Jean-Bernard Delmas’ career has been played out in the most aristocratic of surroundings. At the end of 2003, Delmas officially retires as technical director of Domaines Clarence Dillon. For more than 40 years, he has been responsible for the wines of the esteemed Bordeaux houses of Haut-Brion, La Mission-Haut-Brion, Laville-Haut-Brion and La Tour-Haut-Brion.
He succeeded his father as régisseur (steward) of Haut-Brion in 1961, when Seymour Weller – a nephew of Clarence Dillon – was president of the Domaines. In 1975, Joan Dillon (granddaughter of Clarence) succeeded her cousin. She had lived in Paris since her father became US Ambassador in 1953, and became Princesse de Luxembourg through her marriage to Prince Charles de Luxembourg. Following the death of her husband in 1977, she married the Duc de Mouchy. Her son, Prince Robert, is now being groomed to succeed her.
This is the backdrop against which Delmas’ professional life has been lived. Yet the man himself has an almost avuncular air about him. He is thoughtful and measured in his responses, though there is a constant twinkle in the eye, denoting an utter lack of pomposity. He is careful but confident in his opinions and judgments, unflappable and has a steely determination behind his urbane exterior. In such circumstances, you might not expect an innovator bordering on the revolutionary. You would be wrong.
In Delmas’ first year as régisseur, Haut-Brion became the first among the premiers grands crus classés to install stainless steel fermentation vats. The move set the tone for his career. Since then, Delmas has overseen such transformations as the replanting of the Haut-Brion vineyard with his own range of clones, and the integration of the Domaine Woltner properties, retaining and developing their distinctive characteristics.
In 1961, it was revolutionary to install stainless steel vats, especially at a first growth. When I raise this with Delmas, he tells me that the old wooden vats are extremely expensive in labour terms, requiring a full-time worker all year round to maintain them: ‘And the initial advantage of wood is really only seen during the first two or three years of use.’ When I press him about the return to wooden vats at many properties, his reply is typically robust: ‘The benefit of wooden vats may seem useful for the primeur tastings, but later on one does not see the usefulness if the wine ages normally in barrels.’
Delmas is of the opinion that wooden vats need changing every five years. Yet a number of leading Médoc crus keep their vats for 20 to 50 years. The cost differences between the two are obvious. Not that stainless steel lasts for ever – Delmas installed a second generation of stainless steel vats during the 1990s, made to a new design of his own, which enables the wine to be drawn off the skins after maceration by gravity into a smaller tank below the fermentation tank.
We all know that everything begins in the vineyard, and probably, in retrospect, Delmas’ work on clonal selection will come to be seen as his most lasting legacy. He mapped out a programme in 1970 which became operational in 1974. By 1977, Haut-Brion was ready to plant out a collection of clones of its three grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Some were selected from the stocks of the Institut National de Recherche, some from commercially distributed clones, and others from some of Haut-Brion’s tried-and-tested old plantings – or ‘mother-vines’ – using what is called sélection massale, were not, strictly speaking, clones at all.
In production tests in different parts of the estate, there were 140 mother vines, 370 already proven clones and 37 experimental clones. Recently, it was decided that, with the apparent climate changes to warmer summers, Petit Verdot should be introduced. The first vat of wine, made from 0.4ha, was produced during the 2003 harvest.
Thus, the wine of Haut-Brion is not simply a matter of balancing the proportions of three grape varieties, but rather of harmonising 546 individual strains. Their performance is carefully monitored each year. Firstly, in terms of the vine: for structure and form, vigour, production and resistance to disease. Secondly, the grapes: for yield, size of berries and form of bunches, sugar levels, acidity, polyphenols and colour. And finally, the juice or wine produced in a test fermentation: for aromas, tasting in comparison with existing wines, and the harmony of the groups of clones.
It is imperative to know which clones work best in Haut-Brion’s terroir. Some clones perform well regardless of where they are planted, while others simply do not grow well anywhere on the property. Delmas observes that: ‘When one blends the wine of several clones the result is invariably better than any wine produced from a single clone.’ Yet while a variety of clones is essential, ‘We have found that above a certain number, there is no improvement in the wine produced.’
After 20 years of work and experimentation, Haut-Brion believes it has a balanced selection of vines. The practice now is to plant 10 to 15 different vine types (sélection massale and clones) per hectares. Currently, between 30% and 40% of the vineyard is planted in this way.
