Remembering Jean-Bernard Delmas


Jean-Bernard Delmas, who passed away at the age of 83 on 3 October 2019, was a giant figure in Bordeaux and especially the Graves. In 1960 Delmas succeeded his father, Georges Delmas, as régisseur of Château Haut-Brion, not just a First Growth for him, but where he was born in 1935. They were large shoes to fill since his father had overseen every vintage since 1921. However, not only did Jean-Bernard Delmas debut with the regal 1961 Haut-Brion that continues to astonish to this day, but he made the audacious decision to replace the château’s old wooden fermentation vats with twelve stainless-steel vessels. Its revolutionary impact cannot be overstated. Fermentation temperatures became easier to regulate and since stainless steel is easier to clean and rendered cuveries more hygienic and less prone to bacterial infection. Delmas designed them himself, squat in design, in order to enhance contact between the must and the marc. His innovations did not stop there. Throughout the Seventies Delmas embarked upon continuous research of rootstocks and clones in conjunction with the INRA through multitudinous micro-vinifications. He also pioneered the technique of using sorting tables to eradicate under-ripe berries from entering the vat. Under his aegis, Haut-Brion made a raft of exceptional wines, such as the 1978, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1990, 1996, 1998 and 2000, not to mention La Mission Haut-Brion from 1983 after the Dillon family bought the property on the opposite side of the road. It is the consistency of these wines that really hits home, even in difficult vintages. Yet the pinnacle in many people’s eyes was his landmark 1989 Haut-Brion and 1989 La Mission Haut-Brion, both awarded perfect scores in my recent “A Century of Bordeaux: The Nines” article.

When I began visiting Bordeaux in the late Nineties, Jean-Bernard Delmas was always there to greet me. Dressed smartly in a suit and tie, as one would expect from a winemaker in charge of a First Growth, he always came across as an erudite but humble gentleman, irrespective of the prestige that came with his position. He was a keen amateur photographer and apparently travelled as far as Nepal for his hobby. But it was winemaking that was in his blood, as it had been for his father and for his son, Jean-Philippe Delmas, who took the reins from Jean-Bernard in 2004. And because of that born desire to farm the land and to create wine, Delmas was not in the mood to hang up his secateurs or pipette quite yet.

Jean-Bernard Delmas would sometimes just close his eyes and enter into a moment’s deep thought when tasting. This was taken in April 2008 at Montrose. Copyright Johan Berglund.

I recall visiting Château Montrose during en primeur, surprised when Jean-Bernard Delmas suddenly appeared in the tasting room. New owner Martin Bouyges had lured Delmas out of retirement to run the Saint-Estèphe estate. Delmas relished a new challenge, even if I think his heart was always in the gravelly soils of Pessac-Léognan. In 2010, a year before he did finally retire, I stopped before bidding farewell and took a photo of this legendary gentleman. Even though he continued to give advice at Montrose, it was the last time that I saw him.

Jean-Bernard Delmas will be missed, but his legacy will be seen across Bordeaux for years to come. It is there in his son, who has his same down-to-earth approach, self-deprecating humour and bonhomie, not least his same winemaking talent. It is in the stainless steel vats that you see across Bordeaux. It is out in the vineyards in the suburbs of Bordeaux city and the vines he tended for many years. It is in the monumental 1989s and the other magical wines that he conjured that will give so much drinking pleasure for many years to come.