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
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"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.
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