Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion Vertical Tasting

Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, the highly regarded Pessac-Leognan property oft-referred to as the sixth First Growth, held, in conjunction with the Institute of Masters of Wine, a vertical tasting of selected vintages of its wines on February 3rd at London's Trinity House.  The tasting was hosted by HRH Prince Robert of Luxembourg, President of Domaine Clarence Dillon S.A. (owners of La Mission Haut-Brion as well as its more famous sibling Chateau Haut-Brion), and Jean-Philippe Delmas, Estate Manager. 

Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion is located in the Pessac-Leognan commune of the Graves sub-region of Bordeaux.  The estate produces three wines: Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion (the estate wine); La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion (the second wine); and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc. Vines for the red wines are grown on 26 hectares of gravelly soil layered on a sandy clay subsoil. The vineyard is planted to 43% Merlot, 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Cabernet Franc.  The grapes are hand-picked at harvesting and sorted in the fields.  The grapes for the estate wine are sourced from vines that average 27 years of age and the fermented juice is aged betwen 18 and 22 months in 80% new oak.  The second wine is made from grapes picked from vines up to 7 years old as well as lower-quality wine from older vines.

La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc was called Chateau Laville Haut-Brion prior to the 2009 vintage.  The grapes (87% Semillon and 13% Sauvignon Blanc) for this wine are grown on a 2.5 hectare plot where the vines average 63 years of age.

The wines on offer at the tasting were: La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion 2006; La Mission Haut-Brion (2005, 2003, 2001, 2000, 1998, 1990 and 1985); and Chateau Laville Haut-Brion 2006.  The tasting panel was comprised of Prince Robert of Luxembourg, Jean-Philippe Delmas, Richard Bampfield MW (moderator) and John Salvi MW.  Panelist introductions were conducted by John Salvi and, in his opening remarks, he noted that the Delmas family have been caretakers of Dillon properties for 84 years, beginning with George Delmas in 1923 and continuing through to Jean-Philippe who took over from his father in 2004.  In his remarks Prince Robert emphasized the "eminent history" of La Mission beginning with its founding in the early part of the 16th century.  According to Prince Robert, when Domaine Clarence Dillon bought La Mission in 1983, the vines were not in good shape but an extensive replanting program addressed that issue.  A new vat room was built in 1987 and a rebuilding of the remaining physical aspects of the estate launched soon thereafter.  The most significant accomplishment, from his perspective, has been the attainment of a greater regularity in the quality of the wine.

The first wine tasted was the 2006 La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion.  Beginning with the 2006 vintage, the grapes from the 5 hectares of the discontinued Chateau La Tour Haut-Brion, previously a distinct cru under the Dillon umbrella, was blended into La Chapelle.  The 2006 vintage, following the 2005, was widely anticipated but was a disappointment in Pomerol and Graves due to late rain and a hot July.  According to UK retailer BBR, this was, however, a very good vintage for Pessac-Leognan.  It was primarily a Cabernet vintage but Merlot was also picked in good condition. BBR thought that the Cabernets from some properties (La Mission, for example) were stunning and produced "fine, well-balanced wines." The final blend for this wine is assembled after in-cask malolactic fermentation.  In the case of the 2006 vintage, the blend was 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, and 20% Cabernet Franc.  The wine was aged in 80% new French oak  and had 13.5% abv.

The next wine tasted was the 2005 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion.  According to Jean-Philippe, 2005 was a dry year from winter through the end of harvest leading to what Chris Kissack called "... one of the greatest Bordeaux vintages of recent decades."  The final composition of the blend was 69% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 1% Cabernet Franc with alcohol levels of 14.5%.  This wine was ripe, rich, and powerful, exhibiting notes of black fruits, coffee, licorice and vanilla and a mild green florality.  Very long finish.

The third wine tasted was the 2003 La Mission Haut-Brion.  This was Europe's heatwave year, with an extremely hot August.  For this vintage, the chateau began harvesting fruit on August 13th, the earliest start date ever.  The Merlot harvest began on the 18th of August (the Merlot suffered, according to Jean-Philippe) and the Cabernet Sauvignon on September 10th.  The final composition of the blend was 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot, and 9% Cabernet Franc.  This wine was not as soft as the 2005 but had good structure and a finish of intermediate length.

The next wine tasted was the 2001 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion.  The 2001 vintage in Bordeaux was characterized by warm weather in ealy February followed by cooling in late February and through most of the growing season.  This cool weather was punctuated by rainfall in August.  Jancis Robinson views this vintage as "very nicely balanced" but geographically patchy.  BBR saw the best communes for reds as being St. Julien, Pauillac, Margaux, and Pessac Leognan.  The final La Mission blend for this vintage was 63% Merlot, 35 % Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2% Cabernet Franc.  This wine was reticent on the nose but had good weight on the palate, good balance, and a medium finish.

The 2000 vintage in Bordeaux was much anticipated and it delivered on its promise.  According to BBR, the weather leading up to harvest was excellent and rain was almost non-existent.  These conditions resulted in "ripe, succulent fruit" with "fine, firm tannins" and structure and depth reserved for only the finest Bordeauxs.  The composition of the 2000 La Mission Haut-Brion was 58% Merlot, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 11% Cabernet Franc.  On the nose this wine presented black fruit, cassis and vanilla.  It delivered on the palate along with a richness and lengthy finish.

The next wine in the series was the 1998 La Mission Haut-Brion.  The vintage was characterized by variable weather during the growing season and dry conditions during the Merlot harvest in early September.  Even though rain affected the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest in late September, the Pessac Leognan wines fared much better than their left-bank counterparts, probably because of their higher Merlot content.  This was a 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot blend for La Mission.  On the nose, notes of leather, dried black fruit, spices and olives.  On the palate, soft tannins integrated into the fruit, excellent balance, richness, and a long finish.

A hot, dry summer yielded rich, age-worthy wines all across Bordeaux in 1990.  The 1990 La Mission Haut-Brion blend in that year was 48% Merlot, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the remainder Cabernet Franc.  This wine is developing beautifully with bell pepper, cedar box, leather, graphite and an earthy minerality on the nose.  The tannins are less integrated and this provides a slight drying-out on the palate but overall this wine has great balance.

The last red in the series was the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion 1985.  That year was described by BBR as an "extremely successful year in Bordeaux which produced some of the most immediately seductive and appealing clarets in living memory."  On the nose this wine had great minerality, black fruit, leather, cedarbox, graphite and mild green beans.  It exhibited richness and great length on the palate.

In commenting on the 2006 dry white wines from Bordeaux, Chris Kissack found then to be "... vibrant, packed with flavor, bright and lively," the result of cool weather during August and a resultant gradual ripening with retention of aroma and freshness.  The 2006 Chateau Laville Haut-Brion was not the exception to this rule.  For this wine the blend was 86% Semillon and 14% Sauvignon Blanc with the former adding structure and the latter acidity.  On the nose tropical fruits, lime, grapefruit, honeydew melon, peaches, spice, and bland red pepper.  Fresh, with some heat, on the palate.

Jean-Philippe Delmas
Prince Robert of Luxembourg and Author
This was a wonderfully balanced tasting with two whites -- one rated 89-90 and the other 98 by Robert Parker -- and seven reds which, if the 2000 and 2005 vintages are excluded, average 92.8 points on Parker's scale; a good place to be, in my opinion, for balanced, food-friendly wines.


  1. Very good, I'm a tiny bit jealous. I would love to attend an event like this. I guess I'll just have to cuddle up to my new '05 chapelle la mission's for consoling. :)