Once in a lifetime: 50 vintages of La Mission Haut-Brion

The twin Châteaux of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion sit side by side in Pessac-Leognan, in the southern suburbs of the city of Bordeaux. Château Haut-Brion’s red wine is classified as one of the five Premiers Crus, the very expensive elite of Bordeaux. Whilst Château La Mission-Haut-Brion is equally illustrious, it was not included in the famous 1855 classification.

xThe Châteaux are owned by Domaine Clarence Dillon. Dillon was an American banker who lived to be 97, and along the way bought Haut-Brion in 1935, and added La Mission in 1983. Today, both properties are managed by his great grandson, Prince Robert of Luxembourg. Robert tells the story of how he was a fifteen-year-old boy at school in England in 1983, when the call came through from his mother, the Duchess de Mouchy, that he was to return to France for an important event. That event was the purchase by Domaine Clarence Dillon of La Mission Haut-Brion.

The family immediately set about a programme to improve and upgrade all aspects of both viticulture and winemaking at La Mission, just as they had done with Haut-Brion, which was the first classed growth estate to install stainless steel vats in 1961. There has been a rigorous replanting and vine research programme, and yields have been cut significantly.

xAfter many years in charge of winemaking, Jean-Bernard Delmas handed over to his son, Jean-Philippe at the start of the new millennium. Like his father, Jean-Philippe Delmas was born and raised at Haut-Brion, so is as much custodian of these great estates as he is employee.In May 2008, Prince Robert and Jean-Philippe held a tasting in London to celebrate 25 years of ownership of La Mission Haut-Brion, and I was lucky enough to be invited. This was a simply extraordinary line up of wine shipped from the Château’s cellars, encompassing the years 1929 to 2005.

This was proof indeed that La Mission has a great terroir, which imprints on every vintage, no matter how different the conditions. My notes are peppered with words like “incense”, “tobacco” and “exotic spice”, all of which are part of the DNA of this great vineyard.

Having rested in the shadows of Haut-Brion for decades, La Mission is now proving to be an equal to the first growths. This is evident in its quality when you taste through recent vintages, but that original 1855 classification was done largely on the prices the wines could command on the open market. The 2005 La Mission is currently selling for a painful £500+ per bottle, whilst the 1929 is a cool £3,500 per bottle, suggesting wine collectors are now voting with their wallets on the quality of this estate.

