I was 20 when I tried my first great wine. Until then, I was more of a beer and bourbon man. (Not together – I’m not an animal!) I was half way through university, and I didn’t have the means nor the taste to be drinking grands crus.

Sure, I’d tried plenty of supermarket wine by this point – enough to understand that I didn’t really like wine. At least, that’s what I thought.

I was invited to a close friend’s 21st birthday dinner with his family. His father was a real gourmand – imagine Michael Winner, in both discernment and circumference, and you’re about there. He ordered a bottle of red for the table that was clearly held in high esteem by the sommelier, as indicated by both the raised eyebrows and nod of approval as much as the elaborate candle-lit decanting method that duly ensued.

Once I tried it, I understood why. It was a moment of realisation: so, this is what great wine can taste like.

The bottle was a 1961 Château La Mission Haut-Brion – and, mon dieu! – it tasted like heaven. Which is somewhat fitting, given the winery’s religious roots. More on those in due course.

Château La Mission Haut-Brion in a glass
Château La Mission Haut-Brion harvest

Twenty years – and half my life – later, I’m a guest at the same Château, this time tasting its 1983 vintage. It tastes just as special.

The year 1983 was a significant one in La Mission’s long history. A young Prince Robert of Luxembourg was summoned by his mother Joan Dillon to travel home from his boarding school in England, having been told to meet her at the Château post-haste. At 15 years old, he had little interest in claret, but his mother knew that this moment would be a significant one – because she was just about to sign the deeds of sale to purchase the whole estate.

To be fair, the family has form in this arena. The prince’s great grandfather Clarence Dillon purchased the neighbouring Château Haut-Brion in 1935 with the goal of restoring it to its former glory and reclaiming its place among the elite circle of the world's most legendary wines. It was an undertaking he executed with aplomb. And now it was time for the next generation to repeat history.

History is something in which La Mission certainly isn’t lacking. Its story begins in 1540, when an ambitious Bordeaux merchant named Arnaud de Lestonnac bought the plot of land opposite the already established Château Haut-Brion. The same year, he married Marie, the sister of Jean de Pontac, then owner of Château Haut-Brion. Read into that what you will.

Following in the footsteps of his neighbour and new family, Arnaud worked tirelessly – plant by plant, plot by plot – to create one of Graves’ great wine estates.

He was not without help: when it comes to growing grapes, Graves’ terroir – like the wine it produces – is simply divine. Small pebbles of quartz varieties rest on a unique subsoil of clay, sand, limestone and falun; the gravel helps with drainage, reflects light, and retains heat. Not only does this help ripen fruit approximately two weeks earlier than in other parts of the Bordeaux wine region, but it makes the wines more resilient in wet vintages.

Château La Mission Haut-Brion

Two generations after Arnaud’s planting, his granddaughter Olive de Lestonnac took La Mission to the next level. Olive was a force of nature – a woman who had no fear of what was then almost exclusively a man’s world. Her order books and contracts show that she was involved in all stages of vine growing and wine making, personally managing the purchase of everything from barrels to the wooden stakes in the vineyard.

As well as running the estate in Graves, she was actively involved in the Médoc winegrowing area, particularly in Margaux. As if that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, she became the leading founder and guardian of convents in the Bordeaux region.

Despite being married (and widowed) three times, she never once relied on her husbands to run her business. She never became a mother, either – so she bequeathed the property to the Lazaristes de Bordeaux.

The Lazarist fathers were a society of missionary priests from the Roman Catholic Church. As well as spreading the word, they also enjoyed sharing their wine. They governed La Mission’s estate from 1682 until the French Revolution, expanding the vineyard, refining both vine cultivation and wine-making, even making first, second and third wines.

Wherever you go at La Mission you’ll be reminded of these ecclesiastical forebears. The Lazarist cross has been adopted as its logo for good reason – and you’ll spot it everywhere at the estate, carved into wooden panels, etched onto bespoke Riedel decanters, and of course, on the pews of the Château’s own chapel.

In 1698, the Lazarist Fathers built the Frontenac stone chapel, Notre-Dame D’Aubrion, which stands to this day. Inside, it features stunning stained-glass windows brought over from the Champagne region. More modern additions include a hand-painted banner beneath its cornice, which immortalises the greatest vintages of wine produced by the estate over the years.

