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La Mission Haut-Brion 1929 is a legend because…

Château La Mission Haut-Brion has always been known for producing wines that are more robust and masculine than those of its immediate neighbour Château Haut-Brion. In few vintages was this difference so marked as in 1929. Although the very firm tannins of the 1929 may have resulted in some individual bottles that now show some dryness, others are going strong.

Looking back

Frédéric Woltner acquired the Pessac-Léognan estate in 1919 but a few years later put his son Henri in charge of it; Henri ran it until his death in 1974. It remained in the Woltner family until 1983, when the estate was bought by the Dillon family of Haut-Brion, though its identity was to remain separate and distinct. Henri was an oenologist and a forward-looking one at that, installing glass-lined fermentation vats as long ago as 1926. Their squat shape maximised the ratio of skins to juice, ensuring the wines would be deep in colour and dense in structure. La Mission is recognised today as equal to a first growth in quality, which simply confirms the wine trade’s view almost a century ago: the 1918 vintage was priced higher than Lafite, Latour, and Margaux, and only Haut-Brion itself was more expensive.

The vintage

The year was not only hot but exceedingly dry, with a mere 225mm of rainfall. The wines were incredibly concentrated and high in tannins, yet many of them had a youthful charm not always found in young Bordeaux from a great year. For legendary British wine critic Edmund Penning-Rowsell, 1929 was the finest vintage of the 20th century.

The terroir

The soils are remarkably stony as well as gravelly, more so than those of its neighbour Haut-Brion. The gravel beds are many metres thick. Drainage is excellent and the proximity to the city of Bordeaux usually gives precocious harvests. Henri Woltner was always careful not to pick overripe fruit, and sought to retain exemplary acidity in his wines. But the wines have always shown more muscle and meatiness than those of the more elegant Haut-Brion, and this is probably explained by terroir more than winemaking.

The wine

This vintage would have been partially fermented in the glass-lined steel vats that Henri Woltner installed in 1926, though the bulk of the crop would have been vinified in wooden vats. Woltner’s goal was to have a more even fermentation, without excessively high temperatures and the attendant risks of volatile acidity. However, the steel tanks at this time weren’t temperature-controlled. The wine was then aged in barriques for up to 30 months before being bottled.

The reaction

Henri Woltner once remarked that the 1929 was superb in its youth but unlikely to age well. However, in 1990, Michael Broadbent of Decanter and Christie’s asserted that this was ‘one of the best ever La Missions, certainly the richest’. In 2008, Neal Martin of The Wine Advocate, noted: ‘Deep broody nose, introspective but compelling. Notes of leather, mocha, roasted chestnut, sandalwood and roasted meats. The palate is full-bodied and sinewy… but the finish is a little disjointed and dry. Nevertheless this is an amazing 1929 that is in graceful decline.’ My own note from the same tasting was a touch more positive: ‘Almost opaque brick- red. Sweet, stylish nose. Mushrooms and tobacco. Intense, highly concentrated and spicy, with mocha tones. Tremendous drive and no conspicuous tannins.

The facts

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Price today £2,970