Author’s Note: Another version of this article was published in the January 2012 issue of the Philippine Tatler magazine
The pursuit of wine perfection continually burns in the mind of Château Haut-Brion’s Jean-Philippe Delmas.
The cool November night was wrapped in anticipation as the Wine Story owner Romy Sia prepared to host the arrival of a highly distinguished guest in the world of wine. His name is Jean Philippe Delmas, a third-generation estate manager at the Château Haut-Brion, one of only four original Premier Cru, or First Growths, as well as the oldest among the select group, in the largest wine-producing country in the world that is France. The Premier Cru classification was officially established in 1855 at Emperor Napoleon III’s request, which ultimately determined the best red wines in the Bordeaux region.
The year was 1935 and Château Haut-Brion changed ownership, only for the fourth time since it was first established in 1525 by Jean de Pontac, this time to an American banker Clarence Dillon. The vineyard had been known to produce distinctive and memorable red wines that attracted the attention of many illustrious men of history including Thomas Jefferson and John Locke. When Clarence Dillon purchased the Chateau in 1935, he tasked Georges Delmas to manage the vineyard and to continue the tradition of producing top quality wines equal to its mark of prestige. In 1961 Georges turned over the reins to his son, Jean-Bernard. During this time remarkable improvements were put in place. Jean-Bernard designed and introduced the use of stainless-steel fermentation vats, which was regarded as revolutionary at that time and consequently became the standard in modern winemaking. His curious nature led to many more innovations in the estate like vine cloning research and computerised operations, also the first of its kind in the region. He was among the first and leading oenologists who had convinced the French government to establish a vine cloning programme. The research aimed to determine which of the grape varieties adapt best to a particular terroir, therefore maximizing productivity and producing the best flavours complementing both the soil and the plants. Among his many legacies, the latter would be remembered as his most lasting yet. In 2004, Jean-Bernard retired and in his place as estate manager is his son, Jean-Philippe. Together with Prince Robert of Luxembourg as current president of Château Haut-Brion, Jean-Philippe carves his own destiny in a position previously held by men he has great respect and admiration for.
Growing up in the estate, he remembers working in the vineyard at weekends, and jokingly adds, “like a slave, almost like a slave.” He says his father never forced it on them but didn’t lose the chance to keep their interest in the business of the estate. “When I was 18, I applied to become a pilot in the French army, and I don’t know for which reason, but they refused me.” He decided to pursue university studies in Oenology, travelled the world for work in Japan, Napa Valley, Provence and Champagne in France until the clarion call when he was 24 years old. He didn’t act on it right away, he wanted to have more experience and to start work as an apprentice to a master winemaker.
As luck, or fate, would have it, he has one in his very household, his father. He worked with him for ten years and in 2004 he finally accepted the offer to become estate manager at Château Haut-Brion. His first mission, he says, “is to make the best wine possible.” As a prestigious holder of a Premie Cru title, he believes the estate have an obligation to continue to improve the quality of the wines, to continue to do research to find the perfect grape for the terroir, and to leave Château Haut-Brion to the next one “better than when I found it.” The pursuit of excellent wine-making continually burns in his mind. His biggest challenge so far has been in meeting the demands of a burgeoning middle-class market in China who has found fresh appreciation for high-quality French wines, and for Château Haut-Brion wines in particular. In the end, he admits that they had to let the law of supply and demand take its course as the estate is also limited by its ability to produce vis-à-vis the size of its vineyards.
M. Delmas says the Château has been actively participating in events that will bring more understanding to the complex characteristics of its products. He is specially keen on educating its sales force, as well as private consumers through wine-pairing dinners and wine seminars. Its website http://www.domaineclarencedillon.com has been very effective in communicating its history, ideals and products. “We also try to be in every social network. We have to be everywhere. Since the younger generations are on Facebook, we have to be there, too. ”
Consistently rated as one of the top wines, Chateau Haut-Brion has the distinct flavour that has made its wines well-known not only to kings and princes but to presidents and top ambassadors as well. M. Delmas confirmed that Château Haut-Brion has indeed a special terroir— special in the sense that its soil, a dominantly gravelly terrain high up on the hill, is stronger than the wine varietal. The signature flavours– of burnt coffee beans, cedar wood flavours, cigar box, chocolates– come from the soil. He admitted that it is also due to that fact that made Haut-Brion difficult to understand. Mainly because, according to him: “many consumers try to recognize wines if they are of Cabernet, Pinot, or Merlot but Haut-Brion, it’s Haut-Brion; it’s not Cabernet wine, it’s not Merlot, it’s Haut-Brion.”
At the end of our interview, I pressed him for his personal favourites. Without blinking an eye, he declared: “The vintages.” In particular, from his grandfather the 1929 and 1959, and from his father the 1961 and 1989. He added that to be memourable, wine does not depend on the date it was harvested; it is when you open it to share with family and friends; it is when it captures and complements the flavours of the food you pair it with. “The most memourable time would be in July 2010 when the Dillon family organized a special event in New York to celebrate its 75th anniversary. We did it in the Metropolitan Museum and we invited 100 people, and every member of the Dillon family was there. We decided to open the last bottle of 1935, the year Clarence Dillon purchased Château Haut-Brion. It was mesmerizing, the wine seems and became perfection. Yes, everything has to come together.”Wine Story Fine & Rare Wine Merchant Serendra, Bonifacio High Street Taguig City, Philippines Tel: +632.846.6310 http://www.winestory.com.ph