A new generation at Haut-Brion continues a long tradition of making some of Bordeaux's finest wine
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.
"It is nothing but pure white sand, mixed with a little gravel," the English philosopher John Locke wrote of Haut-Brion in 1677. "One would imagine it scarce fit to bear anything." And that, in large measure, is the point. What makes Haut-Brion unique is not the provenance of its rootstock or the age of its vines——they are no older than those of an average Bordeaux property, and younger than many vineyards in Australia, Spain and even California——but that the soil has been under vine for the better part of a millennium. "Some parcels of the vineyard," Prince Robert says, "can be traced back continuously to 1425."
Keeping land under vine for year after year is the opposite of the technique known as crop rotation. It depletes the soil, leaving it barren of nutrients. "Because of the stress of the vines on it for such a long period of time, you have a very strong wasting effect," Jean Delmas explains. "The soil becomes very poor."
This forces the vines, whatever their age, to dig deeper into the subsoil in search of life-sustaining nutrition. Vines stressed in that manner will produce less fruit, but the fruit they do produce will have an intensity of flavor that cannot be replicated by natural means—or unnatural ones for that matter, such as the reverse osmosis machines scattered throughout the Medoc and beyond that extract water from the grapes, intensifying flavor.
In such a way is truly great terroir constructed. Enjoyable wines can be made from young vines in young soil if a winemaker is talented enough, but the best wines of the world have a nobility that can come from nowhere but the earth itself, fortified by nothing but time. It is a question of the provenance of the land, a geological history spread over centuries of time that is as distinct as the lineage of the royal families of Europe. Prince Robert of Luxembourg, related by birth to the Bourbons who once ruled most of Europe, can well understand.
During the time of the Dillons and the Delmases, the selling of the best Bordeaux wine has become big business. It wasn't always so. When Clarence Dillon journeyed to southwestern France in 1934 bent on purchasing a prominent winery, he was offered an 80 percent stake in Château Margaux and the entirety of Château Cheval Blanc before he settled on Haut-Brion, in large measure because the property was far closer to the city of Bordeaux and therefore more easily accessible. The finest wine estates in the world were available then, and for good reason. Making fine wine was a gentleman's game, and only the wealthiest families, such as the Rothschilds and the Dillons, could truly afford to play it. The others managed as they could, but in the lean years that followed the Second World War, the lack of improvements in their properties began to show. Oak barrels, originally purchased new, were used for an extra vintage, and then another. Open-vat fermentation tanks, scheduled for an overhaul, continued to store the freshly pressed juice, year after year. Spoilage became rampant, but in the aftermath of the war's desolation, no money existed to replace them.
Those who managed to make good Bordeaux in the 1950s and 1960s could only wonder at how glorious the wines might have been with enough money to carry out the desperately needed upkeep on the equipment, let alone to experiment with some of the newer techniques and technologies that were coming into use around the world. But Jean Delmas didn't have to wonder. Fortified by Dillon wealth, he was the first winemaker in Bordeaux to replace his old wood fermentation tanks with stainless steel vats, in the early 1960s. Computers came to the property as long ago as 1981. Now Jean-Philippe works with second-generation vats that are bifurcated into upper and lower compartments for primary and secondary fermentation.
Paradoxically, the modern equipment has helped maintain Haut-Brion's classic style. In the estate's viticulture, computer science has replaced guesswork. With precise information available about the sweetness level of the grapes throughout the vineyards, each sector can be picked when the fruit is fully ripe. It is not necessary to overextract the flavor during the wine-making process to compensate for the greenness of unripe tannins, as many properties do.
Perhaps as a result, Haut-Brions rarely close down in the bottle and become inaccessible for years and even decades, as some wines—even those considered great—are prone to do. Each vintage of Haut-Brion is typically the first of the first-growths to release its charms, yet the wines live as long as any. In 1997, for example, Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication, rated the 1929 Haut-Brion at 97 points.
The consistency of the wines has been sustained by continuity. Nearly a decade ago, Jean Delmas attempted to resign from Haut-Brion and begin a consulting business with his son. He thought it would be simple, an employee giving notice to his employer. At the time,
Jean-Philippe was not officially employed at the château, so in Jean's mind, the consulting business would have been a way for a father and a son to create a new business together with the future in sight.
The outcry for Jean to stay at Haut-Brion stunned him. "My name is linked to Haut-Brion, and it became clear that my departure is bad for Haut-Brion and for me," he said at the time. Soon after, Jean-Philippe was officially added to the employee payroll. Now the succession is orderly, unlike those taking place at many Bordeaux houses these days as the international conglomerates move in, sniffing easy profits.
