Jean-Bernard Delmas has been in charge of winemaking here for forty years; a position he inherited from his father. I was delighted that we were joined by Jean-Philippe, Jean's son and heir to the role of chief winemaker. Both were born and raised at Haut-Brion, and clearly have a huge affection for the estate that goes far beyond mere business. Jean-Bernard concedes that in his early days the Château lost money as investments were made, but that the owners, the American Dillon family, were unstinting in their support. He has enjoyed that support ever since, and his retiral in a few years time will doubtless be a huge wrench. One suspects he may continue to have some input on how Jean-Philippe does things.
Constantly innovating, Haut-Brion caused quite a stir when they became the first classed growth estate to install stainless steel vats in 1961 (a practice now followed by many). Today, an extensive programme of vine cloning is a passion of M. Delmas, to establish vines that will produce optimum and reliable results from their various vineyards.
Jean-Bernard explains that one Cabernet Sauvignon vine may regularly yield more grapes than its neighbour. And the properties of the grapes - sugar, colouring, aroma and tannins - may vary greatly between vines even of the same species. Hence his near obsession with the clonal programme, which commenced in 1977, and which seeks to breed the perfect Cabernet or Merlot for each of Haut-Brion's distinct vineyard terroirs.
Just one aspect of the obsessive quality control that is evident throughout the estate, as recently as 1990 the Château began to employ their own, on-site tonnelier to make and toast barrels to their exact specification. The vineyards are "green-harvested", thinning out bunches on the vine during the growing season, but with great care: Delmas is not looking for "super-concentration" in his wines, but for elegance and balance.
I ask if the wines have changed noticeably over Jean-Bernard's 40 years in charge. His answer is a resounding yes: thanks to better viticultural practices and a better understanding of vines and the ripening process, grapes are picked with increased ripeness of both fruit and tannins. Haut-Brion today drinks earlier than 40 years ago (there is no need to cellar it for 15 years before broaching the bottle), but that is not to say the wine has been dumbed-down or made less "seriously" for a modern market. M. Delmas is still utterly confident that a good vintage will last as long as it ever did, improving all the time. He says the drinking window for great Bordeaux has been extended; not re-positioned earlier. The Château's records also suggest that global-warming is having an effect on the vineyards, with subtle but consistent changes in climatic conditions over the past few decades.
Jean-Philippe is currently Commercial Director at Haut-Brion, but has completed wine-making stints in California, Provence and Champagne, as well as on-the-job training with his father of course. He expresses his gratitude to Jean-Phillipe Masclef,
cellarmaster at the Château for many years. Jean-Philippe sees his impending responsibility as the Château's winemaker as one of continuing the work of his father and grandfather, rather than anything revolutionary.
I have been lucky enough to taste a dozen vintages of Haut-Brion, including a vertical tasting. Here we tasted 2000 barrel samples, so the usual caveats apply for unfinished wines. Joining us for the tasting was Murphy, Jean Delmas' black labrador who waits anxiously to chew on any paper napkins used to mop-up left-over Haut-Brion! There is excellent information on Haut-Brion's Web site.
White WinesLaville Haut-Brion 2000
La Chapelle de la Mission 2000
This is the second wine of La Mission-Haut-Brion. The vines here ripened earlier than in the Médoc, by a full two weeks. This has a good colour, and a lovely quality of deep, plummy fruit on the nose, cedary nuances and lots of blackcurrant and chocolate richness. The palate has fine, sweet blackcurrant fruit with a plum-skin bite of acidity and good, sweet tannins. Long and very pure, it finishes with style. Very good indeed.
My thanks to Jean-Bernard and Jean-Philippe Delmas, and to Prince Robert of Luxembourg for arranging this visit.