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Remembering Jean-Bernard Delmas

October 8, 2019

One of the great men of modern Bordeaux has, sadly, left us. Jean-Bernard Delmas died last week on October 3, 2019, at the age of 83.

He was a meticulous innovator who revolutionized winemaking in Bordeaux, first at Chateau Haut-Brion, where his career debuted with the great 1961 vintage and continued for 42 years. After he “retired” in 2003, Martin Bouygues, the new owner of Chateau Montrose, persuaded Delmas to oversee its revitalization.

In 2009, I had lunch with him at Chateau Montrose. Here, in slightly different form, is the article I wrote about it that appeared in ZesterDaily that year:

 

In Bordeaux, I’m always on the lookout for château reputations on the rise. Yes, the 1855 Classification ranking of the top 61 has been in place for 150 years, but everybody knows wine quality isn’t static.

Château Montrose is the latest aiming for new heights and buzz.

Sure signs? A new owner with megabucks hired one of the region’s greatest winemakers and is throwing pots of cash at the vineyards and winery. This turns out to include going “green,” too.

That’s why I grabbed the chance to have lunch at the château in Saint-Estephe with world-renowned Jean-Bernard Delmas, who spent his stellar career perfecting first growth Château Haut-Brion in Pessac-Léognan south of Bordeaux. Many think he made its sister property La Mission Haut-Brion into such a star that it should be promoted to the short first growth list.

Is that his goal at Montrose? What’s he changing? Does he think of this will be his final wine statement? And are current vintages the bargains to buy before the wine gets more buzz and prices skyrocket?

Those were the questions on my mind as I drove the fast route north from the city of Bordeaux, avoiding traffic slog on the D2, which passes all the famous châteaux. It still took nearly an hour to reach the winding roads of Saint-Estèphe, the Médoc’s northernmost appellation, which feels like the middle of nowhere. Finally I arrive at the château office where I meet up with Delmas.

A solid man with a square face topped with white hair, he’s in gray linen jacket and jeans. Calm and courtly, he’s always reminded me of a patient, high-powered headmaster used to being in authority and ready to instruct.

First comes the history lesson as he outlines the château’s past, highlighting what he considers most important. Then he adds his perspective for the future as he reveals the new owners’ goals. Which, I feel sure, he has helped to shape.

The Charmolüe family owned Montrose for a century, during which they weathered an economic depression, a major cellar fire, and occupation by German forces, who set up a firing range in the vineyards. The ’80s saw restoration, renovation, modernization. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the wine was one of the best and most consistent in Saint-Estèphe, which has only five crus classés, fewer than any other commune, with no first growths and only two seconds.

All are noted for earthy, tannic wines. Montrose’s gravelly terroir produces dense, powerful, muscular examples that last for decades, but at this point (in 2009) the wines don’t yet have the flash and luxury buzz of ambitious neighbor Château Cos d’Estournel.

Still, Montrose’s reputation was pretty grand when French billionaire and construction tycoon Martin Bouygues (and his brother Olivier) forked over about  $170 million for 95 percent of it in 2006. (Negociant Jean-François Moüeix, owner of famous Chateau Petrus, owns the rest.)

Wine ambitious Martin Bouygues wasted no time before calling Delmas, who’d retired from Haut-Brion in 2003. Delmas had handed responsibility over to his son, Jean-Philippe and started a small consulting business. “I wanted,” he says, “a challenge that didn’t involve Haut-Brion.” To seal the deal, Bouygues offered to provide Delmas with a car and driver to ferry him to and from Montrose daily.

“The first thing I did as wine director,” Delmas says, “was to taste the three best wines Montrose ever made –1970, 1989, 1990.”

Then he persuaded the Bouygues brothers not to bulldoze the modest château to build a grand monstrosity, and got to work.

As we tour the property under cloudy skies, the sound of construction is everywhere, and, to my surprise, most of it is from making the cellars and buildings completely energy self-sufficient through solar, water and wind power by mid-2010. The estate expects to have excess energy to sell. Beneath the château is a geothermal source of water that’s a constant 14 degrees centigrade for keeping things warm in winter and cool in summer. Saint-Estèphe’s trademark stiff breeze has more uses than just drying grapes after a hard rain; it will provide wind power. All this puts Montrose at the cutting edge of green consciousness in Bordeaux.

“Most wineries can’t afford the initial investment in things like our planned 3,000 square meters of solar panels,” Delmas says, looking happy he’s advising one that can. The Bouygues brothers’ estimated personal fortune is a cool $2.7 billion in 2009, according to Forbes. It comes from their eponymously named international telecommunications and construction businesses, which now have similar environmental policies. Projects have included ports, nuclear power stations, the Channel tunnel and the Musée d’Orsay. The company take in 2008: 32 billion-plus euros.

Delmas ticks off dozens of the small changes that I know add up to greatness in wine—maybe. He’s reduced yields, cut out weed killers and is thinking about including more petit verdot in the blend, now that it ripens more easily because of global warming.

The 70-hectare vineyard was in good shape, he says, but every year Monsieur Charmolüe picked it all at the same time. “You never have the same maturity in each parcel every year, so now we pick according to maturity, as at Haut-Brion.”

That adds to costs, but, he claims, has improved the wine’s silkiness. I didn’t find that in the barrel samples I sipped and spit in the long, elegant tasting room, but Delmas’ certainty persuades me he has a better handle on the wine’s future. The just-bottled 2007 is ripe and scented but lacks heft. The 2008 ($75 as futures) is terrific—big, powerful, smoky, full of spice and ripe plums and purity of fruit, with lots of tannin that needs plenty of time to age.

Over lamb chops at lunch in the surprisingly modest château dining room, I savor the dark and dramatic 1995 and 1999 Montrose. Delmas, relaxed and smiling, tells amusing stories about his time at Chateau Haut-Brion,and then freely admits to his new ambition.

“Yes, I do want to make a Saint-Estèphe first growth.”

 

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