Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion is one of the greatest estates in all of Bordeaux, arguably the King of the Left Bank. Robert Parker has awarded it more 100 point scores than any other wine in the Medoc, equalling Petrus in achieving 12 perfect 100 point scores.
Of course, the reputation and quality of the wines from this estate long predate the modern-day critics. Prior to the 1855 classification, Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion was one of the most expensive wines in Bordeaux, second only to its historic neighbour Chateau Haut-Brion.
The two properties are both owned by the Dillon family (Domaine Clarence Dillon) who bought Chateau Haut-Brion in 1935 and purchased Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion 48 years later, in 1983. We caught up with Deputy Managing Director Jean-Philippe Delmas and Sales Director Guillaume-Alexandre Marx to find out what makes this Chateau so special.
In The Vineyard
Since taking over the property in 1983 the Dillon family undertook a major effort to upgrade the estate. They initially focused on the vineyards. Substantial investments were made to replant vines on some of the finest gravel soil in Bordeaux.
Over the years, each and every plot of La Mission Haut-Brion has been replanted with the grape
varietal best suited to it. These vines are now an average of 30 years old. The
high vine density (10,000 vines per hectare) is conducive to intense wines
whose hallmark is their unique charm. Starting with the 1991 vintage, a second
red wine was created at La Mission: La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion.
The vines that originally produced the second wine starting in 1991 have since aged, and now
produce a wine of exceptional quality. However, another factor is also of great
importance. In 2006, the vineyard of Château La Tour Haut-Brion, another
estate belonging to Domaine Clarence Dillon, was integrated into that of La
Mission Haut-Brion. Starting with this same vintage, all the
grapes from La Tour Haut-Brion’s vineyard, a Classified Growth of Graves in
1953, went into La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion, making the second wine of
La Mission a truly fine wine.
The Pessac Leognan Terroir
Wines from the Pessac Leognan have a unique, distinct fired
earth, tobacco, spice note that are not found elsewhere on the Left Bank giving
the wines an added aromatic complexity. Haut-Brion stands for hillock and the
vineyards of both Haut-Brion and Mission Haut-Brion are planted on these raised
hillocks with distinct gunzian gravel soils giving the wines good drainage and
exposition, as well as retaining the typicity of the aromatic complexity
consistent with the Pessac Leognan region.
The other important elements to Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion is that they are the first winery to harvest in Bordeaux, picking their
Merlot before anyone else in Bordeaux due to the specific climate and
exposition at the property. They typically start to pick the Merlot at the end
of August / early September, benefiting from the warmer summer months enabling
veraison earlier and avoiding the risk of wetter weather in the latter part of
September. Despite the vineyards neighbouring Chateau Haut-Brion there are
distinct differences between the styles of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. First the vine density and the positioning of the vines in La Mission
Haut-Brion are very different with the vines planted at a density of 10,000
vines per hectare compared to Haut-Brion at 8,000.
The vines at La Mission Haut-Brion are positioned from North
to South and therefore the sun exposure is felt much more, heightening the
sun’s effect on the wine. La Mission Haut-Brion is therefore more concentrated,
has more intensity of flavour and typically riper fruit character compared with
Haut-Brion. Haut-Brion is more gentler, more refined style providing potentially
greater elegance, and potentially more earthy, savoury terroir
character rather than fruit intensity. Tasting the two together they are so different
and are wonderful contrasts in style despite them being neighbouring vineyards
made by the same team.
La Mission Haut-Brion is also half the size of Haut-Brion in
terms of vineyards and production levels. Haut-Brion has 50 hectares under vine
and typically produces 100,000 bottles each year. La Mission Haut-Brion has
just 25 hectares under vine and produces 50,000 bottles each year. The
production on both is a lot smaller compared to the other First Growths of
Chateau Margaux, Lafite, Latour and Mouton Rothschild.
In The Winery
A new, ultra-modern vat house was installed, opened to mark the 1987 vintage, followed
by significant renovations to the
château, chapel and cellars. In 1996, a new bottling chain was introduced and a
new tasting room was built, christened the Chapter Room, in honour of the
In 2007, new cellars were built, plus a tasting room sculpted by the best Italian
woodworkers, which now features original engravings by Albrecht Dürer, plus a bottling
centre and an improved storage area.
However, the jewel in the crown of this major renovation project is a vibrant new tribute to
the Lazarist brothers. Returning to the Frontenac quarries – which in the 18th
century supplied the stone for the most beautiful monuments in Bordeaux– the
estate chose this material to build the Grand Chai, described as a “modern
cathedral to wine".
The Consistency at La Mission Haut-Brion
Arguably there is more consistency in quality throughout the
vintages in wines from Pessac Leognan, since Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and
Cabernet Franc play distinctive rolls in the region allowing for the assemblage
to vary depending on which of the varieties have performed the best in each
vintage. In Pauillac for example they are much more reliant on the performance
of their Cabernet Sauvignon which makes up typically over 80% of the blend.
The winemaking team is exactly the same at both Haut-Brion
and La Mission Haut Brion. The winemaking team at Haut-Brion has in fact been
within the same family for three generations of the Delmas family going back to
1923. Since 1988 the same team of three– Jean-Philippe Delmas, Jean-Philippe
Masclef (Technical Director) and Pascal Baratié (Vineyard Manager) have been
making the wines at both properties providing a very consistent style across both
Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion.
From left to right: Pascal Baratie, Jean-Philippe Delmas, Jean-Philippe Masclef
With the global warming effect in the last twenty years tannins are riper and the quantity is
higher. This means the team have to pay more attention on the extraction process than before. They have tried to
maintain the balance and the freshness. The tendency being to shorten the length
of maceration. Thanks to the level of ripeness the wines according to Jean-Philippe can drink sooner than before
without altering the ageing potential. In fact, the window of accessibility is
wider than ever before.
The second wine made at Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion is the
highly regarded La Chapelle la Mission Haut-Brion. The grapes are treated
exactly the same whether they go into the first or second wine. Each year, the
27 individual parcels at Mission Haut-Brion are vinified separately. The wines are
then tasted blind by the team and it is at this point the wines are separated
into the Grand Vin and the second wine. All the wines are then typically aged
for 15 to 18 months in barrels with a lower proportion of new oak used in the
The greatest vintages of La
Mission Haut-Brion are the ’75 ’98, ’90 and 2000. Guillaume states “They are some
of the finest wines I have ever tasted and show the quality of the property at
its best. For me they are the epitome of the La Mission Haut-Brion style. The
1998 La Mission Haut-Brion is drinking beautifully right now.”
The 2019 Vintage
Asked about the upcoming 2019 release, Guillaume is very
excited about the vintage. It is the first vintage since 1998
where the three varieties of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are all
at the same high quality with not one varietal performing better than the
other. Early tastings around the region shows there is some variation in
quality from appellation to appellation but he is super happy with the quality
in 2019, even more so than the excellent 2018. It is similar to ’18 but the
Spring weather in 2018 was very difficult in the vineyards and the vintage was
saved by a fantastic summer. In 2019 the weather was much more consistent right
up until harvest.