For Domaine Clarence Dillon, a leader in innovation and quality, the future of Bordeaux is in brands

Domaine Clarence Dillon is the holding company of Premier Grand Cru Classe Chateau Haut-Brion as well as for the branded wine, Clarendelle, launched in 2005.  In the 75th anniversary year of Clarence Dillon’s acquisition of Chateau Haut-Brion, I had the chance to speak to Prince Robert of Luxembourg, President of Domaine Clarence Dillon, about the future the Bordeaux and the role of brands.

Chateau Haut-Brion, one of the five premier cru classes and arguably the first grand cru classe, has always demonstrated it is first-in-class.  The only 1855 grand cru classe outside of the Medoc, Chateau Haut-Brion was the first chateau to export and market a Bordeaux wine of an individual estate in the 17th century when then-owner Arnaud du Pontac opened Pontac’s Head tavern in London.  This predecessor of a chic wine lounge featured Chateau Haut-Brion wines exclusively, making it one of the first luxury brands in the world.

Chateau Haut-Brion has always been a leader in innovation, being the first Bordeaux estate in 17th century to make “New French Claret”, a fuller-bodied, more ageable wine than existed at the time using new techniques such as topping, racking and sulfuring to keep the wine fresh.  The estate was also the first in the area to install stainless steel tanks in the early 1960’s and is currently engaged in a long-term study of clones.

With this provenance and recognizing the need for high quality regional Bordeaux  in international markets (vs. the small percent of famous grands crus classes), Prince Robert decided in 2005 to launch a new super-premium branded wine called Clarendelle, named in honor of his great-grandfather Clarence Dillon, co-founder of the former Dillon, Read investment bank.  Bordeaux has traditionally been sold as appellation wines rather than as producer “brands” as we know them in New World markets, being somewhat of a marketing disadvantage when over 8,000 Bordeaux producers use slightly different techniques to make their wines.

Prince Robert, who lives outside of France and takes a broad view, was inspired by the successes of producers like Robert Mondavi or regions like Champagne in producing quality, blended wines in volume for an international market.  He could see the potential for making a high quality regional Bordeaux in the $15-25 price category by selectively buying wine from smaller producers in Bordeaux, and then using their own accomplished winemaking team to blend a consistent wine in the house style.

Clarendelle brands (total case production of 750,000) consist of red, white, rose and sweet wines, all regional Bordeaux appellation (AOC) except for the sweet wines which are Monbazillac located south of Bordeaux.  The merlot-based red blend, by far the most popular representing about 70% of sales, are made to age 10-15 years.  The white wine is a semillon and sauvignon blanc blend.  The rose is a Bordeaux blend.

From the launch of the brand in 2005, the wines have performed very well.  The Clarendelle reds have grown from about 40,000 cases in 2005 (the 2002 vintage) to about 500,000 today, with successful markets in U.S., Japan and China.    The brands’ introduction was focused on New World markets because of our familiarity with brands, but interestingly, they found traditional markets like France very receptive to the wines, particularly among young people.  According to Prince Robert, they are now in about 100 accounts in Paris, including high-end hotels and restaurants.

While Clarendelle is a source of “organic growth potential for the company,” he said they are driven to do whatever they can do to raise the overall quality of Bordeaux wines.  Currently, small producers are being “squeezed on price” but if Domaine Clarence Dillon pays a higher price for quality, he envisions producers re-investing in their businesses and making better wine.

Prince Robert says that Bordeaux remains a world benchmark for quality, but that producers “need to be worthy” of the reputation and firmly believes that the growth of super-premium branded wines that are highly visible and of high quality, are a key part of the revitalization.