IN 1855, NAPOLEON III commissioned the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce to make a list of the wines of Bordeaux. They were to be named in order of excellence, by region, and on the basis of prices they had fetched during the preceding decade. More than a century later, the list still stands, although understandably out-of-date and tainted by technical error. The Great Classification of 1855 endures, even though it omitted all of Pomerol, Saint-Emilion, and Graves; Chateau Haut-Brion, a Graves, was carelessly lumped in with Lafite, Latour, and Margaux--the First Growths of the Medoc. In 1975, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild became the first major addition to the "holy level" of First Growths in the Great Classification.
The late Baron Philippe de Rothschild who originated the concept of "debut dinners," designed to present the current Bordeaux vintage to the United States under optimum conditions--and always accompanied by an entourage of honored guests from the heart of the Claret country.
This year, for the 13-city tour, the dignitaries were the owners of Chateau Haut-Brion--the Duke and Duchess de Mouchy--and Haut-Brion's managing director, Jean Delmas. (Duchess Joan de Mouchy is a daughter of Douglas Dillon, Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and a former ambassador to France.)
The "debut" dinner for the Los Angeles area, held at the Regency Club, showed off the great vintage of 1985, with first pourings of Clerc Milon ($27.25), Lynch-Bages ($37.25), Leoville-Baron ($32.50), and Cos d'Estournel ($49.95), climaxed with avidly consumed, swirled, compared tastings of the First Growths--Lafite ($106.25), Latour ($106.25), Margaux ($106.25), Mouton-Rothschild ($86.50), and Haut-Brion ($100). With the cheese, came "library" pourings of the worthy Haut-Brion 1970, and a regal 1959, still queenly and vividly alive, though not all '59s have fared so well so long.
Delmas explained the longevity of the Haut-Brion by noting that its climatic, soil and weather conditions differed notably from those affecting the more northern growths of the Gironde.
In 1974, Delmas set aside almost an entire acre of Haut-Brion's precious 110 for one of the most impressive genetic vine studies undertaken in the history of Bordeaux. It was not his first revolutionary move at Haut-Brion, where his father George Delmas had been the regisseur since the turn of the century. In 1961 Jean Delmas pioneered stainless-steel vats for fermentation. In the '60s, he had changed the encepagement of Haut-Brion from one-third each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Melot to 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc and 25% Merlot.
Knowing that individual vines in a group of the same type do not have the same genetic potential, nor yield, and can vary as much as 10 to 1, Delmas planted a collection of clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and some once-highly valued vines--Petit Verdot and Carmenere. Each vine bore an identity card, the fruit was meticulously examined, and some berries were even peeled--the skins analyzed to measure their color-intensity and tannins. Since 1981, about 4,100 vine samples have been fed into computer analysis.
"In the year 2000," Delmas said, "Haut-Brion will be entirely planted with selected clones, from these on-going studies."