“Château La Mission Haut-Brion instantly reveals its immense charm, Château Haut-Brion starts out more restrained.”
They have been evolving side by side for 35 years, with a committed owner and exemplary management stamping the development of both wines with the same ambition. They also benefit from the same remarkable expertise and the magic of terroirs that quickly reach perfect maturity. The resulting two wines are both of the finest quality, but here the similarity ends. In the glass each of these Pessac-léognan properties has its own distinct character, to the point where comparison becomes futile. Their positioning, determined by the owner, is now at last reflecting this reality, and perceptions among professionals and connoisseurs alike are changing, with increased appreciation of Château La Mission Haut-Brion and confirmation of the excellence of Château Haut-Brion. We talked to the lucky Estate Manager, Jean-Philippe Delmas.
“The oldest luxury brand in the world.” This was how the owner of château Haut-Brion, HRH Prince Robert of luxembourg, described the vineyard. And indeed, a record was recently found of the sale of a wine called “Aubrion” dated 1521, a few years before the estate was officially founded by Jean de Pontac. The Pontac dynasty was followed by other families who played a major role in the history of the estate, the most recent being the Dillons. An American banker with French roots on his mother’s side, clarence Dillon fell in love with the land of fine wines and bought château Haut-Brion in 1935. The estate then passed to his children, Dorothy and Douglas Dillon, and then to Douglas’s daughter Joan Dillon who, in 1967, married HRH Prince charles of luxembourg. In 1975 Joan took over management of the château and, in 1983, bought the property next door, château la Mission Haut-Brion. Today her son HRH Prince Robert of luxembourg represents the fourth generation of the Dillon family as cEO of Domaine clarence Dillon. The story of château la Mission Haut-Brion begins at a similar date (1540) and, then as now, there was kinship – by marriage – between the two estates, since founder Arnaud de lestonnac was the husband of Jean de Pontac’s sister Marie. Most of the vineyard was planted at this time, on the model of Haut-Brion. The priests of the congrégation de la Mission subsequently settled on the estate, boosting its fortunes until the French Revolution. After a series of owners who developed the vineyard’s reputation, in 1983 it was sold to Joan Dillon
on behalf of the family – her son HRH Prince Robert of luxembourg, was only 15 years old at the time, but was present when the bill of sale was signed.
Château Haut-Brion and château la Mission Haut-Brion have both been Graves crus classés since 1953, but the former long reigned supreme in most people’s minds. This was partly due to the positioning previously decided by the Dillons, but also because château Haut-Brion was
named a Premier Grand cru classé in 1855, alongside four wines from the Médoc. But now the old hierarchy is fading. The owner has reviewed the market positioning of the two estates and today tasters automatically tend to form their opinions once their noses are in the glass. Each wine has its own clear identity, making it a pointless exercise to compare them or set one above the other. There’s no great difference in style – both are classic Bordeaux of the purest kind – but each has its own palette of flavors, which trained enologist Jean-Philippe Delmas describes as follows: “Haut-Brion starts out restrained, although already it has a pleasing richness; as it ages it develops complexity, with smoky notes typical of the Graves soils. It also stands out through the depth and elegance of its tannins. By contrast, La Mission Haut-Brion reveals its great charm from the first, filling the mouth with mellow tannins that are intrinsic to it and quite exceptional, so that it can be enjoyed without necessarily having to wait ten years.”
So what causes these nuances of taste? certainly not the care given to the vines and the wines they produce, which are identical at each property. Both wines are made by the same team, under the supervision of technical director Jean-Philippe Masclef and vineyard manager Pascal Baratié. “There’s no poor relation,” says Jean-Philippe Delmas, who works equally hard for both estates, endowing each with the same energy and the renowned Delmas expertise that has been passed down from father to son over three generations – Jean-Philippe is the worthy successor to grandfather Georges, who joined Haut-Brion in 1923, and father Jean-Bernard, who arrived in 1961. Nor, it seems, can the different personalities of the two wines be ascribed to the blends, for which there is no predetermined domi-nant grape. The main variety in each vintage is the one that is most perfectly ripe due to the specific weather conditions of that year, which almost always produces the same favorite in both vineyards. “Haut-Brion 2010 has a majority of cabernet-sauvignon (57%); the 2009 has more merlot (46%). We have the same variation in the vintage history for La Mission Haut-Brion, where the 2010 again has a lot of cabernet-sauvignon (62%), and the 2009 is more orientated towards merlot (47%), like its neighbor. So you won’t find any specific identity in the blends, or in the aging, with 80% new wood for both wines.”
