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Prince Robert of Two Haut-Brions

Posted: Saturday, 16 February 2013 10:48

Prince Robert of Two Haut-Brions

Feb 16: The great-grandson of the New Yorker banker Clarence Dillon-the founder of Domaine Clarence Dillon of Bordeaux, and its current President and CEO Prince Robert de Luxembourg represents the fifth generation of the Dillon family to have had an affiliation with Bordeaux. Subhash Arora met him for an exclusive interview at Le Cirque a couple of weeks ago to get insights into the wines and wineries of one of the top Bordeaux producer families.

Click For Large ViewDomaine Clarence Dillon owns one of the five First Growths of Bordeaux - Chateau Haut Brion, since 1935 and another highly coveted Graves-based Ch. La Mission Haut Brion which was acquired by the family in 1983, informs the Prince as we sit down. ‘Haut Brion is the oldest known Bordeaux winery that was started in 1533 by a man named Jean de Pontac. His brother- in- law Arnaud de Lestonnac acquired the original plot of Ch La Mission Haut-Brion a few years later in 1540.’

Earlier, as Prince Robert de Luxembourg walked into the bar of La Cirque at the appointed time, the first thing I noticed was his dull green coloured, modified-Nehru jacket with a tie, reminding me of Luxembourg where I had been a couple of years ago. Is it a typical outfit from his country or a royal attire, perhaps, I ask. ‘No, no, it’s more like Bavarian, actually.’ As his name suggests, Prince Robert belongs to the Royal family of Luxembourg. His cousin is in fact the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

The Prince was on his first trip to India on business, though he had been to India 22 years ago as a tourist. He was on a promotional visit with Sanjay Menon of Sonarys, primarily to popularize the relatively new label Clarendelle not yet known as well as Haut-Brion.

His maternal grandfather was Clarence Dillon, a New Yorker banker who also lived in Geneva. His love for wine made him buy Chateau Brion. Robert’s paternal grandfather was from Luxembourg, who was born and raised in Italy; his father used to have a vineyard in Tuscany which he sold when the Prince was 18 years old and came back to Luxembourg where Prince Robert grew up. It’s no wonder then that the paintings displayed in the Chateaux that he talks about, come from Italy, suggests Sanjay Menon.

Tale of two chateaux extraordinaire

Like a symphony conductor, Prince Robert deftly directs a team that ‘constantly strives for excellence’. He says, ‘they are responsible for producing not one First Growth but rather FOUR First Growth quality wines every year;  two reds and two whites from Château La Mission Haut-Brion and Château Haut-Brion. The white wines are simply known as Château Haut-Brion Blanc and Château La Mission Haut-Brion which was previously known as Château Laville Haut-Brion.

The restructuring of labels spearheaded by the Prince also resulted in the change of labels since the 2007 vintage. The second wine labeled earlier as Château Bahans Haut-Brion was renamed as Le Clarence de Haut-Brion to make the family connection more visible. For the same reason, the second white labeled formerly as Les Plantiers du Haut-Brion was changed to La Clarté de Haut-Brion.

Click For Large ViewBut the Prince is quite excited about the other two new projects Clarendelle and Chateau Quintus, besides the Clarence Dillon Wines, the wholesaling arm of the parent company that wholesale wines and act as a négociant as well.

Clarendelle Wines

The Prince’s eyes lit up when he started talking about Clarendelle Wines ( This was a project that fructified under his direct supervision and he is very proud of the wines which are the first premium brand of Bordeaux wine, according to him. He wasn’t happy when I wondered if it compared with Mouton Cadet. ‘Our objective was not to make wine in volume but use the philosophy of Haut Brion and produce wines of top quality by blending wines using outside resources. Clarendelle, the first vintage of which was released in 2005 - a great vintage in Bordeaux - was also named in honour of my great-grandfather, Mr Clarence Dillon,’ he adds.

Produced by Clarence Dillon Wines, in conjunction with the winemaking team from Château Haut-Brion and Château La Mission Haut-Brion, Clarendelle is a family of blended wines made from traditional Bordeaux grape varietals. It is produced in the same spirit as the wines of Domaine Clarence Dillon, and inspired by Haut-Brion; the label even declares so boldly on each bottle.

Clarendelle is presently distributed in thirty countries, primarily in wine shops and restaurants, through partnership with prestigious firms in the field of luxury goods, airline companies, hotels, and many Michelin-starred restaurants, among others. The Prince and his company are quite keen to promote these wines in India as well through Sonarys and this is primarily why he was here. We tasted white, rose and red –though there is yet another label, Amber that we didn’t taste today - all of high quality with elegance and balance.

Click For Large ViewThe company owns no infrastructure to produce these wines. ‘When we started we didn’t know where the market will go. With limited budgets we did not want to spend funds on creating buildings or a winery. No one in Bordeaux had done it before. We continue to work with separate facilities. We rent the winemaking facilities according to our requirement, with our own winemaker and have the flexibility of where we do it.  The wines became quite popular, in fact we are not left with any 2005, out of the 550,000 bottles we produced. We produce a total of 750,000 bottles of white, red, rose and sweet wines. Since we use the facilities for a couple of weeks a year only we also have the flexibility and can change the facilities’, says Prince Robert.