See all stockists of La Mission Haut-Brion on wine-searcher.com

The tasting

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2005
Beautifully refined, mineral and burning incense nose, with very supple, tight black fruit. The palate has a creamy density of black fruit, but all edged with that exotic spiciness. Very tight, refined, supple tannins, an espresso-like bittersweet consistency, and just lovely balance. This is the essence of refinement and harmony. 96/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2004
Quite rounded and ripe on the nose, with a little of that graphite minerality, and a tugging sense of something earthy. Lovely quality here, with a big orangy tang of acidity. Less harmonious than the 2005, and seems to lack the structure, but could be a phase. 91/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2003
Very appealing nose, with a deal of cedar and schisty minerality, and very ripe black fruit giving a similar impression of open, almost minty character allied to that gamy element, as the 1990. On the palate there is real ripeness evident, with cassis-like black fruit, but this has retained juicy acidity and a nice, crisp structure beneath. Very successful. 93/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2002
This has a very appealing quality of cedar, exotic incense-like spice and warm, bramble fruit. There’s still a hint of earthiness too. On the palate there is very tight, quite refined palate, which perhaps just lacks the fruit for the long haul, but drinks really well. 91/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2001
Very rich, dark, espresso nose with hints of vegetation and that earthy minerality. Quite involving. On the palate this has lovely density of savoury black fruit. And a fine structure, with juicy acidity and bittersweet tannins marrying with that hint of coffee. 93/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2000
Very vibrant, deep crimson. Vinous, very youthful nose in this company with robust red cherry fruit and a background of that smoky, Sandalwood quality. The palate is fairly lean at this stage, with very tight, endive and liquorice quality to the tannins and black plum skin acidity. This has real persistence, with the tight, spicy structure all in place, and is a very promising baby. 95/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1999
There’s a very meaty, gamy quality here, with a great solidity to the fruit and all sorts of camphor and incense notes. On the palate this has terrific density of fruit: savoury and sweet, with a lovely sour cherry tang, but the cassis sweetness too. Good structure here, in a very long, composed wine. 93/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1998
Big, quite plush nose for La Mission, with elegant, exotic spice and cedar, and a solid core of black fruit. The palate has a tight, sour cherry density, and this seems very youthful. There’s a tangy vibrancy to the black fruit, and very good structure here. 95/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1996
Espresso and chocolate hints at first before a real minerality, with schist and a hint of truffle, and deep-set, muscular black fruit. On the palate this is slightly thinner than the nose suggested perhaps, but the balance is impeccable, as the polished tannins and fresh acidity marry with black fruit and that tobacco and smoky oak. 94/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1995
Sweet, softening nose, with hints of earth and bloodiness, as well as sweetness of black fruit. Delightful palate, with all the juiciness and life of fine acids and tannins, but a hugely appealing fruit quality. It doesn’t quite have the structure of some, but gorgeous. 92/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1994
The nose is fairly subdued, showing nice cedary oak and spice, but fruit rather shy. The palate too is lacking a little fruit. The structure and spice is good, but the final impression is more of the wood than fruit. 88/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1993
Very attractive, positively seductive nose, with ripe, rounded black fruit and lots of coffeeish oak. There’s a hint of minerality too. On the palate this is fresh and has good fruit, with a keen, juicy character and a nice supporting structure. Doesn’t sing, but pleasurable. 90/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1992
Quite meatstocky and a bit dull, with a muddy aromatic showing some solid oak and a touch of black fruit. The palate too is lacking some mid-palate fruit, with the orangy acidity dominating. There is a fairly lean, savoury enjoyment here, and it finishes with a bit of balance and length. 89/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1991
Interesting meaty quality here, with a smoky, tobacco nose and a certain earthiness. The fruit seems a little more ripe, soft and evident than the 1994. On the palate, a big sour acidity is savoury and appealing, and whilst the structure is softening, this has lovely balance and charm and is drinking beautifully. 92/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1990
Suggestion of over ripeness here, with plenty of fat, very ripe black fruit, and a refined but quite gamy character with hints of clove and Sandalwood. On the palate huge fruit sweetness, flooding the mouth before that savoury, juicy bite of tangy plum skin acidity and supple, suede like tannins adds enough support. A wine full of charm and quality. 95/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1989
Beautifully composed nose, with tightly-wound, muscular structure, and all sorts of exotic spice and incense notes. There is just fantastic fruit sweetness here on the palate, reminiscent of the Haut-Brion 1989, with its rounded, composed, fantastically mouth-filling quality, but the silky texture, smooth tannins and perfect balance give an endless, silk-like finish. 97/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1988
