Terroir Exists

“When we can’t explain something, we call it terroir.” That was Jean-Philippe Delmas’ answer to the question of why such notable differences mark the wines from Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion. At some points, these two stellar properties literally across the road from each other in the Bordeaux sub region of Pessac Léognan actually dovetail with one another. Although Delmas’ comment was met with laughter from the guests at a wine dinner at Blantyre (an upscale Relais & Chateaux property in Western Massachusetts that is rapidly becoming known for their sensational wine dinners), the truth is that–at least in this case–terroir does indeed explain the difference between these two legendary properties.

Chateau Haut-Brion, the only Bordeaux property outside of the Médoc to be included–as a first growth no less–in the historic Médoc Classification of 1855, has been owned by the Dillon family since its purchase by the American financier, Clarence Dillon, in 1935. The Dillon family purchased La Mission Haut-Brion in 1983 and now the two properties are owned under the umbrella of Domaines Clarence Dillon.

As with the ownership, the management of the estates has been a longstanding family affair. Jean-Philippe, now the third generation of the Delmas family to run the Domaines Clarence Dillon, took the reins from his father, Jean-Bernard, in 2004. Jean-Bernard had been the director since 1961, when he took over from his father, who was formerly the director at Cos d’Estournel and moved to Haut-Brion in 1923. He remained in charge after Dillon purchased the property.

The concern within the wine world at the time Dillon purchased La Mission was that the two wines would become similar since the management and winemaking teams were the same. That concern has turned out to be unfounded. That the wines of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion remain distinct despite the same team and a similar varietal mix in the vineyards speaks to the importance of what the French call terroir.

Similar Varietal Composition

What’s planted in the vineyard is similar at each property:

Haut-Brion: Cabernet Sauvignon 45%, Merlot 40%, Cabernet Franc 15%,
La Mission: Cabernet Sauvignon 48%, Merlot 45%, Cabernet Franc 7%

The composition of the wine in any particular vintage depends on the weather during the growing season and how each variety responds to it. If, for example, the Merlot is hit by a spring frost, there will be less of it in the final blend. Similarly, if autumn rains harm the Cabernets, the blend that year would have a larger proportion of Merlot. As a case in point, the 1985 La Mission, an elegant powerhouse (95 points, by my rating) has a third more Merlot–a whopping 60%–in the blend. In 1998, another great success for La Mission (95 points), the blend was also 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. No Cabernet Franc was included that year. Despite the difference in varietal composition year to year, the wines retain their classic aromas, taste, and character. For example, at a vertical tasting of 10 vintages of Chateau Haut-Brion back into the 1980s at the Nantucket Wine Festival several years ago, the amount of Merlot in the blend varied by 100%. Nonetheless, the wines all had the typical ash-like nose and elegance of Haut-Brion. In short, they were all clearly identifiable as coming from Haut-Brion.

To Jean-Philippe, the differences between La Mission and Haut-Brion are clear. La Mission always has more concentrated flavors and is a ‘bigger’ wine, while Haut-Brion is longer with more finesse. He is adamant, ‘it is not the mixture of grapes or winemaking, it is the land.’

Jean-Philippe speculates that perhaps La Mission was omitted from the 1855 Médoc classification because it was too small, less than 13 acres at the time (today it encompasses about 63 acres, still about half the size of Haut-Brion). I think it was omitted because it lacks the consistent finesse and grace of its first growth neighbor. First Growths–or grand cru Burgundies for that matter–owe their revered stature to complexity, length and finesse, not sheer power or concentration. Chateau Haut-Brion, similar to Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, sneaks up on you. It’s not the direct, overt impact that grabs your attention; it’s the length and plethora of flavors that continue to excite the palate.

The White Wines

Even as the amount of land at both La Mission and Haut-Brion devoted to white grapes continues to shrink, both properties still produce extraordinary dry white wines. Although not a separate property, Château Laville Haut-Brion is the name used for the white wine of La Mission Haut-Brion. The prior owner of La Mission felt that the quality of the white wine was not comparable to that of the red, so opted not to use La Mission on the label. It is unique in Pessac because of its high percentage of Semillon, 80%. Fifteen years ago, it covered about 16 acres, but now is down to roughly 6 acres because it is more profitable to produce red wine in this area. For similar reasons, the vineyard area devoted to white Haut-Brion has shrunk from about 12 acres in the 1930s to about 6 acres today.

Second Wines

Not all of the wine made at Haut-Brion and La Mission is deemed suitable for the grand vin. Wine from young vines or from less than perfectly situated parcels may not be of requisite quality. According to Jean-Philippe, the assemblage or assembling of the blend is ‘like making a perfume’. The team makes the first blend for Haut-Brion or La Mission and then makes another blend from the remaining barrels for the second wine. (Wine still remaining after the completion of the second wine is used for daily consumption by the workers at the property).
Les Plantiers du Haut-Brion is the name for the second white wine from both Haut-Brion and Laville Haut-Brion. It is an under-appreciated white Bordeaux and typically an excellent buy.

Bahans Haut-Brion (pronounced ‘baahn’) is the second wine of Haut-Brion. Since even the French have difficulty pronouncing it, the name will change to Le Clarence de Haut-Brion starting with the 2007 vintage, to honor the man who had the vision to buy the property.

La Mission’s second wine is La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion. Only by tasting these second wines side by side with the grand vin can you appreciate that their tannins are slightly coarser and the wines not quite as refined. Similar to Les Plantiers, the second wines from Haut-Brion and La Mission are typically excellent buys.

Chateau La Tour Haut-Brion, which formerly was a separate property and label, no longer exists. The wine now goes into La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion.

Is Terroir Always Critical?

Clearly terroir is critical, at least in parts of France, such as this part of Bordeaux and Burgundy. It also plays a key role in determining the character of the wines in California and other premium wine areas. Tasting the single vineyard bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon from Nickel and Nickel in Napa Valley confirms that vineyard sites play an essential role in the flavor and character of the wine.

But the French may be realizing that geographic overload makes it difficult to market their wines. Wines from neighboring areas may be very different to the citizens of those villages, but not to the world at large. Geologic rigor can be mind-numbing, and off-putting, to consumers. In an attempt to simplify the appellation controllée (AOC) system in Bordeaux–home to 56 individual AOCs–several of them, accounting for about 10% of the region’s production, have been combined into one, which will be called Côtes de Bordeaux starting with the 2008 vintage. (The new labeling allows a vestige of the old AOC, as in Côtes de Bordeaux Blaye, or Côtes de Bordeaux Castillon).

It makes sense to have clear geographic delineation when the wine in the bottle justifies it. But local pride and chauvinism–two specialties not just limited to the French–should not trump common sense and marketing.

November 18, 2008