Your Guide to Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion

By Gavin Smith

Mar 5th, 2020

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 Lazarists.

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

Bordeaux Today

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 second wines.

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.

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