Pessac-Leognan Wine Region Summary
A newer appellation, having been split as a distinct region in 1987, Pessac-Leognan contains the finest estates in Graves.
Whilst the mild climate is similar to that of the Haut Medoc to the north, the wines of Pessac-Leognan have a very distinct character. Deep gravel ridges make for red wines commonly recognized by their intensity and structure. The Cabernet Sauvignon so at home here is responsible for what are often deeply savoury, smoky characteristics in Pessac-Leognan wines. Merlot commonly makes up a greater proportion of final blends than in neighbouring appellations, a marriage which means these wines are more approachable in their youth than those of the Haut-Medoc further north and yet also age reliably well for decades.
Production is varied; the first Bordeaux clairets (rosés) were produced here, and the dry white wines are among the finest in Bordeaux. Sparkling quartz gravel soils lend these whites, based on Sémillon and Sauvingnon Blanc, a unique character, commonly featuring citrus blossom aromas and tropical fruit flavours.
The resident First Growth, Chateau Haut Brion, remains the most iconic estate here and was the first Bordeaux producer to export and produce its own wine internationally. Its claret, famously enjoyed by Samuel Pepys, is commonly admired for its multifaceted layers of refined flavour.
Highest rated vintages for Pessac-Leognan
A monumental wine, this historic La Mission-Haut-Brion was the last vintage made by the descendants of the Woltner family, who had owned this estate for decades prior to selling it to their neighbors, the Dillon family (the American owners of cross-street rival, Chateau Haut-Brion). The 1982 admirably demonstrates the magnificence of La Mission as well as the singularity of this amazing terroir. I had the good fortune of tasting it from barrel (where it was an enormous Graves fruit bomb) and watching it develop more nuances in bottle. At age 30, it remains a majestic, multidimensional, profound Bordeaux with another 20-30+ years of life ahead of it. It's no secret that the great vintages of Bordeaux have levels of fruit extract and depth that go beyond other years. It is this fruit, often referred to as “fat” or “concentration,” that takes decades to dissipate and fade. As it does so, the extraordinary aromatic expression of the terroir asserts itself. Remarkably, the 1982 is still in late adolescence and has not yet reached its peak. Early in my career, much of my reputation was established on calling this vintage correctly, but I never in my wildest dreams thought the 1982s would mature as slowly and last as long as some seem capable of doing. One of the handful of perfect wines of the vintage, the La Mission still possesses a remarkably dense ruby/purple color with only a slight garnet and lightening at the edge. The fruit-dominated aromatics reveal lots of cassis, blueberry, scorched earth, black truffle, incense, graphite and high-class, unsmoked cigar tobacco-like notes. Still exhibiting remarkable concentration, enormous body, silky sweet tannin, and no perceptible acidity, the 1982 remains fresh, delineated and super-compelling. A massive La Mission made by the Dewravin family and their winemakers, all of whom were dismissed the following year when the estate was acquired by Haut-Brion, this modern day legend shows no signs of decline. In fact, it may not have yet reached its peak. Anticipated maturity: now-2060+.
This continues to be one of the immortal wines and one of the greatest young Bordeaux wines of the last half-century. Consistently prodigious and almost a sure bet to top the scoring card of any blind tasting of this vintage as well as other years, the 1989 Haut-Brion is a seamless, majestic classic, and a tribute to this phenomenal terroir and its singular characteristics. The wine still has a very thick, viscous-looking ruby/purple color, a spectacular, young but awesome smorgasbord of aromas ranging from scorched earth, liquid minerals, graphite, blackberry and black currant jam to toast, licorice, and spice box. The levels of fruit, extract, and glycerin in this viscous, full-bodied, low-acid wine are awe-inspiring. The brilliant symmetry of the wine, extraordinary purity, and seamlessness are the hallmarks of a modern-day legend. It is still in its pre-adolescent stage of development, and I would not expect it to hit its full plateau of maturity for another 3-5 years, but this should be an Haut-Brion that rivals the greatest ever made at this estate. Life is too short not to drink this wine as many times as possible! A modern day clone of the 1959? Anticipated maturity: 2005-2030. Last tasted, 1/03.
