Jean-Philippe Delmas is keeping up with family tradition by taking over the management of Château Haut-Brion – and he’s keen to carry on where his father left off, as well as making his own mark, writes JOHN STIMPFIG.
The october morning is clear and crisp at Château Haut-Brion, and Jean-Philippe Delmas is seated behind the large, ordered desk in the estate manager’s office that once belonged to his father. Impeccably turned out, Delmas looks every inch the confident administrator of this historic first growth. However, there’s something different about his general demeanour today. Jean-Philippe Delmas is, to put it mildly, as pleased as punch.
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to work out why. At the relatively tender age of 35, he’s now completed two successful years in what he freely admits is his ‘dream’ job at the helm of Haut-Brion (and, of course, its sister property La Mission). Equally, he’s more than a little excited by the possibility that the recently harvested 2005 vintage could well turn out to be one of the greatest Bordeaux vintages of all time – alongside the likes of the 1961, 1982, 1989, 1990 and 2000. And as if all that weren’t enough to put a smile on his face, he’s just been told he’s about to become a father for the first time.
It’s pretty obvious which of these Delmas is most elated about. But in this instance, there’s even more to consider than the joy of a new baby. There’s also a dynasty to maintain and possibly even a destiny to fulfil. For, uniquely in first growth circles, Jean-Philippe is the third-generation Delmas to run the great Graves estate, following in the footsteps of his father, Jean-Bernard, and his grandfather, Georges, before him.
It might look as though the only qualification you need to succeed here is the Delmas surname. ‘Unfortunately, if you want to manage a premier cru like Haut-Brion, it’s a little more complicated than that,’ Jean-Philippe politely points out. ‘Moroever, you have to understand that it wasn’t my father who decided who should succeed him, however much he might have wanted me to. Instead, it’s the Dillon family who owns Haut-Brion, who decides. It’s got nothing to do with fate or destiny.’
That’s a fair point. Nonetheless, it seems to help your job prospects at Haut-Brion if you happen to be a Delmas. Clearly, there’s an unusual degree of mutual trust, respect and loyalty between the two families. Jean-Bernard was actually born there, while Jean-Philippe says he first met Prince Robert of Luxembourg in the château’s private garden when the two were in nappies. Now, of course, three decades later Prince Robert is Delmas’ boss at Haut-Brion. If that’s not destiny at work, I don’t know what is.
Ironically though, the young Jean-Philippe showed no early signs of what was to come. ‘As a child, I used to spend a lot of time here at weekends and during the summer holidays riding my bike around the estate,’ he recalls. ‘I also remember tasting some vats with my father for the first time when I was about 10. But in those days, I have to admit that I wasn’t at all interested in what my dad was doing. Like any normal kid, I wanted to be a fireman or a pilot.’
However, by the time Jean-Philippe was in his teens his career plans had changed as he inevitably reverted to type. ‘It was then I decided that I wanted to read oenology at Bordeaux University so I could make wine at Haut-Brion. It wasn’t that my father pushed me. It was simply what I wanted to do more than anything else. And it still is.’
After completing his studies, he decided it was crucial to get some outside experience. ‘So I worked in various regions, including making wine at Domaine Ott in Provence and at Far Niente in California.’ After that, he did a spell of research for Moët & Chandon in Champagne. ‘Then, out of the blue, the call came in August 1994 from the Duchesse de Mouchy, Prince Robert’s mother, asking if I could come back to Bordeaux. It was a little earlier than I had hoped, but I said yes, without a moment’s hesitation.’
Once back in the bosom of Haut-Brion, it became clear that he was effectively being groomed to take over from his father. Jean-Philippe responded to the task by immersing himself in every aspect of the business from winemaking to marketing and sales. By 2001, he had passed his trainee apprenticeship with flying colours and was promoted to the position of assistant estate manager before finally taking over from his father in 2003.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. ‘I think my father and I have a very good relationship and, of course, I owe him a huge debt of gratitude,’ says Jean-Philippe. ‘But even so, it’s not always easy working with your dad. Sometimes, I spoke to him in a way that I would never normally do to a boss. And sometimes, he asked me to do things he wouldn’t do to another employee.’
Now of course, Jean-Philippe has sole charge of the top job, making comparisons with his father’s extraordinary record and reputation inevitable. For his part though, the young Delmas tends not to dwell on it too much. ‘I think this is something that other people think about more than me,’ he counters wisely. All I can do is be myself and do my best.’
At the same time, Jean-Philippe can’t help but regard his father’s achievements as more of a bonus than a burden. ‘Yes, of course, my father’s record is going to be a tough act to follow because he has made some legendary wines in his 40-year career. But I certainly don’t think it has been a handicap for me to have been mentored by one of the very best in the business.’
In particular, he is quick to acknowledge the rich legacy his father has left him. ‘It’s fantastic what he has done. For instance, his pioneering clonal research work has been a huge advantage for Haut-Brion, as were his innovations in the vat house and cellar,’ he points out. ‘The other thing he bequeathed me was a great team. Both his viticulturalist Pascal Baratier and his cellarmaster Jean-Philippe Masclef are still only in their 40s, yet have been at Haut-Brion since 1988. So we have both youth and experience. However, probably the most important thing of all my father passed on was his philosophy of quality – and what a great first growth is really all about.’
Perhaps then, it is no great surprise that the young Delmas has no desire to undo or tamper with his father’s work. ‘There will be no revolution between him and me,’ he declares. ‘Our views on oenology and terroir are virtually identical. I have no plans to change the style of Haut Brion or La Mission. I will still be looking to make the most complex, elegant and balanced wines that I possibly can.’
The quietly assured Jean-Philippe is very much a chip off the old block. According to Pascal Baratier their palates are astonishingly alike when they are blending. And even when it comes to their respective personalities, Jean-Philippe acknowledges that in many, if not all, respects, they are not so different.
All of which leaves you with an overwhelming sense of linear continuity at Haut-Brion. Not least because Jean-Philippe is still using his father’s vast experience in a technical consultancy capacity. Jean-Bernard still comes in about two or three times a week during the summer to advise on the date of the harvest and the blend. ‘To have that kind of resource so readily available is priceless,’ says Jean-Philippe.
And yet, there’s an equally strong feeling of renewal and regeneration at Haut-Brion as Jean-Philippe and Prince Robert imprint their own management style. For his part, the ‘hands-on’ estate manager has had plenty of projects to cut his teeth on. Apart from managing the ongoing replanting programme, there’s been a new software system to bed down. Meanwhile, he’s building a new barrel cellar at La Mission and experimenting with a long-term plant density project. That’s on top of the usual meetings, marketing and international travel. ‘Sure, it’s a lot of pressure and hard work,’ says Delmas. ‘But I just see it all as the opportunity of a lifetime.’
And then, there’s the 2005 vintage. ‘Even my father says he has never seen such a vintage,’ enthuses Jean-Philippe. ‘It’s too early to tell how it will turn out at this stage, but it should be as good as 2000 and possibly even better. So, yes I am very happy about it,’ he says with a huge grin which lights up his face, ‘both for me and for my baby’. And who can blame him?
John Stimpfig is a contributing editor to Decanter.
Written by John Stimpfig