Neal Martin
Neal Martin
  • Founder of www.wine-juornal.com
  • Wine reviewer, erobertparker.com
  • Shortlisted for a Louis Roederer Award in 2009
  • Panel chair, International Wine Challenge, London

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The Vines That Stood Their Ground: Laville, Mission & Haut-Brion (1978-1990)


In a somewhat solipsistic seaside town I enjoyed a blissful, parochial childhood, oblivious to anything much further than the A13. Like the toy-towns on TV, I grew up convinced that everything in Southend-on-Sea would remain the same, at least until the end of time. C&A at the entrance of the Victoria Shopping Centre, Tomassi’s ice-cream parlour at the bottom, Keddies the grand department store its centre of gravity, the magical toy shop opposite Dixons and Lavelle’s the stationers, where I would buy my weekly Beano with a packet of Pacers. I assumed that this conjugation of retail outlets had been in situ since time immemorial until one day, mum broke the news…

Lavelles is closing down,” she told me casually. “That is why some of the shelves are empty.”

I hid my distress as best as a six-year old little soldier can, but inside? Inside I felt the novel, queasy sensation of ‘change’. There was something pitiful about the stock being flogged off. Perhaps I sensed death in the air?
It dawned on me that eventually, everything comes to an end and the High Street that was so familiar and immutable would one day be unrecognizable (with the obvious exception of the six-floor labyrinthine Keddies. Southend-on-Sea could not possibly hope to survive without its nexus, its beating heart.)

Every town and city is the same. Last Friday, as I drove through Bordeaux to Château La Mission Haut-Brion to taste their 2008s, I surveyed the rows of anonymous bungalows and semis, the takeaway restaurants and boulangeries and pondered upon exactly whose graves their foundations stood?

At the end of the 19th century this bland suburbia would have been a vista of vineyards that are now but footnotes in unread history books. According to Féret’s “Bordeaux et Ses Vins” in 1898, the suburb of Talence was not only home to Château Haut-Brion, but also a total of 37 crûs. So where art thou Château Phenix Haut-Brion, Château Chollet Haut-Brion or Château Laburthe-Haut-Brion-Brivazac? Of course, this was not the only part of the growing conurbation that once boasted vineyard. Bordeaux-Le-Tondu in the west of the city towards Cauderon was home to Château Labarthe-Haut-Brion and Château Petit-Haut-Brion, whilst Château Constance-Haut-Brion could be found in Merignac long before there was an airport or aeroplanes.
And I’ve only mentioned those with “Haut-Brion” in their title! There are dozens of others, nearly all of them victims of urban sprawl, and doubtless saving a pretty penny in lawyers’ fees as they all made claims for their titular rights.

In 2010 the urban sprawl is broken with oasis of vines, those that resisted the encroachment of tarmac thanks to historical significance or an affluent proprietor not interested in a quick return of selling his precious land or just sheer luck. Fortunately those vines that stood their ground continue to fashion some of the best fermented grape juice known to Mankind and this article focuses on three of them: Château Haut-Brion, Château La Mission Haut-Brion and Château Laville Haut-Brion. The notes are sourced from three events. Firstly, a splendid lunch with celebrity TV celebrity, Philippe Schofield and Stephen Browett, wine-merchant-cum-chairman of Crystal Palace F.C. (who I suspect is ruing signing Edgar Davids instead of Gordon the Gopher.) Weeks later, I was party to a superb lunch at La Trompette and in September, a soiree at sister restaurant The Ledbury with fellow oenophiles each proffering a bottle of Haut Brion or La Mission from their over-burdened cellars.

Let me start with a bold statement. I do not think any wine matches the pleasure offered by Château Haut-Brion or La Mission Haut-Brion where it matters most…at the dining table.