Very deep, solid colour. Lovely melange of camphor, cedar and that ashy minerality with keen-edged black fruit. The palate has delightfully racy structure, with fresh, but dense and meaty black fruit and a supple, supportive tannin structure. There is masses of toasty, coffeeish oak in the finish, but the balance here, with spiciness and acidity, is excellent. 92/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1987
The nose is of a fairly old wine, with a certain leafiness and lots of mushroomy character. Ash and tobacco are in there, and just hints of the fruit. On the palate this gives some enjoyment, with a soft, old, slightly dank and truffly character, but there’s a vestige of sweet fruit and some charm. 88/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1986
Another dark, solidly crimson wine. Very, very tight, muscular and dense, with a layering of tobacco and woodsmoke, and that refined mineral quality. On the palate this has a tight, but plump fruit character, with a wrapping of supple, suede like tannin, but also a sense of meaty, chewy structure. Impressive, and has the intrinsic weight and balance to improve. 93/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1985
Very seductive nose, with a gorgeous sweetness to the fruit, and finesse of cedar, sweet tobacco and a hint of schisty minerality. The palate perhaps lacks a little fat and weight, but the cedary black fruit, spicy and tight tannins and finely-tuned structure gives lots of elegance and enjoyment. 92/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1984
Slightly dank, slightly iodine quality, with a touch of fruit sweetness showing through and a hint of meaty, earthy minerality. The palate has a trace of something that makes me suspect low level cork taint here, but still, the wine is fairly stripped and tired. 86/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1983
Very slightly leafy, vegetal note here, but then the minerality and slightly charcoally quality comes through. On the palate it is perhaps lacking just a little fruit, and the finish is drying slightly, but has charm. 89/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1982
Lovely dark, dried blood colour leads on to a very briary, dense, woodsmoke nose. There is a full, fruity background too. On the palate this is plush and opulent, with masses of clove spice, and such intense, rich, concentrated black fruit. The tannins are very fine, but very grippy, and that keen, liquoricy bittersweetness adds lovely freshness to the finish. Huge length. 94/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1981
Much denser colour than the 84, with hints of very ripe, blackcurrant and sweetly vegetal fruit. The incense and camphor character of La Mission comes through. On the palate there is a full, quite rich texture and that ripe fruit still gives mid-palate sweetness. The acidity is nicely edgy, and the tannins now fading into the background , but very delicious. 91/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1980
This has a solid, dense, meat stock and black fruit nose. It is terrifically solid and relatively youthful in character. The palate has richness, and whilst the fruit is now pretty much submerged, it retains its balance and for drinking now, gives pleasure. 89/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1979
Lots of meat stock and dark, juicy black fruit. Real cassis quality, and has a very pure, mineral clarity. The palate has a delightful, expressive crispness and energy, with racy acidity and a lovely length and precision. 92/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1978
Dark, plumskin and bitter black chocolate character, with that smoky, schisty quality coming through. Cedar and incense in the background. On the palate very tight and racy, with delightfully savoury acidity and still crisply defined by tannins. 94/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1977
Rather unusual, dry powdery spice on the nose, with hints of gravy and Oxo cubes, and not a huge amount of fruit. The palate too has a leafy, green and dried character, enlivened by a bit of spice, but really not showing very well for me. 84/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1975
Lovely old, leafy, smouldering embers nose, with truffle and brown sugar, and spicy bramble fruit. The palate has some sweetness and that beautifully schisty, sweet fruit. Elegant and crisp, with nice structure and delineation. 93/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1974
Much more charm and fruit in evidence, despite having a similar powdery, smoky dryness on the nose as the ’77. The palate has some fruit, with some juicy life about it, and though dry and overtaken by cedary spice in the finish, has some length and charm. 89/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1973
A dank, vegetal, quite undergrowthy quality here, with vestiges of ripe black fruit and a hint of something fudge-like and sweet. On the palate this has some sweetness, though now seems as much from the creamy, coffeeish oak as the fruit. Tannins are soft and supple, and there is decent balance here if very lightweight. 87/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1972
Briar, truffle and brown sugar sweetness showing through. Some coffee. The palate doesn’t show so well, with a hollowness about the mid palate and just vestiges of fruit. 85/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1971
Very smoky, bacon fat and dark Muscovado nose, with truffle and undergrowth. The palate has some very attractive, juicy black fruit and cherryish acidity too. The tannins are fine and sit behind the fruit and smoky oak, in a wine that has a bit of presence and drinks well. 90/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1970