An interesting by-product of the research undertaken by Delmas and his team – and something which has greatly influenced his thinking in terms of the new methods being tried out in Bordeaux in recent years – is their observations on the relationships between quality and quantity. Delmas has found no evidence of quantity being detrimental to quality, a theory backed up by the number of great vintages which were also large in quantity – 1934, 1953, 1955, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1985, 1988 and 1990. In great years, the vine strives to be productive. To curb this artificially, Delmas believes, does not necessarily improve quality, but rather sets off a chain reaction requiring more intervention.
On ‘new wave’ innovations, he is very clear. ‘We are lucky, in Bordeaux, to have fabulous terroirs, of great quality and great diversity.’ He favours all innovations which can exploit these qualities. But techniques which result in effacing these differences, in promoting a vin technique over an individual, natural product, he is resolutely opposed to. He sees no point in making a style of wine that can be found in California or Australia.
Yet no one can accuse Delmas of being some die-hard traditionalist opposed to all change. Another of his important legacies has been the integration of La Mission into Domaines Clarence Dillon. During the Woltner years, the driving force had been Henri Woltner, who managed the property from 1921 until his death in 1974. A sick man for his last year or so, things slipped, and after his death, his brother, Fernand, who ran the négociant business, did little. When he died, Francis Dewavrin took on the management, on behalf of his wife’s family. Delmas began to assist the newcomer with advice and help. Some good wines were made, notably the 1975, 1978, 1981 and 1982. The 1983, produced and vinified under Dewavrin, but with élevage, assemblage and bottling under Delmas, is an exceptional wine.
In September 2003, the Domaines celebrated 20 years of ownership by hosting a tasting of La Mission back to 1961. What came out vividly was a seamless continuity of vineyard character. When I asked Delmas about the terroir characteristics that made for the striking differences between Haut-Brion and La Mission, he replied: ‘Each one is a unique jigsaw or mosaic which is impossible to reproduce elsewhere. The jigsaw of Haut-Brion is a little different from that of La Mission and nothing can change them except if one mixed them, which would be an aberration.’
We tasted, from the start of Delmas’ management, a series of superb wines – great ones in 1985, 1986, 1988 1989 and 1990, with a very honourable one in 1987. Then, good but not great wines in 1991, 1993, 1997 and 1999; great wines in 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2001. They faithfully followed the character of the great and lesser wines of the Woltner era, though one would have expected nothing less from Delmas’ stewardship. There is a greater continuity now. But in the Woltner era, La Mission was already famous for producing good wines in difficult years. This showed in the 1974. And while most 1967s are now dried-out husks, the La Mission still has lovely aromatic fruit and real harmony and length.
During the Master of Wine visit to Bordeaux in May, we enjoyed a memorable morning at Haut-Brion. The format of the tasting said a lot about Delmas’ enquiring and quizzical mind. There was a blind tasting of seven designated modest vintages, followed by a tasting of seven of the greatest years of his stewardship. In the first category, the 1967 was again outstanding for the year, the best wine in this group. 1987, 1991 and most surprisingly, 1957, followed closely behind. When we came to taste the great years, 1961, 1975, 1989, 1990, 1998 and 2000 were the stand-outs. But what struck me was the harmony and balance of these wines. And here I have a confession to make. In the first edition of my Bordeaux book, published in 1982, I reported a tasting of 1975 first growths and argued that the Haut-Brion was by far the most approachable. However, I queried whether a first growth should be so forward so soon. The question has been answered. I wrote in May that it had, ‘a superb flavour – spicy and aromatic, without any dryness, perfectly balanced and it should go on and on.’ Today, it may be the best of the firsts.
This sense of balance and elegance, without sacrificing power, is the hallmark of Delmas’ style and skill. It is a legacy in terms of everything that is classic in Bordeaux wines, which will long stand as a monument to Delmas’ stewardship.
He has indeed been a moderniser in the best sense, always respecting the terroir of Haut-Brion and La Mission while using all the tools now available to produce modern wines that are also true to all the best traditions of Bordeaux’s greatest wines. This is a man with an enquiring mind, always looking for new challenges. The Dillon family have been fortunate to have had such a gifted steward. The lessons he has taught us all are ones that the Bordeaux of today needs to heed.
David Peppercorn MW is a world-leading expert on Bordeaux wines.
Written by David Peppercorn