Investment analysis September 2011
- Friday 26 August 2011
It is 76 years since Clarence Dillon, from Texas cattle country, made the historic purchase of Château Haut-Brion, the oldest of the great Bordeaux wine estates.
His instructions to the agent assisting him with the acquisition in 1935 were apocryphal. When informed by telegram that if he wanted to secure the estate he should act fast, Dillon replied: ‘Act fast’.
Leading the current generation of Dillons heading up the château is Prince Robert of Luxembourg, who was in Los Angeles last year for one of eight celebratory dinners organised around the world to honour Haut-Brion’s long connection with his family.
Soon after the LA celebration, Prince Robert held private tastings for wine collectors at Valentino’s in Santa Monica and Spago in Beverly Hills, organised by rare wine impresario Bipin Desai.
Attending the LA tastings with Dillon was Jean-Philippe Delmas, the third generation of Delmas winemakers at he helm of Haut-Brion over some 90 years. He took over from his father, Jean-Bernard, at the 2004 vintage.
In 1983, Haut-Brion’s parent company, Domaine Clarence Dillon, bought out its neighbour and fierce competitor, La Mission Haut-Brion. Today the pride the family has in owning both properties – and maintaining their prominence – is clear.
The Duchesse de Mouchy, Joan Dillon (president until 2008) and her son Prince Robert, have put a fortune into renovations.
In 1987 they rebuilt the winery and in 2007 constructed a new cellar, bottling line, storage area and tasting room. ‘We have four first growths,’ says Prince Robert, indicating the red and white wines of both Haut-Brion and La Mission.
There have also been some radical changes. In 2006, Domaine Clarence Dillon took the bold step of discontinuing the cru classé La Tour Haut-Brion, instead using its fruit for La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion, La Mission’s second wine. The last vintage of La Tour Haut-Brion was 2005.
Another bold change from Prince Robert has been to retire the name Laville Haut-Brion. Starting with the 2009 vintage, fruit from this estate will be used to make the white wine of La Mission (now known as La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc).
Haut-Brion Blanc and La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc each produce only 500 to 600 cases a year, making these whites scarce and expensive. To offer wine lovers a more affordable alternative, La Clarté de Haut-Brion was created: a blend of the second lots of both white grands vins. About 1,000 cases a year are made, starting from the 2009 vintage, priced from £70 a bottle (the white grands vins are at least 10 times that).
The production of Haut-Brion today varies from about 7,000 to 10,000 cases (in 1995 it was 18,000 cases).
Since the 2007 vintage, Bahans Haut-Brion, formerly the second wine of the red Haut-Brion, has been known as Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, with a production of 5,000 to 7,000 cases a year.
La Mission’s production is about 5,000 cases per year, and its second wine, now known as La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion, makes about 4,000 cases.
At the LA tasting, my scores (below) for the whites were very high, with two Laville Haut-Brions on top. The 2005 Haut-Brion was close behind it, but the 1989 Haut Brion was far more advanced.
Of the reds, both La Mission and Haut-Brion had a high level of consistency. They are giants both, and nearly equally matched. If anything, the tasting proved that the stature of the two châteaux is safeguarded, even among all the radical changes made by Prince Robert and the Dillon family.
As we tasted 68 wines over two days, those below are the highlights of a magnificent line-up.