For that we must thank not only the châteaux but also the man, the legend that is Jean-Bernard Delmas, who oversaw four decades of winemaking in Pessac and is now sprinkling his stardust at Château Montrose (where the photo was taken in last Thursday.) I would opine that The Ledbury dinner ranks amongst one of the most satisfying, life-affirming flights of wine that I have had the joy to behold, not in terms of every single bottle being a century-point jaw-dropper, but in terms of their charm, their faults and strengths, personalities, nuances, their effortless ability to marry and complement cuisine, the ease with which they could be imbibed, the untrammelled pleasure and intellect they offer. These wines evoked emotive as well as sensory responses; they entranced all those around the table, they simply made you glad to be alive and privileged to be able to drink them.

The Wines

So let us commence with one of the surviving Cru Blancs: Château Laville Haut-Brion (it was only after writing that sentence that I realized the irony.) The vocation of this tiny 7.6-acre estate is white Pessac-Léognan, the vineyard planted with 70% Semillon, 27% Sauvignon Blanc and 3% Muscadelle, occupying gravel soil over chalky sand. The wine is aged entirely in new oak for around 15-months and around 1,000 cases are produced per annum. Of course, the irony in that first sentence is that the name, if not the wine, bit the dust last year whence it became “Château La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc”. I’ll go on record saying that I wish it would remain Château Laville Haut-Brion but hey, it’s not my decision.

Two things I have learnt about Laville is that it needs at least 20-years to develop its profound complexity and reiterating my advice that I voiced in the 1962 horizontal, I urge you to decant the wine and/or let the wine rest in your glass so that they can unfurl and blossom. It is remarkable how much urban vin blanc evolves once oxygen is in its lungs. It was intriguing to compare these vintages side-by-side, but certainly the Château Laville Haut-Brion 1978 that was amazingly youthful and virile. It had developed subtle aromas that remind me of a Furmint in some ways, but the palate was unequivocally white Graves of the very highest order and over the course of the dinner, it changed with every passing moment. It was closely followed by the outstanding, almost Coche-Dury like Château Laville Haut-Brion 1982 that I preferred to the more obvious but still commendable Château Laville Haut-Brion 1983.

Moving on to Château La Mission Haut-Brion, there are two spellbinding wines that you should experience once in your life. Firstly, the Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1978 must be considered one of the greatest Bordeaux wines of that decade. My official La Mission booklet picked up at the château suggests a drinking window between 1995 and 2010.

Forget it.

It is may be less impressive than the indomitable ’75, but I think it is better balanced and more refined. After 32-years is still has incredible fruité and persistency in the mouth, an intoxicating Graves-aroma with scents of graphite and sous-bois and it just got better and better the longer I resist temptation to drink it. To quote my own tasting note: majestic and it will reign supreme for another two decades, subject to provenance.

How can you better than? Well, perhaps with the imperious Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1989.

At Chez Bruce, Mr. Schofield had generously decanted a bottle of Château Haut-Brion 1989 that had this writer dancing on ice, so when he beckoned the waiter to serve the second decanter and I wondered how on earth he could top it? I would not say that the La Mission ’89 blew Haut-Brion ’89 away, but there was no doubt which wine had the upper hand, at least in this beauty contest. It is one of the epic wines of the vintage. To be frank, it embarrassed the Château Haut-Brion 1990 that followed and I wonder whether that is partly because of its exceptionally low percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon (31%) denuding it of requisite structure as the year go by? Back to the stupendous La Mission ’89, I rarely award perfect scores, but I simply could not think of any way this nectar could possibly be improved…except in magnum.

So La Mission ’89 is better than Haut Brion ’89, right?
Just to prove the maxim of there being only great bottles, a few weeks later at The Ledbury I was fortunate to come face to face with another bottle of Château Haut-Brion 1989.

This was even better than the one at Chez Bruce. Here was a brilliant Pessac-Léognan every bit as compelling as that La Mission ’89 with a seamless texture that has to be felt to be believed; a wine head and shoulders above the First Growths. Unequivocally one of the greatest wines from the estate and perhaps Jean-Bernard’s crowning achievement, it simply oozed class, underpinned by an ethereal sense of balance, a bottle that purred with perfection. Blissful.

