Bordeaux winemaker turned estate director JEAN-PHILIPPE DELMAS explains to GERRIE LIM why it’s the “terroir” that matters
JEAN-PHILIPPE DELMAS is affable enough though mildly guarded in public, not unusual traits given his patrician lineage. His father, the legendary Jean-Bernard, retired 10 years ago after some 40 vintages that had famously put Château Haut-Brion on the map. And his grandfather Georges Delmas had already been running the very same estate for 12 years when the American financier Clarence Dillon acquired it in 1935.
Since he inherited his father’s role in 2004, three properties now fall under Delmas’s aegis at Domaine Clarence Dillon: Château Haut-Brion, its neighbour Château La Mission Haut-Brion, and the newly created Château Quintus.
Delmas has held the understated title of deputy managing director since 2011, and his obvious ability to juggle the demands of an extended business portfolio while keeping the faith as a winemaker was what interested me most when I met him on a recent stopover in Hong Kong. Snazzily suited, he seemed from his demeanour like he was still out there pruning his vines in Pessac-Léognan and Saint-Émilion, impressing me with his firm ambition and quiet pride.
There’s a story about how Robert Parker [of The Wine Advocate] raved about the 1982 Bordeaux to your father, who went with him to peruse the Haut-Brion archives. There Parker discovered that many people initially pooh-poohed the 1929 vintage, which became a classic, showing that wine reviewers can often be wrong.
Absolutely. Parker is a great man, very humble, and he has a gift – he can taste very fast and he’s very precise. But I know a better story, actually. The first time Parker came to Château Haut-Brion, he was just starting out, it was 1979, and when he knocked on the door my father opened it and said, “Hello, who are you?” Parker said, “I’m Robert Parker, I’m a lawyer and a wine lover who would like to become a wine critic.” And my father said, “But have you an appointment?” Parker said, “No.” And my father said, “Sorry, I have no time!” and he closed the door. This was the first meeting between my father and Robert Parker. You might not want to print that!
Well, here’s a more dangerous topic: why Quintus? Aren’t Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion enough work for you?
I can’t answer that because I’m not the owner, which is an American family. They decided quite some time ago to continue to invest money in Bordeaux and looked for new opportunities. As you know, in SaintÉmilion the estates are usually very small and we thought it might be better to have a big estate so we decided after buying Château Tertre Daugay two years ago also to buy the neighbouring estate, Château L’Arrosée, six months ago. Together they are now Château Quintus, about 28 hectares in size, which for Saint-Émilion is quite big. I think we’re the only one in this century in Bordeaux to create a new estate, something that’s maybe crazy but also a great challenge.
More people know the Haut-Brion name than know Quintus, so is it fair to say you’re leveraging on the name of Haut-Brion for Quintus?
Of course. It’s easier to create and build a new brand when you already have Haut-Brion in your portfolio. Quintus is new – 2011 was our first vintage – so we have a lot of work to do. For us it’s a new venture – or rather a new adventure, I should say. Saint-Émilion is, of course, one of the best appellations in Bordeaux. Everybody knows Château Cheval Blanc, but our final goal is to be the next such thing. For Quintus, we need time since it’s a new ecosystem, unlike Pessac-Léognan, where we have Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion.
How do you have the time to run three estates?
I have time in the sense that I find the time. When you work for a vineyard and an estate, it’s like when you cook in the kitchen. You have to be passionate 24 hours, seven days a week. If you ask my wife and my family, sometimes we miss each other. Of course, I am not alone and we have a team. For the estates of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, we are now 80 people, so it’s a “big small company”. I had this chance to work with my father for 10 years before I took over, and thanks to him I now have one of the best technical teams in Bordeaux. I do travel a lot now, but firstly I am a winemaker. My first mission is to make wine. My own first vintage without my father was 2004, both Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, and my philosophy is the same now as it was back then.
Can you articulate that philosophy?
Well, firstly, what is a great wine? It’s a question of balance, of complexity, of identity. To have this, you have to respect the ecosystem. My father worked hard to find the best match between the plants, the vines, and he did a lot of research into clone selection, to find the best for each – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. For Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, you have two ecosystems but the same winemaker. There’s only one road between Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, but the wines are different even though they’re so close. The ecosystem is stronger than the grape variety. For Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, the vineyards comprise 45 percent Merlot, 45 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10 percent Cabernet Franc. On paper, there’s no difference, yet the magic touch from the terroir is to make them as different wines. We have this wonderful word “terroir.” When you can’t answer a difficult question, you just say “terroir” – an easy short answer!
And you use only the best grapes harvested, I assume?
Yes. Each year is different, because in Bordeaux you have sometimes great years for Cabernet and sometimes great years for Merlot, so we take the best, and maybe that’s why Haut-Brion is considered the most consistent wine year after year. In 2010, for both wines, the final blend involved 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, but in 2012 the final blend had 70 percent Merlot. If you taste several vintages of both, you couldn’t really say it was a Cabernet year or a Merlot year, because you will not feel the grape variety, it’s just Haut-Brion or La Mission Haut-Brion. The image of Bordeaux for many people is Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion and Margaux, but in those others you have different variations of Cabernet Sauvignon. For us, Haut-Brion is not a Cabernet or a Merlot; it’s just Haut-Brion.
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