Heading for Haut-Brion
At en primeur time though, you’re always chasing your tail and there’s no time to waste because the clock is ticking towards your next appointment. This time it’s an hour’s drive south from Pauillac to the Graves where another Premier Cru awaits – Haut Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion.
Again, it turns out to be another exceptional tasting, which features the reds and whites of these historic Pessac estates. Moreover, the owners, Domaines Clarence Dillon
have changed some of the names of their wines in 2009. Now the great Laville Haut-Brion is no more. Instead, it has become Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc. Last time this wine was made was in 1929.
As the wines are poured, I ask Pascal Baratie Chef de Culture what has been the biggest challenge for him in 2009. And yet again, I get another fascinating response which chimes with what we were told at Palmer and Latour. ‘For us, the biggest challenge was during the harvest and when to pick. It was tough at the beginning with some rain in May and June when we had some mildew. And at Haut Brion we lost 30-40% of the crop on five plots to hail. But after that though, it was pretty easy. The weather was hot - but not too hot and we had rain the right times. So the berries ripened almost perfectly and pretty much at the same time. As a result, we just had to wait for phenolic ripeness so that the tannins weren’t green and vegetal.’
But as some winemakers have pointed out, this had risks and drawbacks which are becoming a feature of this vintage. Because in order to get the ‘phenolic ripeness’, you have to get sugar ripeness first – which of course means higher alcohol.
‘It is a problem,’ acknowledges Baratie. ‘But if you taste the wine, you don’t taste the alcohol so much because of the structure of the wine. And you can’t have one without the other.’
So how did the wines shape up? I preferred the La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc which had the edge on the Haut Brion Blanc. And it was the same for the reds where La Mission certainly had the edge over its stablemate Haut Brion. For me, La Mission
was wonderfully, powerful, ripe and exotic with mulberries, kirsch, crème de cassis silky tannins.
However, that’s not to say that the Haut Brion was not up to par. In fact, Haut Brion was also a wonderfully compelling wine with grippy tannins and plenty of concentration and length. But La Mission shaded it with 19 points to Haut-Brion’s 18.
And talking of numbers, I couldn’t help but notice the alcohol levels on both these wines. In fact, both registered over 14%
with La Mission coming in at a massive 14.7% - a record at the estate by some considerable margin.
Haut-Brion also weighs in at 14.2%. In both instances, this level of alcohol is higher than it was in 2003, supposedly the hottest vintage on record.
Clearly, climate change is having an effect. But is it a problem? Not according to Baratie. ‘If you taste the wine, you don’t taste the alcohol so much because of the depth of fruit and the tannin structure of the wine.’ However, there is an almost New World sheen to these wines which some traditional collectors and drinkers may not altogether agree with.
Finally, I know it is early days. But I can’t help but wonder about how these wines will be priced. Last year, of course, the First Growths set the tone and the price by coming out low and early. But then Parker upset the en primeur apple cart by rating the 2008s highly and prices for wines like Lafite went into orbit.
So this year, it seems inconceivable that the Firsts do the same again. My view is that they will price the vintage as high as they did in 05. But where does that leave the petit chateaux further down the food chain? Whilst the market may accept high prices for the top wines, I don’t think it will for the lesser wines in 2009. That may be tough on some chateaux proprietors who have made good wine, but I think it will be great news for punters. So later on today, I’ll update you with a few more legends in the making from 2009 at all price points.
Catch up with you then….