I should also mention how well my two bottles of Château Haut-Brion 1986 showed. They exceeded my expectations with such natural charm and freshness; masculine wines that are finally mellowing with age, full of grace and refinement. One sobering comment was made at La Trompette. As we savoured glasses of Château Haut-Brion 1983, 1985 and 1986, someone commented that we could purchase bottles of all three for less than a bottle of 2009.

I am going to keep it at that for now.
What can I say?
I adore these wines. They encapsulate everything that I adore in Bordeaux wine. Unfortunately recent vintages are way beyond my financial means that will ineluctably deny the future generation of wine-lovers from organizing splendid bibulous evenings such as this. They are too good to be speculative vehicle: the sheer pleasure these wines offer is simply priceless, a pleasure affordable by few but millionaires.

Writing this, I wondered what would have become of those aforementioned “Haut-Brion” siblings that succumbed to urban sprawl. You see, if you research historical texts, many of them occupied not dissimilar terroir to Haut-Brion and Pape-Clément. Of course, terroir does not feature heavily on a property developer’s plans. They all vanished, just like all those shops I used to frequent with mum every Saturday down the High Street. Even Keddies reached the end of its mortal coil in the 1990s, a closure similar to Haut-Brion pulling up its vines to install an office block.
Fortunately, I don’t think that is going to happen.

Thanks to all who organized and donated bottles to the tastings/dinners.

Tasting Notes

1978 Château Laville Haut-Brion 97
Tasted at the La Mission/Haut-Brion dinner at The Ledbury. This is a sensational Laville. Limpid in hue, the ’78 has a fresh, vibrant bouquet with dried pineapple, linden, oyster shell and vanilla pod, all with exceptional delineation and gaining complexity in the glass. The palate exhibits beautiful balance with perfect acidity, its waxy texture caressing the palate with a touch of hazelnut on the Meursault-like finish that lingers, Kaffir lime and a touch of marzipan and almond paste on the aftertaste. Stunning. Drink now-2020+ Tasted September 2010.

1982 Château Laville Haut-Brion 93
Tasted at the La Mission/Haut-Brion dinner at The Ledbury. Of the three Laville’s poured, this was initially the most reticent on the nose, with an odd cheesy scent that took 30 minutes to clear. When it did, the bouquet blossomed with scents of Japanese umeboshi, honeysuckle and jasmine. The palate is again, reticent on the nose and demands 30-45 minutes to settle. Yet again it ameliorates with every sip of the glass, gaining volume and precision with touches of honeycomb, lanolin and candied pear, almost Coche-Dury-like towards the finish. Very elegant and drinking perfectly now. Tasted September 2010.

1983 Château Laville Haut-Brion 90
Tasted at the La Mission/Haut-Brion dinner at The Ledbury. The 1983 has a more immediate nose with almond and lanolin, a touch of wet wool in the background. Indeed, it reminds me of a Hunter Valley Semillon (as did the 1962 earlier this year.) The 1983 does not have quite the aromatic precision as the 1978 or 1982. The palate has a spicy entry with touches of lemongrass and almond, a little muffled towards the finish but very good weight and length. Fine, but not a top tier Laville. Drink now-2015. Tasted September 2010.

1978 Château La Mission Haut-Brion 98
Tasted at the La Mission/Haut-Brion dinner at The Ledbury. This is probably the best bottle of the majestic La Mission ’78 I have encountered (included the ex-château!) It just strides in and says: “I am the boss”. The nose exudes incredible intensity coupled with otherworldly precision with scents of blackberry, graphite, fresh black olives and sous-bois. It is surprisingly backward. The palate is medium-bodied and brilliantly balanced with a sense of symmetry that sets it apart from everything except the ’89. Harmonious and yet as dense as you would want it to be without losing an ounce of finesse, with a touch of dry tobacco and cedar on the finish. As I say…majestic. Drink now-2025+ Tasted September 2010.

