Jean-Bernard Delmas - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Jean-Bernard Delmas

Bordeaux was gathering in its last grapes of the 2019 harvest as its top winemakers gathered together on October 9 to pay their respects to Jean-Bernard Delmas, who died last week at the age of 83 after a long illness.

Through his career at Château Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion and through transmission of knowledge and research, Delmas was responsible for many lasting changes in Bordeaux. The only child of Georges Delmas, who managed Château Haut-Brion from 1923 to 1960, Jean-Bernard was born at Haut-Brion in 1935, the year that Clarence Dillon purchased the estate.

He was one of the first students at the oenology school in Bordeaux (which later became part of the University of Bordeaux), alongside other Bordeaux legends such as Jean-Claude Berrouet. Delmas was the first in Bordeaux to install temperature-controlled stainless-steel vats in his cellar, for his first vintage, 1961; he would later install a computer program designed according to his winemaking records to automate temperature control and pumping over in the cellars at La Mission and Haut-Brion. He was the first to intensively study plant material, ensuring the future of the Haut-Brion vines by a rigorous massal selection, checking the favored vines for viruses, removing the virused strains and keeping the best. Delmas was also the founding president of the Union des Grands Crus, the association which was to play such an important role in the Bordeaux futures tastings.

Many of us remember Delmas as a great teacher. He spoke clearly and slowly and often paused to make sure that you were still following him when his discourse became very technical. He had a twinkle in his eye and enjoyed teasing and challenging the assumptions of his audience. Once, he and the Duc de Mouchy (Clarence Dillons’ son-in-law) decided to organize a breakfast tasting in the Orangery at Haut-Brion for the Institute of Masters of Wine. Delmas had selected all the “off” vintages of the past three decades and served the wines blind; they were in fact amazingly good. To follow them, he poured his magnificent 1989 Haut Brion, perhaps the wine that he will be the most remembered for. Delmas was in his element.

In 1994, Delmas’s son, Jean-Philippe, joined him, and the father-and-son team worked together at the Domaines Dillon until 2004. In 2003, Jean-Bernard, then well into his 60s, ceded his place at Haut-Brion, leaving the Dillon domains to became a consultant to Château Montrose, helping to make its legendary 2009 and 2010 vintages and advising on rebuilding its wine cellars. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 2007.

I will remember Jean-Bernard as one of the most erudite, charming winemakers in Bordeaux. I had the chance to learn a great deal from him and to see first-hand how skilled he was in tasting and winemaking. I am also honored to count his son, Jean-Philippe, among my friends. As Prince Robert of Luxembourg, one of the owners of the Domaines Dillon, wrote “My family has never known Château Haut-Brion without the presence of this great man and extraordinary wine-maker.” He will be greatly missed by all.

This is a W&S web exclusive feature.

In addition to writing about wine, Master of Wine Fiona Morrison manages the Thienpont family’s négociant business in Etikhove, Belgium and, with her husband, Jacques, manages their three Bordeaux estates—Le Pin in Pomerol, L’If in St-Emilion and L’Hêtre in Castillon.

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