This Bordeaux estate has been producing wines fit for royalty for nearly 475 years
No. 1: A matter of destiny:
In 1983, Château La Mission Haut-Brion became the property of Domaine Clarence Dillon – already the owners of neighboring estate Château Haut-Brion. The history of the properties shows that they were first linked right back in 1540, when Bordeaux merchant Arnaud de Lestonnac bought a parcel of land in Pessac – known as the Arregedhuys plot – that would one day form the basis of La Mission Haut-Brion.
In the same year, de Lestonnac married Marie, sister of Jean de Pontac, the first significant owner of Château Haut-Brion, who had arrived there just seven years earlier. The marriage meant that the two men became brothers-in-law, and the estates became friendly rivals – although it would take almost 450 years for them to be officially joined.
No. 2: Aristocratic buyout:
For the formal signing of the 1983 purchase agreement, Joan Dillon, Duchesse de Mouchy, asked to have her 15-year-old son, Prince Robert of Luxembourg, excused from classes at his boarding school in Sussex, England, so he could be present. La Mission was bought from the Woltner family – along with La Tour Haut-Brion and Laville Haut-Brion – after negotiations overseen by Michel Delon, owner of Chateau Léoville-Las Cases.
No. 3: Up with the best:
In March 2009, Liv-Ex, the London-based fine-wine trading platform, reviewed the 1855 Classification to create a new ranking of Bordeaux wines using the same criterion (price) as the original. In it, Château La Mission Haut-Brion was raised to the rank of first growth. Liv-ex performed the exercise again in 2013, and La Mission was confirmed as the “sixth first growth.”
Prince Robert of Luxembourg, now CEO of Domaine Clarence Dillon, says of the sixth-growth title: “That is certainly how we consider it. It’s why we continue to make huge investments in La Mission, even if they do not always make immediate economic sense.”
No. 4: Religious overtones:
The story of how La Mission got its name is a little complicated, but warrants examination.
Olive de Lestonnac – the granddaughter of original owner Arnaud de Lestonnac – bequeathed an annuity so that members of a religious community could “carry out works of mercy in the region.” It went to the Congrégation des Prêtres du Clergé, founded on the model of the Lazarites.
The religious brothers turned out to be highly adept at winemaking. Armand Cardinal de Richelieu was a leading admirer, and wine from the estate is said to have led to his famous quote: “If God forbade drinking, would he have made such good wine?”
In 1682, the order’s holdings were transferred to the Lazarites’ Bordeaux branch, known as the Prêcheurs de la Mission. They owned the château until it was expropriated by the state during the French Revolution. It then became known as La Mission Haut-Brion.
No. 5: Heritage treasure:
The first American owner, Célestin Coudrin-Chiapella, was born in New Orleans in 1774. The adopted son of a rich Italian merchant from Genoa, he traveled regularly to Bordeaux, becoming a wine merchant and manager of properties including Cos d’Estournel. He bought La Mission Haut-Brion in 1821, planning to retire permanently to the region.
It was Célestin and his son Jérôme who commissioned the wrought-iron and stone gates that still mark the entrance to the estate today, using a design from a drawing found in the Lazarite archives. The original gate is now protected as a “monument historique,” although the château building itself is not.
No. 6: The strength of sémillon:
The estate’s white wine, Château La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc, was first bottled in the 1927 vintage by then-owner Frédéric Woltner, Just 400–600 cases of this wine are made each year, blended from 85 percent sémillon, 14 percent sauvignon blanc, and occasionally a touch of muscadelle, although this is becoming less common.
Director Jean-Philippe Delmas says of the wine: “You find some notes similar to the great sweet Sauternes, notably of honey and acacia, and yet it’s a dry wine. The sémillon gives this weight and depth.”
A second white wine is also made, called La Clarté de Haut-Brion.
No. 7: Dividing the spoils:
In the 2012 vintage, La Mission Haut-Brion used 41 percent of its red grapes for its first wine, with the rest going into the estate’s second wine, La Chapelle de la Mission. A small proportion was also separated off to become part of the overall blend of Clarendelle, a branded wine made by Domaine Clarence Dillon.
Alcohol for La Mission came in at a whopping 14.95 percent for the red wine in 2012, and 14.2 percent for the white yet were “beautifully balanced” says Jancis Robinson MW. A case of the red is currently selling for around 1,600 pounds on the U.K. market, and the white at 5,300 pounds.
No. 9: Cutting-edge winery:
Right back in the 1920’s, Henri Woltner was the first winemaker in Bordeaux to install glass-lined steel fermentation vats, with the aim of providing better temperature control during the fermentation process. Updated versions of the stainless steel vats are used today, with automated stirring and temperature control.
Today, the wine is made of a typical blend of 43 percent merlot, 46 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 11 percent cabernet franc. An average vintage will be aged for 18–22 months in 80 percent new oak barrels. They come from the same cooperage as that used by Chateau Haut-Brion, located onsite in a partnership with barrel makers Seguin-Moreau.
No. 9: Spiritual atmosphere:
All over the château, touches remain – or have been created – in honor of its religious roots. In 1996, a new tasting room was created called Salle du Chapitre in memory of the Lazarite friars. In 2007, it was was redesigned with wooden ornamentation sculpted by Italian craftsmen to heighten the religious ambiance. It is decorated with original engravings by Albrecht Dürer, a religious artist whose work dates to the same period as the Lazarites. At the same time, a cloister was built to welcome visitors before they enter the winery.
“I have tried to underline the legitimacy of the history at the estate,” says Prince Robert. “I want stories with the properties, but for them to be authentic. So we rebuilt the wine cellar by drawing on the history of the monks. We found the Dürer engravings because the same images would have been current during the first golden age of La Mission.’
No. 10: Long-lasting delights:
In October this year, Sotheby’s in Hong Kong will be holding a direct-from-cellar auction of Domaine Clarence Dillon wines, expected to fetch up to $1.8 million. Bottles will be offered in various formats, and will include 98 lots of La Mission Haut-Brion from 1916 to 2012, and 50 lots of La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc from 1945 to 2012.
Wine-Searcher’s average prices for the wines range from $522 a bottle (ex-tax) for red La Mission, and $860 for La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc. These are age-worthy wines. Generally, one can expect the white wine to last for at least 15 to 40 years, depending on vintage, because of its high level of sémillon (in recent years, the 2007 and 2011 have been particularly well received).