminous green-gold of top whites that have been vinified and matured in new (or newish) oak barrels. The full, noble aroma conjures up greengage and gooseberry (from the Sauvignon) and pineapple and kiwi fruit. The structured flavour, bolstered by the wood, is complex and rich, with a fleshiness like that of a fine white Burgundy. Dense yet vibrantly fresh, as luscious as a ripe peach, it grows increasingly grapefruity on the finish which is very mineral. The aftertaste is stony and shows great power, and I’m reminded of a Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, the most reticent of Burgundy’s six Grand Cru whites.


Laville Haut-Brion comes from a 3.5 hectare vineyard planted with an unusually high 85% Semillon and only 15% Sauvignon Blanc. It is vinified in the same way as white Burgundy – fermented and matured in oak barrels and subjected to periodic bâtonnage (the frequent stirring of the lees with a rod to obtain greater extraction).


If oxidation is avoided (not always the case), a white Graves such as this can live and improve for many, many years. Tasted at their peak, they can be as complex and profound as any white wine on earth.


© Frank Ward 2011

Photos : courtesy Domaine Clarence Dillon

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