The region's winemakers well understand what Jean was able to accomplish. "He didn't do more than he had to do to the grapes, so his wines age very, very well," says Count Stephan von Neipperg, the proprietor of several right-bank Bordeaux estates, including Canon La Gaffliere and Clos de l'Oratoire. "They drink well young and they drink well old. Year after year, they have that harmony that all of us want to find."
Prince Robert understands it, too. Recently, he came across some bottles of the 1991 Haut-Brion at auction. "They were going for a ridiculously low price, so I bought them," he says. "They're drinking terrifically well now, a decade after their release." The more exalted vintages of Haut-Brion, the 1985 and 1986, the 1989 and 1990, are drinking well now, too, but it would be a shame to drink them up and lose them for the future, Robert knows. "Many years, decades and decades," he says, when asked how long those benchmark wines of Jean Delmas's tenure will last. "Quite long. I couldn't begin to say how long."
Jean's hair is white now, his hands lined with age. At the end of 2003, having turned 68, he was forced by French law to retire. Jean-Philippe's face is a modern version of Jean's father's. Georges Delmas was a man who had enough steel in his eyes to prevent the occupying Germans from drinking up stores of old vintages during the Second World War. Yet the most prominent aspect of Jean-Philippe's personality is his charm. It alleviates the steel the way ripe fruit can envelop and soften the tannin in a glass of young Cabernet.
If Robert can't help but seem distant, Jean-Philippe is eminently likable. "We still know comparatively very little about making wine," he says now as a 1990 Haut-Brion is poured with the main course. Then he raises a glass to his lips and tastes it. "We do know a few things, however," he says, and the whole table can't help but smile.
While Jean-Philippe Delmas is a Bordelais, born and raised, Robert talks with that peculiarly modern accent of a man who is stateless, or perhaps belongs to too many states. Born in Luxembourg in his grandmother's castle, schooled in England and Luxembourg, he spent his youth shuttling between his family's various homes in Europe and America, vacationing in Maine and Florida, seeing the world.
As a young man, Robert loved writing screenplays, partnering with his wife to bring characters to life, but he also had other responsibilities. He'd jet between Los Angeles and Bordeaux, where his mother lived with her second husband, the Duc de Mouchy. Since his eighteenth birthday, Robert had served as a board member of the company that runs Haut-Brion, Domaine Clarence Dillon S.A.
From the beginning, Prince Robert had an almost soulful connection to Haut-Brion, and he came of age drinking the wine. Yet for several years following the end of his schooling at Georgetown University, his connection to the château he had known since his earliest days was peripheral. "I visited and took an interest in the wine," he says. "But I never took it for granted that I would oversee the estate."
As youth gave way to maturity, Haut-Brion beckoned. In 1997, with Joan getting on in years, the family asked Robert to turn his attention to the centuries-old château. Not long before, Robert and Julie had sold their first screenplay, about the legendary Spanish lover Don Juan. Together, they had a bright future in Hollywood. Nevertheless, he agreed. "It was the family business," he says, "though I had a lot to learn."
When Prince Robert arrived at the château in 1997, he found Jean-Philippe. Robert knew the terroir as his birthright, but Jean-Philippe knew it as a child knows a playground. He had wandered its paths for hours, played in its crannies. Most important, he had farmed its soil.
It might have seemed awkward for the owner's son—and a member of European royalty, at that—to sit at the feet of a paid worker for a tutorial. Yet that's exactly what happened. "He asked questions, a lot of questions," Jean-Philippe says. "Questions about the terroir, the wine making, the commercial aspects, the communications. He never hesitated to ask a single one, and I respect that very much." Seven years on, Robert is still asking. "But he asks less and less," Jean-Philippe says, "because he knows more and more. His knowledge about the technique is more than very good. I can come to him and talk about technical matters, and he knows what I am saying. And if I come to him saying that we have to make changes, he will understand exactly why." When lunch ends, the party moves to a parlor for coffee. At exactly three o'clock, Robert rises. As if on cue, everyone else does, too. Hands are shaken and the group walks outside into the heat of the afternoon. A car is waiting in the driveway to take Julie and the three children to the airport, and from there to London. The youngest are safely buckled inside, but six-year-old Alexander doesn't want to leave. He sits beneath a tree in the garden just beyond the vineyards, his hands gripping the very terrain that his family has sunk their roots into so deeply.
Robert strides across the driveway and gently lifts his son to his chest. He carries him to the car, whispering in his ear as he walks: a descendant of the Bourbons doing the duty of fathers everywhere. The scene is both magisterial and commonplace, a moment as elemental as the soil, yet as rich as the finest wine. That, too, is Haut-Brion. v
Bruce Schoenfeld often writes about wine for Cigar Aficionado and recently authored The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton (HarperCollins).
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