Larry Stone’s top 20 from Domaine Clarence Dillon
Haut-Brion 2005 19pts/20
More Sauvignon Blanc herbaceousness and lemon peel comes through in this relatively dry and ripe vintage. Could be a very long ager. Drink: 2015–2025
Laville Haut-Brion 2005 19.5
Great density on the palate, very round texture with citrus, ginger, lemon zest and great length. The flavour intensity, length and complexity of this wine elevate it above the 2005 Haut-Brion. Drink: 2015-2025
Haut-Brion 1989 18.5
Liquorice, smoke and Sauternes-like opulence marked by marzipan and ginger. Surprising given it has less Semillon than the fresher 1989 Laville Haut-Brion. Drink: 2011
Laville Haut-Brion 1989 20
Not as dark as the ’89 Haut-Brion. Graceful, creamy citrus flavours, with nutmeg and ginger on the palate. Perfection and youth in a mature white. Drink: 2011
Long, firm tannins with iron filings, cigar, cedar, cassis and a firm, long finish. Youthful still, with the promise of more opulence in the bottle with age. Drink: 2017–2035
La Mission Haut-Brion 2005 19.5
Spicy, elegant and lively but a tad less deeply flavoured than Haut-Brion 2005 with a more violet nose and jammier fruit: ‘strawberry edges’ says J–P Delmas Drink: 2015–2035
Haut-Brion 2000 19.5
Spicy, smokey, cigar leaf, mineral nose, with a beef broth character similar to the 1998 and 1961; plums, chocolate, black cherry and cassis with a long, rich finish. Slight edge over La Mission 2000. Drink: 2012–2030
La Mission Haut-Brion 2000 19.5
Cigar box, cedar, anise, clove, cinnamon – deep, intense perfume, ripe yet balanced, lovely, long and not overly tannic. Impressive depth of flavour. Like Haut-Brion 2000 but with more berry flavours. Drink: 2011–2030
Haut-Brion 1998 19
Concentrated colour, deep beef broth notes, cassis, plum, cigar, smoke and even tar with intense, balanced flavours and an opulently rich texture. Drink: 2011–2030
La Mission Haut-Brion 1998 19.5
Explosive aromas and flavours of cassis, cherry liqueur, iron, spice, anise, and a long finish. Incredible density and concentration, yet it dances. Drink: 2011–2035
La Mission Haut-Brion 1996 18.5
Great intensity of fruit flavour, great complexity, with a slightly higher level of tannin and acid over 1995. Needs some more time but will last. Drink: 2011–2030
Haut-Brion 1995 18.5
More sweetness, colour and depth than most wines from this vintage, with some iron and a tannic firmness on the finish. Very long. Drink: 2011–2029
La Mission Haut-Brion 1995 18
Dense, smoky, firm cigar and cassis. Juicy, minerally acidity, with velvety tannins. Just a little short on the finish. J-P Delmas prefers this to ’96. Drink: 2011–2025
Haut-Brion 1990 18.5
Sweet cherry, cassis, cigar leaf. The impression is lifted aromas and lively on the palate, sweet fruit all the way through. Drink: 2011–2020
Haut-Brion 1989 19
Slightly less evolved than its 1990 twin and tastes fresher. ‘A very discreet wine, not as easily understood as the 1990,’ says Prince Robert. Drink: 2011–2020
La Mission Haut-Brion 1989 20
Dense, round, sweet flavours and aromas, which are seductive, signalling a great wine. This is the classic definition of La Mission: mineral, fruity and velvety, yet harmonious and balanced. Drink: 2011– 2020
La Mission Haut-Brion 1986 19
Some undergrowth aromas in appealing proportions; finesse, old-style Bordeaux with great complexity, texture and a lively acidity. Drink: 2011–2022
Haut-Brion 1985 19
A revelation. A purple tinge that promises greatness. The aromas are opulent and heady with rose, mineral, Cuban cigar, and a round texture. Drink: 2011–2015
Haut-Brion 1961 20
First vintage of Jean-Bernard Delmas. Intense colour, heady cigar, cedar, iron, chocolate and beef broth notes wrapped in velvety texture. Miraculously dense and luscious – eternally youthful; perfect. Drink: 2011
La Mission Haut-Brion 1961 19.5
Garnet but lightening to a brick hue. Powerful aromas: waxy lanolin, very ripe cassis fruit, Chinese five spice powder notes. More evolved than Haut-Brion 1961. Sweet fruit core and wonderful viscosity. Drink: 2011