I went to an Haut-Brion and La Mission-Haut-Brion dinner last night in London, which wine merchants Farr Vintners organized, and it reminded me of a debate that occurred very early in my career concerning the two wine estates. The owners of the former bought the latter in 1983, and at the time, I remember that many people in the fine wine world—particularly in Bordeaux—said that La Mission would simply become the second wine of Haut-Brion, or lose its identity and special character all together. How wrong they were.
The formal dinner last night included matching vintages of 2001, 1998 and 1989. Both reds were served side by side. And it underlined how very different the wines continue to be. Prince Robert de Luxembourg, the managing director of both, was there as well as Jean-Philippe Delmas, the technical director. The prince, whose American family has owned Haut-Brion since 1935, said during the meal to the audience that it was always his family’s wish to make the best La Mission possible as well as the best Haut-Brion, and that the two should be very much separate and unique. I think they have certainly succeeded. Perhaps the two have never been better?
The 1998s are personal favorites for the two Pessac-Léognans. In fact, I think they are superior to the legendary 2000 (although 2005, particularly in the case of Haut-Brion, should be better). And the ‘98s are much less expensive than the 2000s.
Comparing the two 1998s proves that de Luxembourg and his family continue to keep the two properties very much separate. They have unique character. The La Mission is a bold wine with intense hot stone, berry and raspberry aromas that follow through to the palate with firm yet velvety tannins and a long finish. The Haut-Brion is subtler and slightly more complex, with a cedar, berry, chocolate and light tobacco bouquet and a caressing palate with sweet, ripe fruit, silky tannins and a long finish. It is muscular but toned and slender compared to La Mission’s more solid, brute strength. I had to agree with de Luxembourg’s description of La Mission as the masculine wine while Haut-Brion is more feminine. I scored the Haut-Brion 98 points and the La Mission 96 in this non-blind tasting.
The pair from 2001 were served next. The Haut-Brion was vastly superior in my opinion and it is a steal on the market compared to many current vintages available (if I can call a wine that fetches close to $200 a bottle a "steal"). It is still at least five years off from drinking well. It was structured and tannic, but showed wonderful chocolate, berry, vanilla and floral aromas and flavors. It was full and powerful. I stuck with my score of 95 points, which was what I scored it on release in bottle. The La Mission was, for me, more ready to drink, with bright fruit and wet earth flavors. 91 points.
The pair from 1989 followed, and I thought the Haut-Brion was perfect. It has always been a 100-point wine. It is massive and velvety on the palate, totally mouthfilling and totally satisfying. It has such wonderful texture and depth, with subtle fruit character as well as the classic cedar, tobacco and wet earth undertones. The La Mission was classic too, but not quite at the level of the Haut-Brion. It seemed a little dumb even though it had been open five hours before serving.
Then 1966 Haut-Brion followed from jeroboam (the property no longer bottles in this big size) and then 1961 Haut-Brion. Both wines showed the incredible Haut-Brion character of subtle fruits, tobacco and earth yet a great depth and fabulous texture. I preferred the 1966 to the 1961. It was fresher with sweeter fruit on the palate. The 1961 was a little musty but still showed exceptional character.
We were drinking history, but at the same time it made me think that de Luxembourg’s newest history is even more exciting.