Both La Mission-Haut-Brion and Haut-Brion hit home runs in this vintage, which did not produce as many profound wines as the Bordeaux publicity machine suggested. 1989, the 200th anniversary of the French revolution, was an incredibly hot year (surpassed only by 1990 and 2003). Even from barrel the seamless 1989 La Mission revealed a special elixir aspect, tasting like it had been designed by Chanel. It still possesses a blue/purple color with only a hint of garnet creeping in, and the explosive aromatics offer up notes of licorice, creme de cassis, blueberry liqueur, smoky barbecue meats, truffles and graphite. If that's not enough to get one salivating, the palate has never disappointed either. Full-bodied with extraordinary opulence as well as sweet, well-integrated, velvety tannins, this fresh, lively, blockbuster La Mission appears to be one of those rare wines that never goes through a closed, unfriendly stage. It has been a compelling, multidimensional effort from barrel, in its infancy, and as it heads into late adolescence. A remarkable tour de force in winemaking, it is one of the all-time profound La Mission-Haut-Brions. Anticipated maturity: now-2050.
One of the wines of the vintage, the 2000 has barely budged in its evolution since it was bottled and released in 2002. After ten years in bottle, it still reveals a dense opaque purple color along with a potentially sensational bouquet of blueberries, black currants, graphite, asphalt and background oak. Extremely powerful, full-bodied and superbly concentrated with good acidity and high but round tannins, this massive La Mission-Haut-Brion should take its place among this estate's most hallowed vintages when it hits full maturity in another one to two decades. I was surprised by just how youthful this wine tasted at age 12. If tasted blind, I would have guessed it to be around 4 to 5 years old. Anticipated maturity: 2020-2050.
What a blockbuster effort! Atypically powerful, one day, the 2009 Haut-Brion may be considered to be the 21st century version of the 1959. It is an extraordinarily complex, concentrated effort made from a blend of 46% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Cabernet Franc with the highest alcohol ever achieved at this estate, 14.3%. Even richer than the perfect 1989, with similar technical numbers although slightly higher extract and alcohol, it offers up a sensational perfume of subtle burning embers, unsmoked cigar tobacco, charcoal, black raspberries, wet gravel, plums, figs and blueberries. There is so much going on in the aromatics that one almost hesitates to stop smelling it. However, when it hits the palate, it is hardly a letdown. This unctuously textured, full-bodied 2009 possesses low acidity along with stunning extract and remarkable clarity for a wine with a pH close to 4.0. The good news is that there are 10,500 cases of the 2009, one of the most compelling examples of Haut-Brion ever made. It requires a decade of cellaring and should last a half century or more. Readers who have loved the complexity of Haut-Brion should be prepared for a bigger, richer, more massive wine, but one that does not lose any of its prodigious aromatic attractions.
The finest wine ever made by proprietors Daniel and Florence Cathiard, the 2009 Smith-Haut-Lafitte exhibits an opaque blue/purple color in addition to a glorious nose of acacia flowers, licorice, charcoal, blueberries, black raspberries, lead pencil shavings and incense. This massive, extraordinarily rich, unctuously textured wine may be the most concentrated effort produced to date, although the 2000, 2005 and 2010 are nearly as prodigious. A gorgeous expression of Pessac-Leognan with sweet tannin, emerging charm and delicacy, and considerable power, depth, richness and authority, it should age effortlessly for 30-40+ years. Bravo!
The 2009 was not part of this vertical tasting, so I am repeating the tasting note published in issue #199 of The Wine Advocate from a tasting done in January, 2012.
