By Laura Barnes
With an illustrious history spanning more than 300 years, the Dillon family now runs Chateau Haut-Brion, with the Delmas family acting as estate manager for the past three generations. Caterer talks to Jean-Philippe Delmas, estate manager, about maintaining standards and meeting market demands
Being awarded Premier Cru does not mean that Chateaux can rest on their laurels, yet even though Chateau Haut-Brion was awarded this status in the 1855 Bordeaux Wine Official Classification, more than 150 years later, the Chateau is still proving popular.
Part of the Chateau's success lies with the company's persistence in maintaining its standards and traditions, and since 1935, the Dillon family has been at the helm. Now in its fourth generation, Joan Dillon, the Duchess of Mouchy, sits as president of Domaine Clarence Dillon, with her son; His Royal Highness Prince Robert of Luxembourg, as managing director.
However, alongside the Dillons, the Delmas family has been integral to preserving the estate, acting as estate manager for three generations. Jean Bernard Delmas had been estate manager since 1961; however, back in 2004 he handed over the reins to his son, Jean-Philippe Delmas.
But before moving back to Chateau Haut-Brion, Jean-Philippe worked for a number of large estates, including Moët et Chandon in Champagne, the Sumeire winery in Provence, and Far Niente in the Napa Valley, California. Delmas says he learnt a lot from his father.
"I was my father's assistant for many years, but this was necessary to keep the knowledge of my father intact," says Jean-Philippe Delmas, estate manager, Domaine Clarence Dillon.
"Only by speaking to him and watching could I learn. This is very important because when an estate manager or winemaker changes, the style of wine also changes. We want to keep the wine the same, so it is important to have that continuity," he adds.
Currently working on the third vintage as estate manager, Delmas comments that 2005 was a great vintage. He predicts that 2006 also will be a good year. However, he says Bordeaux in general has experienced a difficult year because of the weather - a very wet winter, followed by a dry period between April and August.
With 45 hectares of vines dedicated to red, comprising 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 40% Merlot, Chateau Haut-Brion produces between 10,000-12,000 cases of first label selection. The Chateau also produces a small amount of white, using two grape varieties, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. However, with only 2.5 hectares, only 500-600 cases of Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc are produced.
"There is a strong demand for wines from Chateaux of first growth, which includes ourselves, and other Chateaux like Latour, but because there are only a few competitors and the demand is rising, the only thing we can do is increase prices," he comments.
The export market for Chateau Haut-Brion is testament to its popularity. With the US and Canada being its largest market - around 25% of its total production - second is France with 20% of the market share, followed closely by the UK and Switzerland.
The Middle East market is gradually getting stronger, as the number of fine dining restaurants opening up in the market rises.
"Demand is growing but we cannot produce anymore, so for the past 10 years, prices have been on the rise for all Grand Cru producers," comments Delmas.
In order to combat this and target an even greater market, the Dillon family purchased Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion in 1983 from the Woltner family.
Covering 21 hectares, La Mission Haut-Brion produces 5000-6000 cases a year and grows vine varieties including 45% Merlot Noir, 7% Cabernet Franc and 48% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Managing both estates has not proved too difficult as there is only a road dividing the two Chateaux.
"The soil at Chateau Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion is the same. The first soil is a mixture of gravel and sand, whereas the subsoil is clay. The wine from La Mission is more concentrated than from Haut-Brion, and the sugar and tannin levels are always higher at La Mission as well," says Delmas.
"Chateau Haut-Brion also has more complex flavours. To be honest, it is hard to say why, so we say it is the terroir," he adds.
Also, in 1983, the Dillon family purchased Chateau La Tour Haut-Brion and Chateau Laville Haut-Brion from the Woltner family.
Encompassing six hectares and 3.5 hectares respectively, Chateau La Tour produces around 2000 cases of red wine a year, whereas Chateau Laville produces between 600-800 cases of white wine.
Although with four Chateaux already under the Domaine Clarence Dillon name, Delmas adds that while they cannot increase the quantity of wines being produced at the four estates, due to vineyard space, the Dillon family is considering expanding.
"Our market is increasing, so the obvious step is to buy another Chateau. But the Dillon family says the best wine is from Bordeaux, so now we just need to find a Chateau," adds Delmas.