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Digging Graves

2011 August 30
by Mike

There is a lot of Bordeaux bashing nowadays, and I’ve certainly done my share. The prices are nuts, and many of the wines are being made in a style that I don’t particularly like. But there are people in Bordeaux for whom I have great admiration—Christian Moueix leaps to mind; he is a remarkable figure, and as much a son of the soil as any Burgundian vigneron—and  some wines that I adore. In addition to the various estates in the Moueix stable, I still swoon over Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. To which you might respond: Well, who doesn’t? It’s true—as far as I can tell, there is near-universal agreement among grape nuts that Haut-Brion and La Mission produce very special wines. The fact that wines like Latour and Lafite have become so expensive interests me as a journalist, but is of no particular concern to me as a wine enthusiast. The price inflation that we’ve seen with Haut-Brion and La Mission does sting, because I love the wines and it wasn’t so long ago that even a hack like me could score a bottle or two.

Last December, I had the pleasure of attending a blowout tasting in Los Angeles of Haut-Brion and La Mission (I won’t deny it: wine writing does have some perks). Over the course of two dinners and one lunch, we tasted wines from both châteaux back to 1961. That’s my kind of weekend! I published an account of the tasting in the June issue of The World of Fine Wine, an excellent British quarterly to which I contribute. But as the magazine isn’t widely distributed and the article might be of interest to some of you, I thought I’d post this riot of superlatives here:

It is often said these days Bordeaux has become a soulless place, dominated by corporate-owned châteaux that seem to view wine as little more than a commodity. There is a lot of truth in that. But there are exceptions, and two of the most significant ones are Château Haut-Brion and its neighbor Château La Mission Haut-Brion. In 1935, American banker Clarence Dillon acquired Haut-Brion, and it has been in the family ever since. On taking ownership of the First Growth property, located in the Graves region of Bordeaux, Dillon retained the services of Georges Delmas, the château’s régisseur, and a Delmas has remained in that role ever since—a role that expanded dramatically in 1983, when the Dillons acquired La Mission Haut-Brion.

Last year marked the 75th anniversary of Clarence Dillon’s purchase of Haut-Brion, and to mark the occasion, the château held a number of splashy dinners around the world. In December, famed collector Bipin Desai hosted another celebration, a weekend tasting in Los Angeles to mark the Dillon family’s milestone. Prince Robert de Luxembourg, Clarence’s great-grandson and the current director of the two châteaux, was on hand for the event, as was Jean-Philippe Delmas, Georges’s grandson and the winemaker since 2003, when he succeeded his father, Jean-Bernard. It was a weekend rich in history and wonderful anecdotes, and rich, too, in remarkable wines from both châteaux.

The dinner Friday evening, at Valentino in Santa Monica, was devoted to Haut-Brion, and featured 17 vintages of the grand vin back to 1961, as well as three vintages of Haut-Brion blanc and three of the château’s second wine, Bahans Haut-Brion. Lunch on Saturday was held at Spago in Beverly Hills and featured recent vintages of Haut- Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion; we tasted all the wines between 2000 and 2005, along with multiple vintages of Haut-Brion Blanc and Laville Haut-Brion, the white wine of La Mission (beginning with the 2009 vintage, Laville has now reverted to its original name, Château La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc). Saturday’s dinner, which convened barely two hours after lunch ended, was again at Valentino and was given over to La Mission. Eighteen vintages of La Mission, back to 1961, were poured, along with the 1989 and 1982 Laville Haut-Brion and several vintages of La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion, the estate’s second wine. Desai is renowned for his tastings, and this one was a model of flawless execution made all the more impressive by the fact that the host had only arrived home from Europe the day before.

And the wines? For my taste, Haut-Brion has always been the first among the Firsts, and that opinion was reinforced in Los Angeles. The tasting also reaffirmed my opinion—hardly an original one—that La Mission belongs among the Firsts. And how do the two wines stack up against one another? La Mission is, of course, a bigger wine, although it displays abundant finesse, too. I also think it is slightly more consistent year in and year out than Haut-Brion. However, Haut-Brion reaches heights in outstanding vintages that La Mission cannot. For me, the wines of the weekend were the 61 and 89 Haut-Brion. I’ve had the 89 several times, and it never fails to amaze. This was my first experience of the 61, and it was equally if not more sublime. I thought Haut-Brion surpassed La Mission in all of the “great” years that we tasted except 1982, and the 82 Haut-Brion was a slightly off bottle.  In 2005, 2000, 1998, 1990, 1989, and 1961, Haut-Brion is the superior wine, with just a bit more depth and majesty. ”Superior” is, of course, a relative term—the La Missions from those years are stunningly good, as well, and unquestionably First Growth quality.

Where La Mission gets the better of its neighbor is in the less exalted vintages. It has a flamboyance that Haut-Brion lacks and which allows it to produce seductive wines even in off-years. The fruit seems a touch sweeter, and there is an exotic spice note that makes wines like the 1993 and 1994 La Mission completely enticing. Haut-Brion is more feline in character–a little distant, reserved, brooding–and this quality is most apparent in years that are merely adequate or good. But these are small distinctions between two of the most consistently ethereal wines on the planet. It was fascinating to get to compare them over the course of a weekend, and a privilege to take part in such an extraordinary event.

We tasted 68 wines between Friday night and Saturday night. Apart from a few corked bottles, there was literally not a bad wine in the bunch. However, some wines were obviously superior to others, and I’ve included tasting notes only for the wines that I thought were outstanding, of which there were quite a large number. Herewith, then, the embarrassment of riches:

Haut-Brion

2006 Haut-Brion Blanc: Fairly tight on the nose, but some citrus and wax aromas peek through, along with a whiff of oatmeal. Ripe, succulent fruit, with lots of green apple showing and a touch of spicy oak, too. A lovely waxy texture and a long, mineral-drenched finish. An excellent wine. A.

2005 Haut-Brion Blanc: Grapefruit, kerosene, and a hint of grass greet the nose. Fullish and sinewy, with terrific depth, minerality, and length. Flat-out delicious from start to finish. A pleasure to drink now, but years of life ahead of it. A.

2003 Haut-Brion Blanc: A controversial wine, with an unctuousness that rubbed some tasters the wrong way. It is unquestionably a mouthful, but I liked it anyway. Incredibly decadent, with just enough acidity to keep it from descending into burlesque. Not for the faint of palate, but fun to drink. A.

1989 Haut-Brion Blanc: A rich yellow color. A wonderfully distinctive nose redolent of honey, kerosene, orange blossom, and green apple. Rich and mouth-filling, with terrific floral and mineral notes complementing the fruit. A really superb wine, and a marvelous stablemate to the epic 89 red. A.

2005 Haut-Brion: Baked fruits, exotic spices, earth, and a touch of toasted oak soar from the glass. A rich, full-bodied wine that combines sumptuous fruit with pinpoint balance. This just builds and builds across the palate. It’s very young, of course, but so remarkably flavorful and suave. A magnificent wine that will be eliciting raves decades from now. A+

2001 Haut-Brion: Leafy black currant, earth, leather, and incense aromas. A full-bodied, cool, marvelously poised wine, with outstanding freshness, structure, and depth. A classic Haut Brion from a year that is perhaps insufficiently appreciated. A.

2000 Haut-Brion: A knockout perfume of black currant, earth, tobacco, mint, and leather. Sweet, fleshy dark fruit on the palate; more opulent than the 2001, but at no cost to its balance. This is such an elegant, beautifully proportioned, delicious Haut-Brion. Another legend in the making, and it will be fun to watch its evolution alongside the 2005. A+.

1998 Haut-Brion: An enthralling nose of black currant, tobacco, and earth gives way to a full-bodied, rich but seamlessly woven wine. Such succulent fruit, such incredible balance. Even though it has received high scores from the usual suspects, could it be that the 98 is underrated? This is a great wine, and a textbook Haut-Brion in its effortless marriage of power and finesse. A+

1996 Haut-Brion: Showing some age in its color. A bouquet redolent of black currant, leather, and coffee grinds, along with a lovely floral kick. This is a slightly leaner wine, and with pronounced acidity, but it has terrific fruit and radiates good breeding. A.