1982 Château La Mission Haut-Brion 94
Tasted at the La Mission/Haut-Brion dinner at The Ledbury. Though the La Mission ’82 was out-classed by the ’78, this remains a lovely La Mission probably in the middle of its plateau. This bottle has a warm, voluptuous, still Pomerol-like bouquet with touches of espresso and a stronger mint aroma than encountered on other bottles. The palate has a gentle but insistent grip and is very well balanced with cedar, sandalwood and dried blood inflecting the black fruit on the dense, quite rounded, generous finish. Lovely. Drink now-2020. Tasted September 2010.

1983 Château La Mission Haut-Brion 93
Tasted at the La Mission/Haut-Brion dinner at The Ledbury. This is easily the best bottle of La Mission ’83 that I have encountered and some fellow diners preferred it to the ’82. I would not go quite that far, but its has a delectable leafy nose with black brambly fruit, sous-bois, cedar and mint, a scorched earth scent becoming more prominent with further aeration. Very well defined. The palate is medium-bodied and unexpectedly shows far more bravura and dare I say, decadence than I predicted. Blackberry, black olive, cassis and tobacco, rounded and animated towards the leafy, herbaceous finish with a captivating sense of harmony. Will I ever chance upon a bottle as good as this? Superb. Drink now-2025. Tasted September 2010.

1985 Château La Mission Haut-Brion 91
Tasted at the La Mission/Haut-Brion dinner at The Ledbury. I must admit that I was expecting a little more from the La Mission ’85. The nose is a little muffled compared to previous encounters with scents of dark cherry, blackberry leaf, saddle leather and rosemary, though my main observation is that the oak is not as well integrated as demonstrated previously. Oh well, the palate is better with grippy, quite muscular tannins, not as fleshy as others in its alumni with a slightly chewy finish. Not bad, but out-classed by the ’78 and ’82. Tasted September 2010.

1989 Château La Mission Haut-Brion 100
Tasted blind from decanter at Chez Bruce. This bottle, poured by Philippe Schofield from his cellar, is sensational. To put that into context, it breezed past the Haut-Brion ’89 served alongside. The bouquet is simply jaw dropping and my first words are ethereal and profound. Blackberries, cassis, iodine, violets and liquorices, later touches of oyster shell, the aromatics tease and lead you a merry dance (at least for someone trying to nail a tasting note!) The palate is full bodied, perfectly balanced with a beguiling sense of harmony that is impossible to encapsulate into words. Filigree tannins towards the structure finish with hints of cedar, sandalwood, graphite and tobacco, lingering on the palate for God knows how long. In the words of Greg Wallace: “Pessac does not get any better than this.” Perfect. Drink now-2030+ Tasted July 2010.

1982 Château Haut-Brion 96
Tasted at the La Mission/Haut-Brion dinner at The Ledbury. Although the other First Growth’s might constitute better wines, this is the one I would actually like to sit down a drink at the moment. This bottle is similar to previous ones with a delectable nose that unfurls beautifully in the glass with hot bricks, melted black tar and tobacco and a touch of iron rust, moving firmly into secondary aromas. The palate is medium-bodied and as I have said before, less opulent and precocious than its peers, yet it has exquisite balance and here, a more backward finish with dense black, earthy fruit with those trademark touches of rosemary and thyme. Gorgeous. Drink now-2025. Tasted September 2010.

1983 Château Haut-Brion 91
Tasted at lunch at La Trompette. I have always had a soft spot for the Haut-Brion 1983 as one of the “friendliest” of the First Growths. Though not a top-tier Haut-Brion, the 1983 has developed a fine earthy, leathery bouquet that is similar to the ’86 but without the same vigour or complexity. The palate is very harmonious with a citrus-tinged entry, its lack of depth and length compensated by poise and tension. Sandalwood, cedar and a touch of truffle and smoke towards the finish. Lovely. À point. Drink now-2010. Tasted July 2010.

