La Mission celebrates 25 years

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

See full tasting notes on these 55 wines.

“This must be the first time such an array of wines has been shown in London since the time of the Pontacs,” said Prince Robert of Luxembourg last week, referring to the end of the seventeenth century when the Pontac family owned so many Bordeaux estates that their name became synonymous with claret, and particularly with the top wines of the Graves that were so popular in London then.

‘Ho Bryan’ is the only red bordeaux to which Samuel Pepys refers by name in his famous diaries. The prince’s great grandfather, American financier Clarence Dillon, picked up Château Haut-Brion for a song during the economic slump of the 1930s, and in late 1983 the Dillon family acquired its neighbour and fierce rival Château La Mission Haut-Brion from the Woltner family. Robert remembers how as a boy of 15 he was summoned from school in England by his mother the Duchesse de Mouchy to witness the signing of the sale documents in Bordeaux.

For him at the time, the attraction was time off school. Today, after spending much of his twenties on the fringes of Hollywood as a scriptwriter, he runs the two properties in the suburbs of Bordeaux in an appellation now called Pessac-Léognan, and is particularly keen to put more emphasis on the less well-known La Mission. “I love La Mission personally,” he confessed, “and I feel it deserves as much limelight as Château Haut-Brion.” Accordingly the 25th anniversary of the La Mission acquisition was celebrated by this tasting of 55 vintages of its wines, some of which the prince himself had never tasted before. 

Although it fetches very respectable prices, La Mission is often overlooked and underestimated, perhaps partly because it does not feature in the all-important 1855 classification and therefore is not an official first or second growth. It hovers in status and price somewhere between the two, but with just 26 ha (64 acres) of gravelly vineyard, it is much smaller than any Médoc first growth and therefore is not such a regular feature on lists and in the saleroom. It is the quintessential insider’s wine, however, denser and often tougher than Château Haut-Brion, but with almost the same encepagement and the same dusty minerality – a real demonstration of the effect of terroir? La Mission has also long enjoyed a reputation, rivalled only by that of Château Latour in Pauillac, for making particularly good wine in disappointing vintages.

The rumour was that during the Woltner era this was occasionally due to imaginative inter-vintage blending. If so, the 30 of us from six different countries who tasted these wines, from 2005 back to 1929, at The Square restaurant last week were extremely grateful. As Stephen Browett, owner of fine wine trader Farr Vintners, which helped organise the event, pointed out, “no other château in Bordeaux would dare show some of the vintages we’ve tasted today, and yet they are all distinctively La Mission.”

Certainly it is a very long time since I have tasted any 1977, 1974, 1973, 1972, 1969 and 1968 red bordeaux, much less one from each dismal vintage in the same flight of wines. These were miserable growing seasons (which is no doubt part of the reason why more praise was lavished on the 1975 and 1970 vintages than would have been if they had followed greater years). And no-one would pretend that even La Mission’s examples were in the same category of pleasure as, say, their stunning 1959 or 2005, but they are clearly very much more respectable than most other red bordeaux made in those years – even though yields were much higher and selection less rigorous at La Mission, as elsewhere in those days when selling even the smartest wine was so much less profitable than today. My tasting notes for this flight are littered with the surprised, if not exactly ecstatic phrase “not dead”. Consistency is certainly a strong point in the La Mission vineyards, overlooked by Bordeaux University’s campus in the suburb of Talence and bounded by the Bordeaux-Arcachon railway line.

Only a road separates the vineyards of Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion and such was the competition between the two properties in the 1970s and early 1980s that visitors to one of them felt unable even to mention the existence of the other. When the usual French family strife precipitated the sale of La Mission to the Dillons it was widely thought that La Mission’s individuality and quality might be downgraded in some way. There was a little hiatus immediately after the sale, with the 1984, 1985 and 1986 vintages being less than thrilling, but to their great credit, the Dillons and their gifted estate manager Jean-Bernard Delmas proceeded to pour money into restoring the vineyard and winemaking equipment, elevating quality, without adversely affecting style, to the Haut-Brion level.

Nowadays Jean-Bernard’s son Jean-Philippe Delmas manages both estates, with similar competence to judge from recent vintages, but Prince Robert seems to be keen to put his stamp on Domaine Clarence Dillon too. When the Dillons took over La Mission, the property produced another red wine, Château La Tour Haut-Brion, as well as its glorious dry white Château Laville Haut-Brion, a more Sémillon-dominated counterpart to Château Haut-Brion Blanc made across the road. La Tour Haut-Brion struggled to find its own identity, even though a specific small parcel of vines was supposedly devoted to it, so those of us who turned up as usual in early April last year to taste the 2006 primeurs of Haut-Brion and La Mission found one wine missing from the usual tasting sheet. La Tour Haut-Brion no longer exists and all the wine that fails to come up to scratch for the grand vin of La Mission (rather unfortunately, and surely inaccurately, called “the garbage” by Jean-Philippe Delmas last week) now goes into La Mission’s second wine, La Chapelle de la Mission, which first made its appearance with the frost-shrunk 1991 vintage.

This year’s innovation, evident at last month’s tastings of the 2007s (a Bordeaux vintage apparently unloved by the market to judge from those wines released so far), is to rename the second wine of Ch Haut-Brion. What was Bahans Haut-Brion is now Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, cunningly reinforcing the name of the range of humble Bordeaux generic wines reported on here a couple of years ago, Clarendelle. What will 2009 bring, one wonders?

I certainly cannot complain about this year’s bounty from the Dillon estates: fifty-five wines from La Mission, of which well over half were stunning, and the other half plucky little relics of a (fortunately) bygone age.


1950 (which was not included in this tasting)

See full tasting notes on the55 wines shown in London.