1995 Haut-Brion: Ripe, cool black fruit aromas jump from the glass, along with a riveting savory element and some exotic spice, too. Superb depth of flavor, and although the tannins are a little burly, there is no shortage of elegance to this one, either. A long, leathery finish rounds out another impressive effort. A.

1990 Haut-Brion: The nose is a bit subdued initially, but opens up to reveal a potpourri of red berry, menthol, earth, and smoke. So cool, so poised, with fleshy dark fruit and that inimitable Haut-Brion harmony and grace. Although the 90 will forever be overshadowed by the 89, it is a brilliant wine in its own right. A+.

1989 Haut-Brion: the modern legend, and it lived up to its exalted reputation on this night. Open with an almost kinky nose, highlighted by notes of roasted black fruit, leather, game, and exotic spice. Full-bodied and bursting with rich, sweet dark fruit. Astonishing poise, structure, and length—the tannins are almost buttery. A nice menthol kick on the endless finish rounds out a Bordeaux for the ages. Unforgettable. A+

1985 Haut-Brion: This has aged beautifully. A powerful nose of black currant, cigar smoke, leather and earth, along with a suggestion of mint. Wonderfully mature fruit leavened by big but ripe tannins. A classic Haut-Brion, a classic claret. A.

1961 Haut-Brion: A gorgeous nose evocative of black currant, menthol, leather, molasses, tobacco, and green pepper. Full-bodied, with sweetish, succulent fruit and a pronounced chocolate note across the palate. The flavors just keep building and expanding—a spellbinding Bordeaux, and a thrill to experience, particularly alongside the 89.  Wine simply doesn’t get better than this. A+.

La Mission Haut-Brion

2007 Laville Haut-Brion: An alluring bouquet of kerosene, lanolin and citrus. Superb depth of flavor, with a nice grassy sauvignon blanc note echoing across the palate, along with a gentle spiciness. Excellent acidity, refreshment, and persistence.  A fabulous vintage for Laville. A.

1989 Laville Haut-Brion: surprisingly light in color, given its age. A wonderfully complex perfume, with scents of honey, chalk, lemon, and kerosene. Citrus and white fruit notes are the dominant elements on the palate, which has a dense, chewy texture. Finishes very long. Impressive. A.

2005 La Mission Haut-Brion: Surprisingly accessible given its youth and formidable structure. Baked fruits on the nose, along with some exotic spice and toasty oak. What really stands out here is the purity and silkiness—not a hair out of place on this one. A brilliant wine and surely destined to go down as one of the all-time great La Missions. A+

2000 La Mission Haut-Brion: Another colossus. Leafy cabernet, along with eucalyptus, earth, and a pronounced Asiatic spice note on the nose. Sweet, fleshy dark fruit on the palate, with great minerality, perfectly integrated tannins, and an endless finish. As with these two vintages of Haut-Brion, it is going to be a thrill to watch the 2000 La Mission evolve alongside the 2005. A+.

1998 La Mission Haut-Brion: A cool, sinewy wine that dazzles with its rich, succulent fruit (lots of leafy cabernet here) and amazing composure. This, too, has that same exotic spice note that gives La Mission so much of its seductive charm. Drinking beautifully now, and miles yet to go. A.

1989 La Mission Haut-Brion: Wow, what a sexy beast. A huge, mouth-filling wine, but again, manages to be supremely elegant at the same time. Rich currant fruit and big, velvety tannins are the defining attributes on the palate, along with an endless, achingly good finish. And here’s the really crazy thing: these impressions were formed on the basis of a  slightly corked bottle! That’s how good this wine is. A+.

1985 La Mission Haut-Brion: Again with that exotic spice note, along with leafy black currant, tobacco, earth, and leather notes. Chunky cassis on the palate, yet it all seems so refined, so effortlessly done. Like the 85 Haut-Brion, this has aged beautifully. A.