Definite ripeness and richness of blackcurrant fruit here amongst the briar and mushroom notes of age, and the fine sense of minerality in the background. On the palate there’s a touch of raisining to the fruit, but this has sweetness and charm, and still a raciness to the fruit. Spicy and really quite long. 92/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1969
Rather dank, with slightly off aromas and not a lot of fruit. Really dry and lacking charm on the palate. 83/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1968
Some residual ripeness here. With plenty of vegetal quality. Smoky, La Mission quality, but the fruit is lacking on the palate, and pleasure comes from sweet oak and. A mellow charm. 86/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1967
Lots of vegetal, nicely leafy and briary quality here, with a touch of clove and camphor, and a leafy, autumnal quality to the fruit. The palate doesn’t quite live up to the charm of the nose, but there is enjoyment to be had here for sure, with vestiges of fruit amongst the spice and incense of the dominant oak. 88/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1966
Gorgeous cedar and haunting Sandalwood character, and though a touch of green pepper suggests a tiny under ripeness, this just has fresh personality and appeal. On the palate there is real juiciness, which married to plenty of spicy, warming oak, tight and racy tannins and a crisp acidity, is classically austere, and very appealing indeed. 93/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1965
Dank, vegetal and briary nose. Slightly muddy and showing a bit of volatility. The palate has rot and dankness, which now that the fruit has all but gone, doesn’t make for any richness or breadth. Finishes with spice and a bit of style. 86/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1964
Not so expressive on the nose, with a slightly subdued, mushroom and vegetal nose. The palate still has some fruit sweetness and some charm. It is rather dry and rather stripped on the palate, with a little spicy structure but not pushing through like the 66. 88/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1963
Very dank and mouldy nose. Not much else going on. The palate too is stripped of fruit, and has no length. 80/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1962
A tiny mushroomy note, and I think a little TCA, but no second bottle available. The balance is still evident, with life and energy about this on the palate and fruit still there. So obviously, potentially very good. 91 certainly based on that. Possibly a great wine in here. 91/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1961
Beautifully tight, spicy, fennel and liquorice scented nose, with all the tight minerality and core of black fruit. The palate is gorgeous, just layered with sweet, composed, tight fruit and the smoky, spicy integration of the oak. Delightful delicate structure her, with such refinement and balance. 96/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1960
Quite muted, with a dark, soy-like character. A touch of briar and of minerality. Decent palate, though the food has faded significantly. A bit of balance here, and has some fruit. 87/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1959
Fabulous, cedary, burning incense nose, with lots of bloody, meat stock quality and that berry fruited sweetness. The palate has beautiful sweet fruit still, and terrific integration with the spicy, pencil-shaving qualities, the tight, fine tannins and lovely supporting acid structure. 95/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1958
A touch of TCA, and plenty of cedar. Wouldn’t like to call this one, as the palate too seems stripped by something. Certainly some meatiness but not an awful lot else there and tough to judge. 86/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1957
Much cleaner and more full and solid than the 58 in this tasting, with cedar and incense-like, smoky qualities. There’s a hint of black cherry fruit. On the palate this has some definite fruit sweetness still, with a rich, warm, almost toasty and liquorice backing from oak and supple tannin. Very enjoyable wine. 90/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1955
Old, polished wood nose, with delightful suggestion of sweetness and that tobacco and burning incense smokiness. On the palate this has exceptional purity to the fruit, with luscious, sweet, fantastically opulent spiced compote fruit and that smoky, smouldering quality adding to the supple tannin and sprightly acidity. Fabulous wine. 97/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1953
Voluptuous, soft, fudge-like and deep nose, with pencil-shaving finesse and a suggestion of ripe, quite fat fruit. The palate shows more cedar and spice than fruit, but there is a mellow, quite fleshy quality here still despite a backbone of austerity. Some sweetness, and some charm here for sure, and delightful. 92/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1945
Beautifully bright, clear, still ruby colour but pale. Absolutely engrossing nose, layered with smouldering embers, Sandalwood and deep-set briary fruit. The fruit on the palate has beautiful texture and depth, with the fabulous sweetness of the blackcurrant fruit. The tannins are chocolaty and supple, the acidity still quite bold and precise, but the overall balance is what sets this apart. Fantastic wine. 97/100

Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1929
Still quite a dense colour. Big gravy browning nose, with still a lovely hint of something incense-like, with Sandalwood and spices. A core of fresh minerality still. The palate has real purity. The fruit has faded considerably now, but haunting echoes of the fruit, with exquisite structure remaining and that delicacy and precision keeping it fresh. 94/100

My sincere thanks to Prince Robert of Luxembourg, Jean-Philippe Delmas and to Farr Vintners for arranging this magnificent tasting.

See all stockists of La Mission Haut-Brion on wine-searcher.com

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *