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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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.
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