TN: 89 vs. 90 Haut Brion/La Mission HB

For several months, Denis, Al, and I have been talking about putting together a tasting of the 1989 and 1990 Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion. Finally, we were able to pull it off last Saturday:

  1. 1990 Bollinger RD Champagne. Initially, a very bready/yeasty Champagne. But with 15 minutes in the flute, it opened up tremendously—lots of bright citrus, some minerality, and a bit of oyster shell in the flavors. It continued to open up, with a great balance of fruit and acidity and a medium weight midpalate. Just fantastic Champagne, and still on the youthful side. Between a “wow” and a “wow plus” for me.

  2. 1990 Laville Haut Brion Blanc. Since the main event would be the 1989 vs. 1990 reds, it was decided to throw in the next two wines side-by-side. A lot of white flowers and a bit of wax in the nose, but more pear-like flavors in the taste. Very nice, but completely eclipsed by the next wine; a “yum plus” for me.

  3. 1989 Haut Brion Blanc. This is a relatively rare bottle to find, so it was great to be able to taste it, especially in this line-up. When initially poured, there was a lot of petrol and burnt rubber in the nose—presumably bottled with significant SO2. After about 10 minutes, those qualities started to blow off. What emerged was a slightly grassy wine with ripe grapefruit, a bit of fig, and waves of flavor and complexity. A very rich, and somewhat heavy-weight midpalate. Just spectacular wine, and probably best if decanted for 15-30 minutes before tasting. Since I rarely give an “ay carumba” to white wines, I gave it a “wow plus,” but we all were raving about this wine. What a treat!

The Red flight. So we decided to taste the 1989/1990 Haut Brion and La Mission side-by-side. I suggested that we taste all four wines single blind (we knew what wines were in the flight, but not what was in each glass) because I wanted to taste the wines without too much of a preconception based on the label. Of course, we ended up spending a lot of time trying to guess which wine was which:

  1. Red Wine #1. A slightly lighter red color than the other three wines. This wine was spectacular right out of the gate. Very aromatic, with the trademark cedar, blackberries, tobacco/cigar, and slightly scorched earth. The taste followed the nose, but with a bit of grilled nuts. Great balance of fruit and acidity, followed by lots of fine tannins. Everyone “ooohed” and “aaahed” over this one, and it was the clear consensus favorite for drinking now. Clearly an “ay carumba” wine.

  2. Red Wine #2. A much darker red wine. Initially, very dense and tightly-wound. This wine took over 30 minutes to really begin to emerge in the glass, with a tremendous amount of acidity and big, chewy tannins. The fruit started to come out to play, but even at present, it’s hidden behind the structure. A “wow” for now, with potential for much more in 10+ years.

  3. Red Wine #3. Very similar to the first glass, but with more structure—more obvious acidity and denser tannins. As it sat in the glass, it became perhaps a little more complex than the first wine, but the scale was so much larger that it’s still many, many years away from real maturity. It started out as a “wow plus,” but ultimately turned into an “ay carumba.”

  4. Red Wine #4. A return to a very dense, backward wine, with tremendous, puckery tannins similar to the second wine. Again, a cigar and earthy quality throughout, but just a bit lighter in weight than the second wine, with a tarter midpalate. On any other night, it would have been great, but it suffered in comparison to the other three wines. Between a “wow” and a “wow plus” for me, but it also continued to improve drastically in the glass.

We then talked about the wines, and it was clear that the first wine was the favorite for drinking right now—ultimately, it got 6 votes, with the third wine getting one vote for favorite for now. Then everyone wrote down their guesses for which wine was which.

The answer?

Red Wine #1 was the 1990 Haut Brion.
Red Wine #2 was the 1989 La Mission Haut Brion.
Red Wine #3 was the 1989 Haut Brion.
Red Wine #4 was the 1990 La Mission Haut Brion.

Al correctly identified all four wines (nice going, Al). I was next, except that I switched the vintages on the Haut Brion. The first one was so beautiful and expressive when I tasted it first that I immediately thought it was the 1989 HB. But given the heavier weight and greater complexity of #3, I should have re-evaluated my first guess. Oh well.

  1. 1989 Jadot Le Musigny. I think this wine suffered a bit, in part because it was served right after the preceding wines, and also because it was a pop and pour. Had this wine been decanted for at least 30-60 minutes, it would have shown better. The nose was great—lots of Asian spice with the dark cherries—but the taste never really got a chance to develop in the relatively short time that we had to taste it. My guess is that it’s still rather young, but clearly has “wow” potential.

  2. 1990 Ch. Rieussec Sauternes. A noticeably darker yellow color compared to the next dessert wine. As one would expect, a lot of honey, botrytis, and tropical notes throughout this wine. A somewhat viscous midpalate, with a bit of waxiness. I think this wine has aged past the early stage, but hasn’t yet gotten into a more mature stage that I would expect in at least another 5-10 years. Between a “wow” and a “wow plus” with potential for at least a “wow plus.”

  3. 1990 Pichot Vouvray Moelleux. A lighter yellow color than the Rieussec, and of course a different combination of aromas and flavors. Quite a bit of apricot and pear throughout, with a much lighter midpalate than the Rieussec. Also, in the sugar/acid balance, there appears to be much less residual sugar here, with a bit more lively acidity. I’m not sure that this wine will improve significantly with additional cellaring (at least, for my tastes). Also between a “wow” and a “wow plus.”

There was also a 2002 Weil Eiswein at the very end, but I didn’t taste it because I was concentrating on the Rieussec and the Pichot—Denis will have to describe that one.

Well, just a fantastic collection of wines, and not a single corked or otherwise “off” bottle! Denis put together a delicious dinner to go with the wines. One of my favorite combinations was the lobster thermidor with the 1989 Haut Brion Blanc—a brilliant pairing. So I’ve managed to have two amazing wine dinners two Saturdays in a row. Over the years I’ve been able to meet some fantastic people on the various Internet wine boards, and it’s wonderful to open and share all of these gems.


Wow, my dream tasting.

You did a great job of describing the wines…I also guessed all 4 from your description.

Stupendous notes Bruce. I’ve never had any of the reds but they all sound fantastic. How long were they decanted for? For optimal drinking, when would you approach them again?

Regarding the 90 Rieussec - Agree with you on the waxiness! I also find that quality in 90 Suiduraut (but not 90 Yquem).

Thanks for sharing.


Faryan–The decision was made that we would double-decant the two 89’s just before going over to Denis’ place. When we got there, the two 90’s were opened, and then all four were poured into decanters marked #1-4. So the 89’s were initially opened about 2 hours before we began to taste them; the 90’s about a little over an hour. The 89’s clearly could have benefited from a bit more decanter time.

The 89’s will go forever, if they have good provenance. I suspect the 89 LMHB in particular will outlive me. I don’t know the provenance of the 90 Haut Brion–once the wines were revealed, I was a little surprised (based on prior tastings) at how evolved it was vs. the 89 Haut Brion.