CHANGING LANDSCAPE FOR THE DILLONS OF BORDEAUX

The family behind Château Haut-Brion and three other properties prepares for the future.


Published:

It's late summer in Bordeaux, the moment of stillness before the frenzy of harvest. In the hot air, the flags of France, the United States and Luxembourg move softly over Château Haut-Brion. On the lawns around the 18th-century château, in a scene reminiscent of a French landscape painting, the board of directors of Domaines Clarence Dillon is at leisure, seated in chairs shaded by sequoia trees or walking across manicured expanses of green grass. They've arrived from around the world for a regular board meeting of the company that owns some of the most prestigious estates in Bordeaux: Château Haut-Brion, Château La Mission Haut-Brion, Château La Tour Haut- Brion and Château Laville Haut-Brion. That's 184 acres of the finest vineyard land in the world, a green oasis hemmed in by the urban sprawl of Bordeaux.

It's a meeting of the Old World and the new. There are Dillon great-aunts and -uncles, cousins and nephews. There is Douglas Dillon, President Kennedy's Secretary to the Treasury, still active in his nineties. There is Joan, Duchesse de Mouchy, Douglas Dillon's daughter and president of Domaines Clarence Dillon. There is her husband, the Duc de Mouchy, a descendent of the pre-Revolutionary aristocracy of France. And there is Robert, Prince de Luxembourg, Joan's son, who is heir apparent to the presidency of the Dillon estates, and cousin to the reigning Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

This mix of old American money and Old World titles is quite appropriate for what is an aristocrat among chateaus even in Bordeaux's elevated circles. The first estate to be singled out for praise—by English diarist Samuel Pepys in the 17th century—Haut-Brion is among the elite of the elite. It would be easy for the Dillons to continue making wines that only the elite can afford or can drink, secure in the belief that whatever Domaines Clarence Dillon produces can be sold many times over.

Yet, just a few months later, in a setting that could not be more different from the lawns of Haut-Brion, here is Prince Robert explaining how he wants the image of his family's wines to be projected: "I don't want to communicate any kind of snobbery with our wines. Our whole notion is not to put a halo over the bottle and say, 'look how great we are'. People who are our customers don't see our wine as a status symbol but as something wonderful to share with friends and to mark a great evening or an occasion. We don't produce much wine and we do have demand from all over the world. Understandably when you have something in limited supply it is seen as something special. All we can do is communicate that we haven't changed, what's changed is the way we are perceived."

Domaines Clarence Dillon
It is a cold November morning in Paris, and I am with Robert and his mother —the two generations currently in charge of Haut-Brion—in their offices in the smart 8th arrondisement of Paris, home of embassies and haute couture ateliers. This is the headquarters of Domaines Clarence Dillon, the company's commercial heart and a convincing reminder that there's more to occupy the Dillon family than wine: there is an investment portfolio, too, the source of the wealth that enabled an American banker named Clarence Dillon (of Dillon, Read fame) to buy Haut-Brion in 1935.

His granddaughter, Joan de Mouchy, is a larger-than-life lady, with an indefinable, cultured, mid-Atlantic accent. She arrived in Paris when her father, Douglas, became American ambassador under Eisenhower. Already Haut-Brion was a fixed part of the family scene, run by Dillon's nephew Seymour Weller, with Georges Delmas as manager. But for Joan Dillon, Paris didn't mean fine wine, it meant the arts. "I was working on the Paris Review [the famed post-World War II literary magazine] and having fun. There wasn't anything [in the arts scene] in which I wasn't involved. I had no idea of being involved in Haut-Brion."

Not until the 1960s, when she was married to Prince Charles of Luxembourg, and living in that tiny nation, did she take a real interest in Haut-Brion. "I started coming down to Bordeaux or Paris two or three days every week. And I've never looked back. After Robert's father [Charles of Luxembourg] died, and I married the Duc de Mouchy [who is now managing director of Domaines Clarence Dillon], I just continued doing it. But it was always considered to be run for the family.

"In those days, we never took a penny out; everything was put back in. It wasn't treated as a business at all—it was always quality, quality, quality. Eventually, because of the law, we had to pay a dividend [to family members], but even now there is a policy of reinvesting. The vineyards are kept completely separate from other family businesses." Joan remembers family holidays at Haut-Brion: "In the 1970s, I brought the whole crew from Luxembourg to Bordeaux for August, and I started renovating the chateau, going 'round all the antiques markets, gleaning stuff for the chateau."

Her son adds: "The atmosphere was almost one of a family folly, when we created the best possible wines, and nothing was spared to achieve that. We were the first in Bordeaux to replace oxen with tractors (in the 1950s), the first to have steel fermentation vats, the first to have the cellars completely renovated."

