Haut-Brion and Bordeaux ‘great’ Jean-Bernard Delmas dies

Prince Robert of Luxembourg has led tributes following the death of Jean-Bernard Delmas, the 'extraordinary winemaker' who oversaw Haut-Brion and Domaine Clarence Dillon wines for several decades before also managing Montrose later in life.

Charming, extraordinary and revolutionary are just some of the words that have been used to describe winemaker Jean-Bernard Delmas, who died in Bordeaux this week aged 83.

Delmas spent more than 40 years as manager and technical director of Château Haut-Brion between 1961 and 2003.

He also oversaw the other wines of estate owner Domaine Clarence Dillon, included La Mission Haut-Brion following the purchase of this estate in 1983.

Delmas succeeded his father, Georges Delmas, as manager and winemaker at first growth Haut-Brion and has since been succeeded himself by his own son, Jean-Philippe Delmas, who is today deputy managing director of Domaine Clarence Dillon.

It was initially thought Jean-Bernard would retire after leaving Haut-Brion in 2003, but he went on to manage Château Montrose following the Bouygues brothers’ purchase of the St-Estèphe estate in 2006. He retired in 2011.

Jean-Bernard Delmas at Haut-Brion

Jean-Bernard Delmas ‘was a mentor’ to many.

‘My family has never known Chateau Haut-Brion without the presence of this great man and extraordinary winemaker,’ said Prince Robert of Luxembourg, CEO & chairman of Domaine Clarence Dillon. Everyone at the estate offered their ‘heartfelt condolences’ to the Delmas family, he said.

‘His charm and humour marked all who were fortunate enough to meet him. His boundless curiosity and innovative spirit raised the estates and our wines to new heights.’

Jane Anson, Decanter’s chief Bordeaux expert, said, ‘He was always extremely generous in sharing his knowledge with me. Last time I saw him we were both excited at the new high-tech systems in place at Montrose for tracking harvesting progression. He never seemed to lose his enthusiasm. He was part of Bordeaux history, and a thoroughly lovely man.’

Hervé Berland, Château Montrose CEO and who joined the second growth estate in 2012 following Delmas’ retirement, said, ‘Jean-Bernard was a great companion, a great friend, a godfather to Montrose and we will miss him very much.

‘He was responsible for exceptional vintages like 2009 and 2010, as he was for so many exceptional vintages at La Mission Haut-Brion and Haut-Brion.

‘He was both a scientist and a bon vivant, and many of my best memories of him are of sharing meals together. His eyes would always light up at a good plate of lamproie à la bordelaise.’

A ‘moderniser’ in Bordeaux

Born in 1935, Bordeaux changed enormously during Delmas’ lifetime and he was considered instrumental in introducing new methods.

David Peppercorn MW wrote in Decanter in 2003 that Delmas was a ‘revolutionary’, notably for his early adoption of stainless steel tanks in the cellar.

But such urges were tempered by a deep understanding of the heritage, he said.

‘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,’ wrote Peppercorn.

‘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.’

Peppercorn highlighted Haut-Brion 1975, in particular, as testament to Delmas’ ability to produce wines of ‘balance and elegance, without sacrificing power’.

Delmas also undertook a rigorous replanting programme in the Haut-Brion vineyards, which began in the 1970s and involved scrupulous testing on different clones and other variations of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot derived via massal selection of old vines at the estate.

‘Mentor and friend’

Prince Robert said, ‘Jean was a mentor and a friend to so many of us at Domaine Clarence Dillon, not least of whom his son Jean-Philippe, who worked alongside his father for 10 years, before following him in his footsteps.

‘We extend our heartfelt condolences to his loved ones and particularly to his sons, Jean-Philippe, Frederic and their families. We thank you all for your kind and consoling messages, which we will of course share with the Delmas family.’

The funeral will be held on Wednesday 9 October at 10:30am in the Church of St Martin de Pessac.