Wine Legends 2013
Château Haut-Brion, Blanc 1989, Graves, Bordeaux, France
A legend because…
Haut-Brion has long produced the most prestigious white Graves, although it faces strong competition from its neighbour La Mission Haut-Brion, which produced its own white wine under the label Laville Haut-Brion until 2009, when it was renamed La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc (both properties are under the same ownership). Produced in very small quantities since its first vintage in 1916, Haut-Brion Blanc has always been a wine of considerable power and longevity; its scarcity, and the fact that it is a white wine produced by the sole first growth in the Graves, make it much sought after by collectors. The château’s first-growth status does not include the white wine, which remains unclassified.
The Haut-Brion wines benefited from a surge of research by estate manager Jean-Bernard Delmas in the 1970s. He oversaw an intense study of the different clones and rootstocks present in the vineyards and, as a consequence, only the best were replanted (in 1977, two-thirds of the white vines were replanted). Delmas presided over production, and after his retirement in 2003 he was succeeded by his son, Jean-Philippe.
Bordeaux has become accustomed to precocious vintages, but in 1989 it was highly unusual to be picking grapes in August. After the hottest summer since 1947, with 22 days above 30°C, the harvest was the earliest since 1893. Picking began in the Graves on 21 August, although Haut-Brion waited until 29 August. The challenge was to retain a degree of acidity in the fruit and thus avoid flabbiness.
Of the 52 hectares planted at the estate, only 2.9ha are white: 53% Sémillon, 47% Sauvignon Blanc. (Today there are also a few rows of Sauvignon Gris, but they were not planted in 1989.) They are planted on a 27m hillock across the road from the château. The soil is very deep gravel over a clay subsoil. There is less clay than at La Mission, and the varietal mix is also different, as there is considerably more Sauvignon Blanc at Haut-Brion. The whole estate lies within the city boundaries of Bordeaux, and thus benefits from a warmer microclimate. Yields vary from 25–40hl/ha.
The harvest is manual and takes place at maximum maturity, so the wine’s alcohol varies from 13% to 14%. Sorting takes place in the vineyard and the grapes are whole-bunch pressed pneumatically; there is no skin contact. Fermentation takes place with indigenous yeasts in barrels, but the malolactic fermentation is blocked. The wine is racked every three or four months, and the ageing period ranges from 10 to 12 months, with little stirring of the lees. In the 1980s it was common for the wine to be aged entirely in new oak, but today that proportion is around 50%. Production ranges from 5,500 to 8,500 bottles.
Robert Parker reported Jean-Bernard Delmas’s view that ‘the 1989 fully replicated the fleshy, chewy texture of a great grand cru white Burgundy’. Parker’s own view of the wine (to which he gave 100 points) is that it was ‘amazingly full and long… with a very distinctive mineral, honeyed character. The low acidity would seemingly suggest a shorter life than normal, but I am convinced this wine will last 25 or more years. A real show-stopper! Sweet, honeyed peach, caramel and buttery aromas tumble from the glass’. Decanter’s Michael Broadbent preferred Laville Haut-Brion in 1989, and harboured some uncertainties about the wine, which he found ‘surprisingly sweet for a dry Graves’. In 2000, UK critic Tom Cannavan was enthusiastic: ‘Developed wax and wet-wool character on the nose, very buttery with a gorgeous weight of fruit and little floral notes among peach, vanilla and nuts. Fantastic ripeness of fruit gives a sweet impression on the palate with lots of orange and lush apricot… long, very focused and pure finish.’ More recently, US critic Jeff Leve reported on a vertical tasting in 2010, noting that the 1989 ‘opens with aromas of fresh picked flowers, honey, caramel, grass, lemon, lime and orange. With textures of rich, polished fruit, the wine ends with a melange of citrus flavours’.
Bottles produced 8,400
Composition 54% Sémillon, 46% Sauvignon Blanc
Yield 23 hl/ha
Release price N/A
Price today £1,410