The Delmas Family
Throughout this period, and for the last 80 years, the Delmas family has provided the stability of on-the-spot management. First there was Georges Delmas, then Jean-Bernard, who took over from his father in 1961 and today is one of the great figures on the Bordeaux scene. His innovations include cloning experiments and revolutionary compartmentalized fermentation vats that he designed himself with two sections to facilitate drainage of juice and sediment during fermentation. Jean-Bernard's son, Jean-Philippe, has also joined the team, with a job on the commercial side of the business; so far he has not become involved in the winemaking.

"The Delmas family has given Haut-Brion a continuity which is rare in Bordeaux," explains Robert. "We know that a vineyard is not created in a day. And while we preach the terroir, which has the potential to produce great wine, we also know that the human element is very important. We had the best possible position not only with our investment, but also with the people working with the vines and coming up with plans for winemaking."

Robert's is the new face of the Domaines Clarence Dillon. He is a citizen of Europe, born in Luxembourg (he remains a Luxembourg citizen, as does Joan), educated at boarding school in England, dividing his time between his houses in London, Paris and the south of France, with summers spent at the Dillon family home in Maine. A former screenplay writer, who studied art and sculpture rather than wine, it is his job, among others, to tell the world about Haut-Brion. Until now, this has been the most private of the first growths. But this is destined to change.

"We're not planning on having busloads coming through the gates, but we wanted to talk about Haut-Brion and the other properties," explains Joan. "So I created a website in 1995, when it was still unheard of in wine properties. Everybody thought I was nuts."

Robert is now vice-president of the family wine business. Because of its official status as a company, he is not likely to be subject to the French estate tax laws, which dictate that an inheritance be divided equally between all the offspring. But as both Joan de Mouchy and Jean-Bernard Delmas edge toward retirement age, Robert represents the next generation.

"Initially I was asked to become involved in marketing," he explains. "Of course, marketing Haut-Brion or La Mission is pretty easy in one sense, since their reputation is already there. But I felt there was a lot to do on the communication side—the fact we have the oldest terroir in Bordeaux, the fact of the family's involvement. And now I am becoming the public persona, representing Haut-Brion at tastings, travelling, taking the burden of some of the things that were done by my mother."

Not that Joan won't be around: "I have no intention of retiring," she says firmly. "At the moment the idea is that Robert should be at my side, so that when the moment comes for him to take over, there won't be any change at all. When I do step down, I will probably remain on the board as an advisor. Where will I be in five years, ten years? I have absolutely no idea—quite frankly it depends on one's husband. What can I say?" A quiet and gradual changeover, it seems, both for Joan de Mouchy and for Jean-Bernard Delmas. Says Robert: "We have the great fortune to have Jean-Bernard Delmas who beyond being an excellent winemaker and estate manager surrounds himself with the best possible people. We hope he will not retire for a long time. He has been a very important part of Haut-Brion and we would have a hard time giving him up."

Robert - Bordeaux Ambassador
Apart from being the point man for Haut-Brion and the other Dillon properties, Robert sees his role as explaining Bordeaux and the first growths to the rest of the world. "I still think Bordeaux makes the best wine in the world, even though we are no longer the only major wine-producing region in people's minds. We have to communicate what makes this wine so special, what we do that's different from other people, all the attention to detail, especially when people are paying that much more for a bottle of wine. As first growths we remain the reference for superior quality in wine. And now we are present in 100 countries, when at the beginning of the 20th century we were only in maybe five.

"Although our wine is expensive, we don't see ourselves as making a luxury item. We produce a wonderful wine. We are not going out and producing a product with the notion of giving it luxury—not producing a handbag and putting our name on it which makes it a luxury product. We are just saying this is the finest wine we can make."

The regularly recurring rumors—last heard a couple of years ago—that Haut-Brion and the other Dillon properties might be for sale bring swift denials from Robert and his mother. "It's not an issue for us," says Joan. "We can't see a situation like Yquem or Cheval Blanc" [where family shareholders forced a sale]. Says Robert: "We involve the family in the running of the properties, and the family all has representation on the board. We could not sell anyway because of the way the company is organized."

However, they could buy. "We are looking at other places in Bordeaux," says Robert. "That's no secret." The Médoc is a possibility. Robert even pauses over the possibility of another first growth, although Joan is firm in her denial. There's also Pomerol; it is obvious that Joan likes Pomerol. "It would be something that would make the best possible wines, with a good reputation we could give luster to. We could add a lot to a place by applying our philosophy of not trying to turn a profit next year or concentrate on paying dividends. But so far we haven't found what we want."