Where selection is concerned, rigor is the watchword in both estates. “Our second wines are reduced models of their respective Grands Vins”, except that Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, named in 2007, also has some petit verdot (1% of the vineyard). In the estate next door, grapes that don’t make it into the first wine go into La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion, a second wine whose quality has been further refined since 2005 with the inclusion of grapes harvested from the château la Tour Haut-Brion, a five-hectare cru classé acquired at the same time as la Mission Haut-Brion.
There are no major differences in geology either: the vineyards with their gravelly soils on a base of clay and sand both occupy the top of the huge Haut-Brion croupe, with only a road between them. Their location just outside the city of Bordeaux means the grapes attain an unusually complete ripeness. “You have to look for the answer in this particular terroir. This is where each wine forges its own character. But you have to look beyond any simple combination
of soil plus climate plus human work to elements that are often forgotten, and which work together here to create two different ecosystems.” Among these elements Jean-Philippe particularly mentions topography – Haut-Brion is more rugged – the orientation of the vineyard – la Mission is planted mostly along a north-south axis, unlike its neighbor which is mainly east-west – and planting density, with 8000 plants per hectare in Haut-Brion as opposed to 10,000 at la Mission Haut-Brion, leading to fewer grapes per plant for the same yield, and hence a greater wealth of sugars – which is perhaps a key to the charm for which the wine is known.
Once the origins of the differences have been explained, the two wines assert their respective identities all the more strongly, “to the point where a fusion of the two is unimaginable.” Jean- Philippe goes on, “Legally we could put the Mission’s output in with Haut-Brion, and produce it all as a Premier grand Cru Classé. But having done some test blends with lots from both vineyards the verdict was clear: the result is neither Haut-Brion, nor La Mission Haut-Brion, but another wine altogether, with a completely different taste profile. So that’s a result that is incompatible with the Prince’s desire to maintain the historic style of Château Haut-Brion.”
HRH Prince Robert of luxembourg keeps abreast of the life of his estates from his home in Switzerland. In 1993 the properties drew him away from life in the united States, where he wrote film scripts with some success. Today he is involved in marketing the wines and also comes over for the harvest, so he was present when we visited. Of course he also decides on any investments, such as the construction of the new winery at Château la Mission Haut-Brion in 2007, for which he made sketches. château Haut-Brion will soon have its own new winery too, but before construction can start, capacity must be doubled at the winery of la Mission so that it can ferment and age both wines throughout the duration of the works. “We’re looking at late 2023,” says the Estate Manager. And then there are the whites. The volumes are tiny, which makes the wines even more sought-after. Haut-Brion blanc and La Mission Haut-Brion blanc
express the floral tension of their old sauvignons but differ from the other great Bordeaux whites in the richness brought by sémillon, which forms 52% of the vineyard for the first wine and 63% for the second with its exceptionally intense aromas over nuances of honey and tropical fruits. The second white wine, La Clarté de Haut-Brion, is produced by both estates.
Although the two crus classés are travelling along separate, parallel paths, they share their single greatest virtue, which is to age fantastically well, thanks to their dense tannins and inherent freshness. It’s enough to swell the chest of Arnaud III de Pontac who, in the second half of the 17th century, gave birth to a new style of Bordeaux that was good for laying down – the famous “new French claret” – and, in the same period, opened the london tavern Pontack’s Head, where he served his wine. He would be delighted to see it taking pride of place on the world’s best tables today. Jean-Philippe Delmas agrees: “When gastronomy and the great wines bring out the best in each other, it creates a unique feeling in the connoisseur, and that is our greatest reward. Such emotions can currently be had with Haut-Brion 2012, which has been balanced from birth, and we can start to appreciate La Mission 2011, perhaps with seafood in a light sauce to bring out the wine’s subtle and salty acidity.”