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Haut Future

A new generation at Haut-Brion continues a long tradition of making some of Bordeaux's finest wine
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004

On a stiflingly warm afternoon in June, Prince Robert of Luxembourg and his wife, Julie, sit down to lunch with a table full of perspiring guests in the small dining room at Château Haut-Brion. There is history at Haut-Brion, and unequalled terroir, and an ongoing reputation as one of the world's finest wines. There is, however, no air-conditioning.

At 35, Prince Robert has thinning hair and a high forehead. He reaches for the small bell that has been placed beside his plate and shakes it firmly. It summons a server in a starched shirt and a jacket who arrives bearing a bowl of chilled pea soup and a silver ladle.

As he does, two white wines are poured at the table, a 1999 Haut-Brion Blanc and a 1990 Laville Haut-Brion. Robert glances up at Jean Delmas, until last year Haut-Brion's winemaker, who is sitting across from him, then takes a sip of the 1999 and nods with enthusiasm. "We don't always eat like this, be assured," he says. "But when we do, we enjoy it."

It's difficult to find a chronicle of Haut-Brion that doesn't begin with the distant past, with references to Jean de Pontac, born in 1488, who built the château. Diarist Samuel Pepys recorded Haut-Brion's "good and most particular taste" for posterity after tasting it in 1663. Thomas Jefferson, while serving as ambassador to France in the 1780s, bought the wine for his private cellar. The 1855 classification of Bordeaux marked Haut-Brion, along with Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux and Latour, as one of four original first-growths.

But the Haut-Brion that exists today, the producer of perhaps the most consistently excellent red wine in the world, has its origins in two far more recent dynasties, one of aristocrats and one of laborers. Since the first third of the twentieth century, the Dillon family has owned the estate and the Delmas family has made its wine.

American businessman Clarence Dillon bought Haut-Brion in 1935 and found Georges Delmas ensconced there. Clarence had a son, Douglas, who gained fame as the U.S. secretary of the treasury. Douglas's daughter, Joan, would marry a Luxembourgian nobleman and give birth to Prince Robert, who today manages the company that oversees the château. Despite a world war, the upheavals of the late 1960s, the advent of the euro and the European Union, it has remained in the Dillon family.

During the same time, the Delmases were on a parallel course, growing grapes and making wine while raising a family of more mundane bloodlines. Georges's son, Jean, was born at the château. And in 1969, a few months after Prince Robert was born, Jean had a son of his own, Jean-Philippe.

Now it is as though a crank has been turned and a generational shift set into motion. With Jean Delmas retired and Joan Dillon spending less and less time at the winery, Prince Robert of Luxembourg and Jean-Philippe Delmas have emerged from the shadows into the light. "We are the third couple," Jean-Philippe says now, making reference to the generations of Dillons and Delmases before them.

For this hired hand, part farmer and part chemist, and his aristocratic boss, the mandate is clear. Preserve the heritage, from silver ladle to exalted wine, but guide it into the young century. Continue to change, in order that Haut-Brion can remain the same.

Château Haut-Brion is enclosed by the streets of the Bordeaux suburb of Pessac, making its panorama rather less glorious than that of the spectacular châteaux of the Medoc. But to a viticulturist, for whom beauty is hidden within the soil, perhaps no setting in Bordeaux is as spectacular. When vines were first planted around Bordeaux centuries ago, the stony sand of Graves was held in the highest esteem. Haut-Brion's site was considered the best of the area.

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