So the Dillons are a fixture in Bordeaux. The flags of the United States and Luxembourg will continue to join the French tricolor outside Haut-Brion when the family is in residence. It was perhaps fitting—and a symbol of the family's commitment to Bordeaux—that they threw the city's first big ball after the end of World War Two. "Everybody ordered black ties and tuxedos," remembers Joan. "My grandfather [Clarence Dillon] got the ballet down from Paris and they danced across the park. There was no traffic on the main road then, so they just danced in at the gate. People still remember that. When we celebrated 50 years of Dillon ownership [of Haut -Brion] in 1985, people came up to me and said 'I remember, I was there. It was so wonderful.'"

Roger Voss


Tasting Chateau Haut-Brion

1990
98 Powerful, supple and full-bodied, with integrated tannins and a long finish. Aromas of blackberry and plum mingle with fresh tobacco. Chocolate and cassis prevail on the palate. An opulent wine that drinks wonderfully now, but with its relative youth could age for 20 years and possibly more.

1989
99 The nose is characteristic Haut-Brion, with cigar, toasty spice, smoke and earth. Hints of raspberry jam, vanilla and coffee charm the taste buds. Cocoa-powder tannins. A winner of a wine from a classic vintage, but it needs time; 30 years would hardly be too long, judging by the '59 to which it is frequently compared.

1988
89 Flashes of brick are seeping into 1988's deep-purple complexion. 1988 saw wet weather just before the harvest; hence the bell pepper and herb aromas. Strong tannins and flavors of cherry, plum and green peppercorn make for an appealing combination. Drink it now or cellar it for up to 10 years.

1986
92 A sleeper vintage for Haut-Brion; this wine is a study in class. The very first sniff reveals clove, cinnamon, black peppercorn, cigar and black cherry. In the mouth, this delicate quaff shows cedar and mineral notes. Drink now, or hold for 10-15 years.

1985
96 Fresh and opulent fruit characterize this medium- to-full-bodied wine. Boysenberries, blackberries, herbs, caramel, chocolate-covered cherries and toasted nuts cavort on the tongue, and the velvety mouthfeel gives it an extra boost. This wine is drinking well now but can age another 10-15 years.

1983
91 Aromas of damp earth recall the humid weather of the growing season. The palate is redolent of bittersweet chocolate, allspice, plum and smoke, along with a smooth suppleness and soft tannins. It has lovely, vibrant acidity and a long finish. A wine that may be consumed now or held 5-10 more years.

1982
97 Haut-Brion's longtime winemaker Jean-Bernard Delmas judged this vintage to have had the benefit ideal growing conditions, and clearly, the proof of this pudding is in the drinking, so to speak. Cigar and tobacco aromas typical of Haut-Brion blend complement red-fruit and toffee flavors. The lovely deep-purple hue shows no sign of age. This complex beauty can hold for another 15 years.

1981
88 Not every Haut-Brion vintage is stellar, and this wine proves it. Still, this is good wine and it is ready to drink. Notes of coffee, leather, plum and flowers. The fruit has a slightly cooked flavor, and the color is showing a bit of brick. Nevertheless, this wine has its charms.

1979
97 An oft-forgotten vintage, but a favorite of Domaines Clarence Dillon vice-president Prince Robert of Luxembourg, which should tell you something. Aromas of tobacco, earth and bittersweet chocolate and flavors of black cherry and dried fruit and smooth tannins betray its classic styling. Be prepared for a big finish. Drink now.

1978
87 A lean, light- to medium-bodied wine with lovely strawberry, cranberry, coffee and clove notes is offset by a way-too-powerful herbal quality. Drink up now.

1970
85 Tar and meaty notes overpower this wine's pleasant burnt caramel and black pepper aromas. Drink now; don't wait.

1966
88 It rained in the spring of 1966, but a warm summer rescued the vintage and 35 years later, this medium-bodied wine is redolent of smoke, spice and herbs. There's a bit of mustiness here, and the color is showing its age slightly. Attractively fleshy and soft; a pretty wine.

1964
84 A light-bodied, lean wine. Harvest in '64 was rainy, but the fruit still shines through. Damp earth is beginning to overwhelm the light rhubarb, raspberry and clove.

1962
91 A beautiful, elegant quaff for right now. Rich and ripe, with noticeable tannins. Aromas of flowers, with lovely hints of lilac, mingle with dried herbs and peat moss. In the mouth, flavors of plum and prune mix with leather, hay and tobacco.