Chateau Quintus

The Prince of Luxembourg is also very happy to talk about the fifth line of wine business, which was started  by buying an old winery in St. Emilion last year. Known as Chateau Daugay earlier, it produced one of the most sought after wineries in the mid nineteenth century with wines selling at top prices. 'The attempt is to bring up the quality to as good as before. The winery was producing 60,000 bottles when it was bought; today we have cut down the production to merely 17,000.' As it was a tradition in St. Emilion where the fifth child used to be named Quintus, it has been named as such (meaning fifth). ‘We hope it will become a source of pride for us just like Ch. Haut Brion and Ch La Mission Haut Brion,’ he says with confidence.

‘Working on Quintus has been interesting,’ he says as he tells me about an old Haut Brion bottle from around 1850, found in the Indian Ocean. 'About 10-15 years ago a guy contacted us and asked if we were interested in the bottle. We were! I wanted to create a separate bottle - in 1958 we had created a Haut Brion bottle. We plan to design the new bottles according to this design,’ he says.

No Gumption for Overseas Joint Venture

Although the company has been expanding in the domestic wineries, the Prince says that besides the two Chateaux, Clarendelle and Quintus projects, he has never considered going out of France like the Rothschild families. ‘We are already foreigners in France. We have other activities in France but I don’t believe in joint ventures in other countries. Wine is really about passion. You are talking of longer term investment and you have to be in that frame. It is difficult to do joint ventures.

Click For Large ViewWe’d rather remain a small company with the brain pool to concentrate on small projects. For such business we would need to travel to other countries on airplanes all the time. So we don’t find such JVs creating waves,' adding light-heartedly that ‘there are 15,000 other producers. They could think on those terms.’

People say that Bordelaises are a tight knit group and don’t really make a foreigner living among them comfortable. A sensitive issue but I ask him anyway. He puts up the same question to his accompanying Export Manager for Asia Pacific, Joan Mourgues, but gets a rather diplomatic reply from him. Apparently a bit sensitive about the subject, he says ‘When my father arrived in Bordeaux in 1935, it was a difficult period for the people of Bordeaux. They were delighted at the purchase and running of the chateau. It was a time when the previous  owner tried to give the Bordeaux Academy away as it was too expensive to keep up,’ further adding, ‘we as a family are very attached to Bordeaux. Traditionally we have never lived in Bordeaux. I have been in Bordeaux twice a month, sometimes staying more than a week at a time.’

Till the 1970s the Dillon family had only one property; La Mission was bought in 1983. 'Haut-Brion was a passion and a pleasure - a downright folly and not a profit center. We tried to produce as well as we could and reinvested all our profits. All of us had very active role to play,’ he says, clarifying the family philosophy.

So where does the Prince live?

‘I live in Geneva in Switzerland but spend more and more time in Bordeaux. My mother lives in Paris and Luxembourg. My sister is also European like me and my mother whereas the father’s side is American.'

Click For Large ViewAll in the Family

The Prince, who has been married for 19 years to Joan, the granddaughter of Dillon, has been working in the winery, since then. Since 1997, he has been working full time with the company. Since his grand father Clarence Dillon bought Chateau Brion 77 years ago (the winery celebrated the 75th anniversary of the purchase in 2010), it has been owned and controlled by the descendants of his grandfather only. When his mother used to be the President, he worked under her. She has since retired; one of his two sisters also works in the wine business.

Online presence

Active participation by the Prince might have helped internationalization of marketing and the active use of online sales. He says that Haut Brion made the Chinese version of their website in 1998-besides Spanish, German, and Japanese. Earlier, they were the first of the most prestigious French estates to have a bilingual website, adding English. As a part of the strategy the websites have also been brought under Domaine Clarence Dillon.

Wine and Walk for Health

Wine is good for health and the Prince supplements it with regular walks in the mountains. ‘I walk a lot, sometimes five hours and a half in the mountains in Berner Oberland in Switzerland. Earlier, I used to run a lot. But now I walk regularly.' No wonder he looks so fit.

Faking in China

Click For Large ViewDo you have problems like the fake Lafites in the Chinese market? I ask the Prince. Not really, he says. ‘You have to remember that our production and size of the market is much smaller-less than half of Lafite. Moreover, we have a unique bottle which makes counterfeiting very difficult.’

It’s not clear whether the wines we tasted during the interview or the lunch that followed with their top wines, made the interview interesting or it was the other way around, but it was surely a great combo - a rare opportunity, and I am sure wine aficionados would keep a keen watch on the future happenings at Domaine Clarence Dillon.

For details on the wineries of Domaine Clarence Dillon, visit:

Subhash Arora

Tags: First Growths, Sonarys, Mouton Cadet, Bordeaux, St. Emilion


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