26 December 2019
It’s hard to imagine the president of Domaine Clarence Dillon sitting on a sunlounger by an LA hotel pool, tapping into a laptop and dreaming up his next blockbuster. First off, his manner is friendly but formal, much like his dress – he often favours a collarless Alpine loden jacket in green wool with horn buttons. It’s hard to imagine him in Hollywood, writing screenplays, as he did for a spell in what must seem like another life – back when he and his then girlfriend (now wife) were working up a film version of Don Juan and had “an extraordinary moment” when some very big names in Hollywood were optioning the screenplay. His life in the upper echelons of very fine wine-making suits him much better. Secondly, he is, after all, a Prince – Prince Robert of Luxembourg to give him his official title.
“I’ve gone by Robert Luxembourg. It’s just my name and I carry it for better or worse. It’s who I am and I’m not going to hide that. But my title is not something I’ve even considered to be a tool in business,” he says, sounding perhaps just a little bothered by the suggestion. “In fact, it’s something I’ve always been wary of, even though I do what I can for Luxembourg. I’m sure that the title brings an element of intrigue for some people. But it’s not what matters. What matters is the quality of our product.”
Prince Robert is now head of Domaine Clarence Dillon, founded in Pessac, France, in 1935 by his great-grandfather, a Wall Street banker. This fourth-generation family firm is the owner of some of the most prestigious estates in France, among them Château La Mission Haut-Brion and, most famously, Château Haut-Brion (classified as premier grand cru in 1855).
For those who like to pick up a bottle of wine at the supermarket on the way home from work, but who wouldn’t consider themselves oenophiles, Haut-Brion is a god wine. It is made in tiny quantities – around 500 cases per year – and in 1521 became the first Bordeaux wine to be named after its terroir, rather than its owner. It was, arguably, the world’s first luxury wine brand. A bottle of the 2018 vintage will cost you in the region of £450. A bottle of the 1902 vintage – for this is a wine that improves with age – will cost you around £4,300.
That’s some reputation to be handed the care of. “It wasn’t inevitable that I’d become part of the business,” says Prince Robert, who joined full time in 1997 and started working his way up. “I’d been a board member since I was 18 – though not a particularly active board member, I must admit. I had no interest in joining the company as a caretaker, because the only way to be successful in this kind of family business is to create consistent but measurable growth. It can’t be a trophy asset and survive down through the generations. We had the savoir faire but not the faire savoir – we could make wine but weren’t so good at letting people know about it. We found that part slightly embarrassing.”
In recent years, Prince Robert has sought to bring Domaine Clarence Dillon into the 21st century, thereby playing a key part in helping to overhaul the image of Bordeaux wines. Once considered a rather stuffy wine choice – a problem suffered by many ‘Old World’ wines – Bordeaux is now gaining more traction with younger drinkers. This has come in part by taking a leaf out of the more modern marketing strategies of those more modern winemakers in the ‘New World’ – who recognise that an attractive bottle and label can be as powerful a draw for casual wine drinkers as the liquid itself. Historically, wines from Bordeaux and other well-established winemaking areas have been sold from the vineyard to a broker then to the wholesaler, with the latter traditionally being responsible for marketing the wine. Brand building just hasn’t been on Bordeaux’s radar.
“Today the wine consumer has the largest ever selection to choose from. But wines from Bordeaux have been seen as being for the older generation, for the kind of people who buy wine and lay it down, like my father and grandfather did,” says Prince Robert. “Younger generations don’t want to do that. And I was amazed to find that Bordeaux didn’t have a super-premium brand, despite being right next to Champagne, which is basically known everywhere for its brands.” Bordeaux also has a tradition of blended wines, he notes, which isn’t the case in other parts of the world.
Prince Robert’s first step in taking the family firm forward was to launch Bordeaux’s first premium brand, Clarendelle, with the aim of initiating wine fans in the blending traditions and techniques of the great Bordeaux producers by offering pre-aged wines, ready to drink right after purchase. He was convinced of the demand for such an innovative product based on his own experience. He wasn’t wrong: Clarendelle recently reached annual sales of one million bottles in 85 countries, and Domaine Clarence is now having to build a dedicated warehouse in which to house the wine.
The Prince says he considers himself “a wine amateur, a wine lover who likes to try different things.” He recalls living in London when he was a young man, remembering “not having a cellar and buying a bottle on the way home to enjoy with dinner. I looked at older wines but couldn’t find anything at the right price that was ready for drinking, and with a quality similar to the previous vintage, that I could return to without the next bottle disappointing me. So that’s what we created – a wine that addressed all of those issues. A lot of what we did was untested. It was, in effect, a start-up, one we had to get into the right places and onto to the right wine lists. A lot of wines from Bordeaux have disappeared from wine lists, replaced by new-world wines. Thankfully there’s a return to the more traditional wine regions.”
There have been other innovations along with Clarendelle. A few years ago, the company acquired an estate in Saint-Emilion, renamed as Chateau Quintus, and two years later acquired the neighbouring Chateau L'Arrosee, wirg which it was combined. A more distinctive bottle shape for Chateau Quintus was introduced.
Along with a head office in Paris, Domaine Clarence Dillon now offers a fine-wine merchant, Clarence-Dillon Wines, and Le Clarence hotel and restaurant, which has earned two michelin stars under chef Christophe Pele. All this modernising and profile-building has paid off. Last year Domaine Clarence Dillon joined Primum Familiae Vini, the prestigious association of historic families from the wine world. Membership is by invitation only, and there is a maximum of 12 members at any one time.
It’s a markedly more successful story than Prince Robert’s time in Hollywood – in the end, none of his scripts went into production. It seems that he is perhaps better suited to building those things that take years to produce and which last generations. “Of course, I wouldn’t have said no to a career in screenwriting rather than wine,” Robert admits. “But I’m happy as long as what I do is creative. And winemaking is certainly that.”
Château Haut-Brion is available in London at Justerini & Brooks (61 St James’s Street, justerinis.com) and Berry Bros. & Rudd (63 Pall Mall, bbr.com)