A candidate for the wine of the vintage, the 2009 La Mission-Haut-Brion stood out as one of the most exceptional young wines I had ever tasted from barrel, and its greatness has been confirmed in the bottle. A remarkable effort from the Dillon family, this is another large-scaled La Mission that tips the scales at 15% alcohol. A blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (47% of each) and the rest Cabernet Franc, it exhibits an opaque purple color as well as a magnificent bouquet of truffles, scorched earth, blackberry and blueberry liqueur, subtle smoke and spring flowers. The wine's remarkable concentration offers up an unctuous/viscous texture, a skyscraper-like mouthfeel, sweet, sumptuous, nearly over-the-top flavors and massive density. Perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime La Mission-Haut-Brion, the 2009 will take its place alongside the many great wines made here since the early 1920s. The good news is that there are nearly 6,000 cases of the 2009. It should last for 50-75+ years. Given the wine's unctuosity and sweetness of the tannin, I would have no problem drinking it in about 5-6 years. The final blend was 47% Merlot, 47% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Cabernet Franc.
I certainly underrated the 2010 Pape Clement from barrel, rating it only 93-95+. (Thank God I put a “plus” there!) Having tasted it four times in Bordeaux, and rating it perfect three times and 99 the fourth time, this final blend of 51% Merlot, 47.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 1.5% Petit Verdot is perfection in a bottle. Tipping the scales at 14.5% natural alcohol, there are 8,000 cases of it. Its sublime elegance, the power, the medium to full-bodied texture, the silky tannins, the subtle notes of smoke, lead pencil shavings, black currants, charcoal, camphor, blueberry and cassis fruit are all remarkable. It is a rich, full-throttle wine, but the elegance and the great terroir of Pape Clement come through in abundance. It is slightly more developed and evolved than the 2005 was at a similar point in its evolution, but it certainly needs another 5-7 years to develop further nuances, which it surely will. This wine will last 30-40+ years. Kudos to proprietor Bernard Magrez, who has built an empire based on high quality more than any other characteristic.
As for the 2010 Haut-Brion, it does not have the power of Latour's 2010 or the intense lead pencil shavings and chocolaty component of Lafite-Rothschild, but it is extraordinary, perfect wine. It has a slightly lower pH than the 2009 (3.7 versus the 2009's 3.8), and even higher alcohol than the 2009 (14.6%). The wine is ethereal. From its dense purple color to its incredibly subtle but striking aromatics that build incrementally, offering up a spectacular smorgasbord of aromas ranging from charcoal and camphor to black currant and blueberry liqueur and spring flowers, this wine's finesse, elegant yet noble power and authority come through in a compelling fashion. It is full-bodied, but that's only apparent in the aftertaste, as the wine seems to float across the palate with remarkable sweetness, harmony, and the integration of all its component parts – alcohol, tannin, acidity, wood, etc. This prodigious Haut-Brion is hard to compare to another vintage, at least right now, but it should have 50 to 75 years of aging potential. Anticipated maturity: 2022-2065+. Kudos to the team at Haut-Brion and to the proprietors, the Dillon family, who are now represented admirably and meticulously by Prince Robert of Luxembourg. He has made some changes, and all of them seem to have resulted in dramatic improvements to what was already an astonishing group of wines.
Reminiscing over the 1989 and 1990 vintages, which I have followed from birth, there always seemed to be a dramatic difference in quality. Not that the 1990 was not a top wine, but in its infancy, I never thought it would come close to being as riveting and magnetic as its older sibling, the 1989. However, it has proven to be nearly as prodigious. One of the hottest years in Bordeaux, 1990, a vintage of enormous yields, even dwarfing yields in 1985 and 1982, produced a fabulously open-knit, seemingly fast track La Mission that, at age 22, shows no signs of fading or losing its grip. The color is slightly more mature and evolved than the 1989's, exhibiting a lighter rim and a less dark blue/ruby/purple hue. Classic La Mission-Haut-Brion aromatics of camphor, licorice, scorched earth, hot bricks, barbecue, cassis, blueberry and kirsch are well displayed. Broad, expansive, velvety-textured and opulent with high glycerin and perhaps slightly higher alcohol (I don't have the statistics to verify that), the 1990 is as delicious and open-knit as the 1989, with less density and possibly less potential longevity. Most 1990s have been quick to reach full maturity, and as brilliant as they can be, they need to be monitored carefully by owners. Currently in late adolescence, but close to full maturity, the 1990 should hold in a cold cellar for another 15-20 years. However, it is a fabulous wine to inspect, taste and consume, so why wait?