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Wine Fit for a Prince

Posted: Nov 1, 2006 3:29pm ET

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.

Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  November 1, 2006 5:57pm ET
The 1989 and 1990 Haut-Brion are two of the greatest wines I have ever had the pleasure of filling my glass with. Both due to the generosity of my father...who hooked me on the juice from my first sip of some Caymus Special Selection and Heitz Martha's Vineyard bottlings...
Bob Golbahar
Los Angeles —  November 1, 2006 7:25pm ET
James, Hope too see you soon in Los Angeles. Why no more 5 liter bottles of Haut-Brion?Best, Bob G.
Martin Stoevesandt
Germany —  November 2, 2006 4:27am ET
Hi Bob,the emphasis is on THIS big size, not any big size. Most Chateaus dropped the 5 Liters, because the amount is not dividable by 0,75. This was the last size that wasn't. By the way, James I believe 66 HB is a great wine and one of the greatest bargains for ready to drink Bordeaux that's on the market. I assume it again scored in the low to mid nineties?Best RegardsMartin
James Suckling
 —  November 2, 2006 9:56am ET
That's right Martin. Also, I scored the '66 95 points. It was so fabulous and delicious to drink with amazing yet subtle aromas of red fruits and hot stones. And a palate that was silky, caressing and fruity. I can't still taste the wine if I think about it!
George Fischer
Cleveland, Ohio —  November 2, 2006 1:46pm ET
James - a quick question. When you attend these dinners, do you spit or swallow the wine? I know you guys spit when doing multiple tastings in your office, but when attending a special dinner like the one described above, I was curious whether you actually drink the wine you are served. Thanks so much for the blog . . . really enjoy it.
James Suckling
 —  November 2, 2006 1:53pm ET
George. Would you spit the 1966 and 1961 Haut-Brion? I drank them! But when there is a huge tasting dinner with dozens of wines, I do spit.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  November 2, 2006 2:50pm ET
I was lucky enough to drink the '66 one day (in 1999) when I randomly stopped by an ancquaintance's "wine cave" when I saw his car there. He had already poured the '81 for two guys who were not big wine drinkers. It was quite good, and when we finished that he glanced sideways at me--and then brought out the '66. I was stunned, but boy was it fantastic. In fact, that was the first time I had ever tasted Haut Brion at all. Not a bad introduction, eh... - Jim
Anthony Clapcich
November 2, 2006 4:43pm ET
I had the pleasure of drinking the '81 La Mission last New Year's Eve....after 25 years in the bottle it was beautiful, powerful, and demonstrating that heady >2 minute sustain on the palate....Haut Brion and La MIssion are classic marathoners in the world of wine, not fast and furious sprinters that need oxygen and a urine drug test at then end of 100 meters! If I could only get a hold of a '61, '66, or a '70!
Sandy Spickard
California —  November 3, 2006 2:54pm ET
Hello James, I have been up until this point a huge fan and large personal consumer of CA wines vs French and have recently aquired several Burgundy and Bordeaux wines and enjoy your articles educating me on these very complex wines since I am very new to them. We have some 1993 Haut Brion that the vintage chart says to drink and my husband wants to hold along with some of our Yquem, Lynch Bages, Margaux, St. Julien, Lafite, Latour, etc. I know wines are meant to drink but we may consider selling some of these and have never entered that market and wanted to get your opion on auction houses or websites that are best for French wines, I was on the sites forum and not sure it is the right place for me. So if you can advise should we hold or drink some of these wines and just follow your charts as well as selling options to a newby? Thank you in advance.
Sandy Spickard
California —  November 3, 2006 3:03pm ET
Hi James,One more question outside of the Haut Brion, I have a few jewels of Domaine de la Romanee Conti, La Tache 1978, the auction site claims they are getting a pretty penny for them are they really worth that much and your site says to enjoy them from now thru 2020 any thoughts on holding, selling, drinking???

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