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Bordeaux Crescendo in Six Wines: A Taste of Château Haut-Brion History

Prince Robert of Luxembourg and Jean-Philippe Delmas reflect on the first-growth's deep history, and nearly a quarter-century working together
From left: Prince Robert of Luxembourg, James Molesworth and Jean-Philippe Delmas
Photo by: Rick Wenner
From left: Prince Robert of Luxembourg, James Molesworth and Jean-Philippe Delmas

Emma Balter
Posted: October 24, 2018

The deep history of Bordeaux first-growth Château Haut-Brion was not lost on the Wine Experience crowd as they settled into the last seminar of the weekend: a tasting of six wines from the estate. Owner Prince Robert of Luxembourg recounted some of that history, from the first vines believed to be planted in the 1st century AD to the important figures who enjoyed Haut-Brion wines over the centuries, including quite a few U.S. Founding Fathers.

Another crucial part of the château's history is the one between Prince Robert and Haut-Brion director Jean-Philippe Delmas, who have known each other their entire lives. The prince joked that, while he built sandcastles in the sandbox, Delmas would create sand mounds and plant little twigs on their southern sides. "When he started bringing gravel in the sandbox, that's when things got a little bit worrisome," said Prince Robert. "But it all makes sense now. Jean-Philippe and I have been building castles and vineyards now, or at least tending them, for almost a quarter of a century together."

The tasting started with the estate's second wine, Le Clarence de Haut-Brion 2010 (93 points, $200), an approachable introduction to Haut-Brion's reds.

The 2005 vintage (100 points, $930 on release) was a testament to the freedom Delmas is given to make the best wine possible from a wonderful terroir: The blend Delmas thought surpassed all others could only be made in a very small quantity, but Prince Robert gave him the OK, forgoing the chance to sell a larger amount of grand vin from a much-hyped vintage.

The 2003 vintage was extremely hot, but the 2003 Haut-Brion (96 points, $325 on release) was surprisingly fresh. Delmas recalled why. After tasting the berries in early August, he and his vineyard manager concluded that the grapes needed to be picked—but France was in the middle of its month-long summer holiday. He summoned back his vacationing and incredulous father, Jean-Bernard Delmas (who retired from Haut-Brion later that year) and spent two days tracking down all of his workers. The grapes were harvested in the sweltering heat.

Delmas could smell the signature of Haut-Brion's terroir in the maturing 2000 (94 points, $425 on release) and 1998 (97 points, $193 on release) vintages: smoky nuts, burnt coffee beans and chocolate. Though the vineyard is planted equally to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the '98 is 60 percent Merlot, as it was a much better year for that grape. Delmas prioritizes making the best blend possible, as opposed to relying on a majority of one grape regardless of its quality. As his father always said, "It's 100 percent Haut-Brion."

"And now we have a special gift for you," Delmas told the audience. It was the 2013 vintage of the rare Haut-Brion White (98 points, $982). Production for the white typically maxes out at 500 to 600 cases a year, compared to about 10,000 cases of the red grand vin; the white can also command almost twice the price. It was a thrilling conclusion to the New York Wine Experience tasting seminars.

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