1985 Château Haut-Brion 95
Tasted at lunch at La Trompette. The Haut-Brion ’85 has a gorgeous warm, inviting bouquet with pure red-berried fruit, hung game, warm gravel, leather and a floral note that I have not noticed before. The palate is sensual, beautifully balanced with delicate touch of leather, cedar, earth and rounded raspberry and cranberry fruit that fade in the glass. Just lovely. Tasted July 2010.

1985 Château Haut-Brion 96
Tasted at the La Mission/Haut-Brion dinner at The Ledbury. This is the best bottle of Haut-Brion ’85 that I have encountered with a sensational bouquet that is almost identical to the last bottle in July, but with even greater lift and intensity, whilst the palate shows a touch more precision and poise that marries so effortlessly with its corpulent, sensual texture. Drinking perfectly now, it feels almost too good to cellar for longer! Drink now-2030. Tasted September 2010.

1986 Château Haut-Brion 96
Tasted at lunch at La Trompette. A bottle from my own cellar, this shocked several palate with its class…including my own. It has a stunning bouquet with scorched earth, blackberry, fresh tobacco (that gains intensity with continued aeration), dried lemon peel and olive compote. The palate is full-bodied and typical of the vintage it has a firm, rigid backbone with a wonderful sense of tension. Fresh and vibrant with a palpable sense of mineralité, subtle notes of wild mushroom on the finish. Bright and joyous, which is saying something for the habitually doughty Left Bank 86s! Given its price vis-à-vis other vintages, I would snap this up. Drink now-2035. Tasted July 2010.

1986 Château Haut-Brion 96
Tasted at the La Mission/Haut-Brion dinner at The Ledbury. A second bottle from my cellar and it is almost identical with that engaging bouquet of fresh tobacco and here, a touch of Cohiba cigar! Again, the palate has a great deal of freshness and mineralité, perhaps even more cohesive than the previous bottle, with an foursquare but beautifully defined finish. Shame it is my last bottle. Drink now-2035. Tasted September 2010.

1989 Château Haut-Brion 97
Served blind at Chez Bruce, it was immediately apparent that we were in the presence of true greatness. It is still youthful in colour, the bouquet wafting from the glass and filling the ether with black fruits, hot gravel, black olive, cinders and a touch of black truffle. Spellbinding in its clarity. The palate is full-bodied with ethereal balance and poise. Melted tannins, indeed this Haut-Brion seems to melt in the mouth, although there is still great structure. Hints of black truffle towards the focused finish that perhaps did not have the persistency I expected. This remains a magnificent wine. Tasted July 2010.

1989 Château Haut-Brion 100
Tasted at the La Mission/Haut-Brion dinner at The Ledbury. One of the best bottles of Château Haut-Brion that I have encountered, this is magnificent fermented grape juice. Extraordinarily deep in colour, it has amazing intensity on the nose with similar aromas as the bottle in July with black fruits, black olive, hot gravel and here a very faint tincture of menthol. The palate is medium- rather than full-bodied with exquisite balance and poise with a similar sense of symmetry expressed by the Mission ’78. There is a firm backbone to this wine matched by a fruit intensity that is not so much powerful, but perfectly focused. Blackberry, black plum, tobacco and crushed stone, expanding across the back-palate and lingering for ages after the wine is swallowed. Immense. Drink now-2040+ Tasted September 2010.

1990 Château Haut-Brion 95
Served blind by Philippe Schofield at Chez Bruce, it is probably a pity that it had to follow the behemoths that are Haut-Brion and La Mission ’89. It patently had a light, leafier bouquet compared to the ’89 with a surprising level of rusticity, but finely tuned with an attractive ferrous accent. The palate is medium-bodied with fine acidity, fleshy in texture and lacking a little power. I wonder whether the low proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon (31%) is beginning to tell? Still a lovely wine though. Drink now-2025. Tasted July 2010.

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