La Mission chapel
La Mission chapel

Walking around the manicured grounds of the Château, you wouldn’t believe you were in the suburbs of France’s ninth largest city. Twenty minutes down the road, you’ll find a new addition to Domaine Clarence Dillon’s empire – its latest La Cave du Château wine store – in the beating heart of Bordeaux. When we visit, it’s thrumming with activity as the last bottles are being brought in and the finishing touches being made to its subterranean tasting room.

But back at the Château, a tranquillity permeates – not just in the chapel itself, but in the sheltered courtyards and cool cloisters – that echoes its hallowed past.

Its past entered a new era in the 19th century when the Chiapellas took over the reins, installing the elaborate wrought-iron gate which still welcomes visitors. An American family of merchants, the Chiapellas also helped forge a close relationship with the US – one which continues with the Dillons, of course.

In between these two tenures, the Woltner family were custodians from 1919. Frédéric Woltner most notably installed what were at the time revolutionary glass-lined steel fermentation vats instead of orthodox wooden vessels. The main benefit to these was being able to control fermentation temperatures more easily, not to mention improving sanitary conditions.

His son Henri was also a pioneer in the field. At the time, it was commonplace for fermentation to reach temperatures of 35 degrees celsius. Fuelled by his learning from the University of Bordeaux, young Henri brought that down to 28 degrees celsius. The result was fewer faulty wines – and a practice which was to become industry standard across the globe.

Which brings us back to 1983, and the moment when Joan Dillon, Duchesse de Mouchy, and president of Domaine Clarence Dillon, acquired this storied Château. Domaine Clarence Dillon started investing immediately, renovating the premises and installing a new, modern vat room.

In 2009, a spectacular 1,000 sq m winery was inaugurated: a veritable cathedral to wine, it was built of Frontenac stone – like the finest monuments in the city of Bordeaux as well as La Mission’s original chapel.

Château La Mission Haut-Brion

It was completed by a new cloister and tasting room, the latter decorated with a collection of engravings by Albrecht Dürer, illustrating various biblical scenes. A personal passion of the prince, the collection is one of the finest in the world – and is accompanied by complementary works by none other than Rembrant. This tasting room, framed in polished wood panelling, is somewhere between church, gallery and boardroom – a fitting trilogy for such a space.

A certain Mr Robert Parker has visited the Château before on many occasions, and the results of his tastings are well documented: La Mission has secured the highest number of 100-point ratings of any Bordeaux Left Bank producer.

For many years, it has long been considered the unofficial ‘sixth’ First Growth. Indeed, the same year the new winery was inaugurated at La Mission, Liv-Ex also revised the famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines, elevating Château La Mission Haut-Brion to the rank of Premier Grand Cru.

On my trip here, I was lucky enough to taste the 2023 vintage en primeur – a rare window into what to expect from what many growers found a challenging year. Not so, La Mission – even now the vintage is surprisingly approachable, and is showing all the hallmarks of opulence, elegance and complexity you’d expect. It’s also a significant vintage – the 40th in Domaine Clarence Dillon’s charge.

Prince Robert of Luxembourg, chairman and CEO of Domaine Clarence Dillon
Château La Mission Haut-Brion

For a greater insight into what La Mission is capable of, we went on to taste the four greatest vintages of the last four decades: 2010, 2000, 1990 and 1983. Running through all of them were common traits – every wine was silky and seductive, yet structured and powerful.

And that 1983? It can stop you in your tracks from six feet. We were tasting in relatively diminutive glasses by Riedel’s standards, and yet its aroma was almighty.

The finish is seemingly endless; the colour deep; there’s rich cherry, fragrant mint, succulent plums; and cigar smoke, shavings of pencil lead, cosseting leather. It is sublime.

“It’s enough to make a man take a vow of silence,” I joked to the prince – who accompanied us for the tasting.

“That is the definition of a great wine for me: when I’m left literally speechless,” he replied. “That is the ultimate test. You taste it and you just want to be silent – and not only because of La Mission’s ecclesiastical past.”

Try any vintage of Château La Mission Haut-Brion, and I guarantee you’ll be converted to this particular religion with your first sip.

See more at mission-haut-brion.com