1982 La Mission Haut-Brion: Notes of cassis, leather, mineral, woodsmoke and spice pour out of the glass, giving way to a full-bodied, voluptuous wine whose flavors penetrate every corner and crevice of the mouth. Here, too, you find that amazing yin-yang effect, of great power allied to incredible finesse. A particularly stellar showing for this wine, and testament to the quality of this celebrated vintage. A+

1975 La Mission Haut-Brion: The hits keep on coming. Surprisingly youthful color, and retains a remarkable degree of freshness and energy. It has those famous 75 tannins, but the formidable structure is more than balanced by wonderful black currant and cherry fruit. A classic Graves scorched earth note and an intriguing nuttiness runs across the palate. Elegant, long, sublime. A+.

1961 La Mission Haut-Brion: A telltale La Mission perfume, marked by earth, leather, tobacco, and menthol. Amazing depth, concentration, and vitality to this legendary half-century old La Mission, and this, too, shows that exotic, almost erotic spice aspect (and they say only Burgundies are aphrodisiacal—not so!). A long, warm finish rounds out a stunningly good wine. A+.

12 Responses leave one →
  1. January 19, 2015

    This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something which helped me.
    Cheers!

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  3. Larry Kantrowitz permalink
    September 4, 2011

    The 1964 Haut-Brion was lovely with hamburgers a few years back :)

  4. Jeremy permalink
    September 3, 2011

    Great tasting!
    The O’Brion brothers are my favorite too. One of the interesting things is that being essentially in the suburbs of Bordeaux, they are the only first growths not to have expanded their holdings significantly in the past decade. Their land has varied very little and that might be one of the many reasons for their consistency.

  5. September 2, 2011

    Dan, I had a bag of Chinese takeout under the table at each of these tastings. Haut-Brion and La Mission go brilliantly with dim sum–surely you know that?

    Bill, you got me a technicality. Let me guess–you are a lawyer?

    Jackson, that was actually not the tasting I attended; that was a dinner they held in Los Angeles a day or two before the Bipin event. As I said, they held splashy dinners in cities around the world to mark the 75th anniversary, and that video is of the one in LA.

  6. September 1, 2011

    But Bill, many of those wines are Graves, no? The label printer writes and having writ moves on and all your piety and wit cannot lure it back to cancel half a line…Not to mention that Pessac-Leognan is a silly affectation that need not exist in the first place. In fact it did not exist in the first place. Not to mention that we are all so f’ing lucky that Mike was not gorging on Dim Sum when he tackled that pile of wine for our vicarious well-being.

  7. Bill Klapp permalink
    September 1, 2011

    I appreciate the cleverness of the title, but should this not have been “Digging Pessac-Leognan”? HA!

  8. August 31, 2011

    Mike

    Was this it?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6bEA8NElY0

    Combination of envy plus delight that you got that amazing gig!

  9. August 30, 2011

    No question about it, Evan–poor strategy on my part! But I would point out that this tasting was done last December, when I still had my Slate gig. The next blowout tasting to which I’m invited will probably be a Two Buck Chuck retrospective (and, yes, I would post notes on that, too).

    I have not had the 89 Margaux. The 89 HB is special, but they’ve produced so many gems over the years. Ditto La Mission. They are two really wonderful properties.

    Many thanks for the good wishes. It is obviously a tough time for journalists in general, and a particularly turbulent period for wine writers. But I’m hopeful that things will turn around and that quality work will continue to be rewarded. I think your stuff, for instance, is terrific, and I have to believe that there is always going to be a market for that kind of high-caliber wine journalism.

  10. August 30, 2011

    Mike – You could have held this piece until the cries of sympathy for you had subsided. Now no one will feel sorry for an ostensibly unemployed wine writer who is still delivering reviews of the world’s rare gems!

    I kid. I appreciate the notes; I have the ’89 on my list of someday wines, as the ’89 Margaux was one of the most sublimely structured wines I’ve ever had.

    As someone who occasionally does freelance work, and enjoys it, it pains me to see Slate let you go. Doesn’t say good things for the future of paid writing, but I suppose that’s no surprise. Here’s to many more decades of strong, fairly compensated production.

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