1961
100 They say life begins at 40, and this graceful vintage affirms it. Perfect is not too strong a word for this quintessential Bordeaux. Notes of sweet cigar, cassis, plum, maple, molasses and nutmeg dance in perfect choreography around the supple tannins and lush, opulent texture. Coincidentally, 1961 was the first for winemaker Delmas. He recalls the growing conditions that year—a hot, dry summer and harvest in mid-September—as perfect. Forty it might be, but this wine is so youthful in character and so lush and full-bodied that it promises to age beautifully for decades. Did we say this is one of Haut-Brion's all-time greats?

1959
100 Another superb wine, and yet so different from the '61. This vintage is less opulent and more elegant, with intensely jammy red fruit. Licorice-liqueur notes, along with herbs, toffee, coffee and sweet dried cherries play against each other easily, and the soft, well-integrated tannins, silky texture and medium body are positively beguiling.

1955
84 The 1955 vintage has scored high ratings elsewhere, but this bottle tasted of sawdust, with a dried quality. The hue teeters between brown and amber. Least favorite of the tasting.

1953
91 An Haut-Brion that is true to its name. Smoke, tobacco and cigar notes complement the cherry fruit, with just a hint of burned coffee. Lively acidity and smooth tannins. Ready to drink but can hold for a few years.

1952
98 After the glories of the '59, we hardly expected the decade to produce another winner, but 1952 was perfectly delightful. An earthy wine with notes of smoke, leather, coffee and mushrooms, it is medium-full in body and lush on the tongue. Beautifully balanced, it's just starting to show a bit of brick color but should age even longer.

1949
92 Another winning vintage from a decade with many winners. Aromas of smoke and bacon with hints of molasses complement black-cherry flavors and cocoa-powder tannins. Smooth, balanced and very nice.

1948
91 Bordeaux was not at its best in 1948, but Haut-Brion proved to be an exception. The nose is redolent of cigar, toast, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla, while the palate offers up dried herbs, leather, tar and luscious fruit.

1947
90 A medium- to full-bodied wine with a delicate nose of flowers and hints of cocoa and somewhat assertive (for its age) jammy, ripe fruit flavors and tannins.

1945
100 A blockbuster wine for the ages. All the raves we'd read about this vintage are richly deserved. This brilliance owes to the freezing of the vines early that season (just before the end of the war in Europe); most of the crop was lost, but that which remained matured under a warm summer sun. The result was highly concentrated fruit, which is discernable even 56 years later. The appearance is that of a bottle one-fifth its age: dark ruby with the barest tinge of brick. Characteristic aromas of cigar and earth waft from the glass, complemented by violets, vanilla, peat moss and smoked meat. Full-bodied, with a velvety texture. Pure pleasure.

1937
95 A hailstorm almost wiped out this entire vintage; the normal yield of 600 to 700 casks dropped to a mere 50. But oh, what was in those 50 casks! The purple color belies the wine's age. Aromas of black pepper and mint waft from the glass. A thinnish mid-palate gives way to a long finish rich with cocoa powder and burnt caramel.

1929
98 A legendary wine with a deep ruby hue, just tinted brown at the edges. At a youthful 72, it is decidedly supple and velvety, with a smooth texture and silky tannins. Aromas of cigar, wild berry and mineral are complemented by plum, prune, bacon, dried- herb and licorice flavors. An extraordinary wine.

1928
93 Not as opulent as the '29, but a very elegant quaff on its own merits, with an unexpectedly marked tannic grip. Roses and geraniums tickle the nose, and flavors of smoke, tart cherry and pancetta dance on the tongue. Finishes with a vibrant acid kick.

1924
86 This wine shows all of its 77 years, from the brownish, brickish color to the musty aroma that overwhelms the fragrances of flowers, nuts and dried herbs.

1921
97 A stunner, with medium-to-full body, aromas of fruitcake, mushrooms and bacon, flavors of Port, raspberry and strawberry jam and smooth tannins. Entrancing.

1919
92 We should all age so gracefully. At 81, this wine has taken on the color of a tawny Port. Notes of plum, apricot, ground clove and, on the long finish, leather and smoky tobacco. Youthful, exotic; not a bit tired.

—Leslie Sbrocco is executive editor of Wine Today/New York Times on the Web.

Related Articles

Making Sense of Montalcino

Producers in Tuscany's flagship wine region are divided over splitting it into subzones, but the idea has merit.

Graffiti in Label Designs

A label gets graffitied.

5 Tips for Storing Opened Wine

These are the best ways to preserve the last few glasses of your open bottle.

Napa's Unsung Whites

Though often overshadowed by the region’s big reds, Napa Valley’s top white wines shouldn’t be overlooked.

Add your comment:

Subscribe

You can unsubscribe at any time. View an example of our newsletter.

>

Related Web Articles