“It’ll be difficult.”
“Well Mr Hunt, this isn’t Mission Difficult, it’s Mission Impossible. Difficult should be a walk in the park for you.”
You might well ask exactly what element of a 2-star Michelin dinner in the company of 50 fine people and the astonishing wines of La Mission Haut-Brion merits the term ‘difficult’ - but let me explain.
It’s an oft-quoted saying that one should never meet one’s heroes - the fear being that the reality can never live up to the expectation. Certainly this pithy saying isn’t always true; although I think we often go through our lives without realising that we have met real heroes and not seen it at the time. The same can be true of wine, especially when your stock in trade is ‘the best of the best’. The big scores and famous names promise so much - can they really deliver? Can those 100-point critical experiences really be recreated in one’s own sphere and context? Well, as with people, sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes no. (It’s worth saying that as with people, sometimes the greatest wine ‘meetings’ are those we don’t expect - which is why it’s so crucial to keep an open mind and a ready palate.)
As a Fine Wine merchant it is beholden on us to put legendary wines to the test and what better way to do so than to put the pinnacle of a great estate’s production on the table and just dive right in...? Of course we are looking to prove that they are worthy of their fearsome reputation and hopefully to share in a magical experience with our fortunate clients. But as with any test, there is an element of trepidation. What if the wines don’t ‘show up’? Reputations are built and broken on such things. So whilst it’s not Mission Impossible, it at least has the potential to be Mission Difficult.
Reassurance came in the form of knowing that all the wines had been shipped direct from the chateau – and the restaurant’s sommelier team were seriously excited about the evening’s service, having prepared and decanted the bottles.
And so to dinner, in the classical luxury of Marcus Wareing’s flagship restaurant Marcus at the Berkeley Hotel, with both Mr Wareing and Jean-Philippe Delmas, 3rd generation winemaker at Haut Brion and 2nd generation in charge of La Mission Haut-Brion, on sparkling form. After a round or two of the gorgeous, focused and toasted brioche-charged Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006, we sat for dinner. Expectations were high and the room was buzzing. Would it be a good night to meet your heroes...?
Starter - Scallop, celeriac, hazelnut, truffle
With its fine chalk and lanolin characters leaping from the glass, and a beautifully precise palate of grapefruit, lime, wet stone and just a hint of just-ripe tropical fruits, this is a very clever expression of Semillon from the estate. There’s no question it is lighter in body and intensity than the wine which follows but at around one fifth (or less) of the price it gives a true reflection of the estate’s superb white style. 92 pts (it’s well worth checking out the 2015 which is an absolute bargain)
La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc 2009
A wine with a big reputation and price tag to match. In truth this was a baby, giving up less on the nose than the younger-vined Clarte; but it’s all there, tightly wound up in a steely cage of lime, passion fruit, wet chalk, sea shell, toasted lemon and a refreshing briny note. The palate is fat and round as you might expect from such a generous warm vintage, but as soon as the oily, lush fruit flavours are kicking in, the acidity rushes forth and instantly gives the wine a new sense of poise and precision that holds for well over a minute. A pretty staggering experience, in truth. 97 pts
First Course – Quail, beetroot, Lautrec garlic
La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion 2009
The vintage is immediately obvious here with that just-browned caramel note behind the plush, ripe blackberry, blackcurrant and wild raspberry fruit. Characteristic warm earth notes come through on the nose but the palate here is pure, pure, pure – incredible mouthfilling fruit, ripe, soft tannins and somehow, underneath all this gloss, polish and flavour density, a notable spine of acidity which keeps the wine in balance. Impressive. 94+pts
La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion 2005
A darker and more brooding Chapelle than the 2009, this actually takes a bit more work to get out of the glass. Austere with a mineral-driven nose at first, with beef blood and roasted beetroot characters coming through with time. This is such a great foil to the quail! The palate is really dense and intellectual, with firm, grainy tannins which hint at a very long potential life ahead. This would knock many grands vins into a cocked hat. 94 pts
Main Course - Venison, heritage carrots, fig, girolles
The first of the La Missions is an impressive beast. Again, as with the 2009 Chapelle, the vintage screams from the glass with sultry, smoky, high-toned and ripe blackberry and raspberry fruits. The terroir is right out front here with baked earth, gravel, sea shell all present and correct. On the palate it is still so young – deep, rich, almost chewy tannins and vibrant acidity mark this as a La Mission with massive potential for the future, despite the plushness and soft approachability of the fruit. A stunning introduction. 98 pts
La Mission Haut-Brion 1990
Wow – the difference here versus the 2000 is remarkable. On the nose the 1990 is developing beautifully, bringing out a deeper layer of earthy minerality – almost pungent. The more time this spends in the glass the more it resembles a great Burgundy, with the ripe red fruits and earthiness to the fore and deeper, blacker fruits behind alongside the savoury notes of a well-aged, well-cooked steak. The palate is amazingly nimble and refreshing, with complexity to burn; layer upon layer of fresh and cooked fruit, grilled meat, and distinct minerality. 97 pts
La Mission Haut-Brion 1989 (en jeroboam)
Mission Impossible? A walk in the park. The 1989, from one of the few remaining jeroboams (only 20 were produced), is quite simply everything it has been promised to be. The nose is utterly enchanting, combining the very best of the earthy minerality of the 1990 with the precision fruit of the 2000 – and adding multiple extra layers just for good measure. The palate is both dense and lightweight, intense and fresh. The balance is 100%. This is another nail in the coffin for those who believe 1990 to be the better of these back to back vintages! The only Mission Impossible here is describing it, so I won’t try any further. 100 pts
La Mission Haut-Brion 1985
There’s no coming back from the ‘89 but the ‘85 makes a good fist of it. If the 1989 and 2000 are in the same stylistic vintage context, then the 1990 and 1985 appear to be similarly aligned. This is more comprehensively driven by minerality and earthiness, with the fruit becoming softer and more mellow over time. Again, that signature pungency akin to top Burgundy comes through, albeit with a darker fruit profile and hints of menthol and liquorice. 95 pts
Dessert - Warm Chocolate, cacao, salt caramel
Clarendelle (La Mission) Amberwine 2012
This Semillon-based dessert wine comes from the Clarence Dillon estate in Monbazillac. A mixture of raisined and botyritised grapes, it has a charming ‘cough candy’ note which makes a great balance to the intense sweetness of the dried grapes. This is so good with this dessert (which is one of the best I have eaten). Nice balance and good persistence – although in truth I just want to go back to the ‘89 La Mission. So I do. 92 pts
Sometimes you meet your heroes and they don’t just meet your expectations – they exceed them. The 1989 La Mission jeroboam will surely be one of the great wine memories for everyone present on this special evening.
Huge thanks to Marcus and his team at The Berkeley for their stellar cooking and service, and to Jean-Philippe Delmas and his team at La Mission for helping to pull together such a special evening.