Rebel with a Cause: Haut Brion's Prince Robert of Luxembourg

Prince Robert of Luxembourg, owner of Chateau Haut-Brion
Prince Robert of Luxembourg, owner of Chateau Haut-Brion

Prince Robert of Luxembourg is a rebel of sorts. The 42-year-old managing director of Domaine Clarence Dillon, which produces four of the best-known wines in the world, is attempting to expand his family's business by producing a more affordable wine on a larger scale by blending wines produced mostly by other vineyards.

Prince Robert oversees, and owns along with his family, two of the most prestigious Premier Grand Cru estates in Bordeaux: Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion. Yet, he has launched a new brand, "Clarendelle", the first super premium branded Bordeaux wine. Named in honor of his great-grandfather, Clarence Dillon, a New York banker who bought Chateau Haut-Brion in 1935, Clarendelle is offered at a lower price point than the wines produced by the Prince's well known estates---$15 to $25 a bottle compared to well over $300 a bottle for Chateau Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. Domaine Clarence Dillon is able to accomplish that by buying wine from dozens of other Bordeaux winemakers and blending the wines together with only a small portion coming from the Domaine Clarence Dillon estates.

Advantages to Buying Wine Rather Than Grapes

There's a great advantage to buying wine, rather than grapes, Prince Robert told DailyFinance in an exclusive interview. "Buying wine gives us more quality control," he explains. "We already have a finished product. We are not buying grapes because we would not know how they will evolve." The wines that are purchased for Clarendelle, represents the same grape varietals used for the Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion wines.

The winemaking experts from Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion are responsible for the blending process. "We are doing the same exercise we do when we make Chateau Haut-Brion every year," says Prince Robert, who began working for the winery in 1992 and became a full-time member of the management team in 1997. "We have barrels of wine that represent the different parcels of the Domaine and we put them in front of our winemaking experts. They decide which ones are the best. We do the same process with wines coming from across Bordeaux to make Clarendelle."

A Different Approach to Releasing Wines

With Clarendelle, the Prince is taking a different approach in terms of how his wines are sold and released, compared to Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, which sell as wine futures. Clarendelle wines are introduced to the market when they are ready to drink, which means the company stores the wines for a couple of years, and releases it to the market when it is ready for consumption. "We produce wines like our estate wines with aging potential and bring them to the market later when we believe they are ready to be introduced to a restaurant or to your wine cellar or to your friend's dinner table," he says.

The world is familiar with perhaps 100 of the top wine producers from Bordeaux, according to Prince Robert, yet there are close to 15,000 other Bordeaux wine producers. "Many are extraordinary," he says. "One of the great things about Clarendelle is that we can actually acquire some of the best wines out there, use the skills of our entire blending team, and make wines in the style of our estate wines as a perfect introduction to the wine buyer. It is also great for people who want to have an idea of what a great Bordeaux is from a complexity and a balance standpoint, before making a step toward buying a bottle of Chateau Haut-Brion."

At Stake: Haut Brion's Reputation

Prince Robert is not about to gamble his company's reputation on a sub-par product. "We won't be taking a risk with our image and reputation," he says. "The wine must be the same style and complexity as our estate wines."

Wine buyers want a promise of quality when they go to a wine store. "They might be overwhelmed by the number of wines coming from France or so-called Old World but they want something that they can recognize," says Prince Robert. "I am hoping that our background and history will give the consumer confidence and a promise of regularity of quality when they buy Clarendelle."

The addition of Clarendelle has already taken Domaine Clarence Dillon to new heights, at least in terms of production. The 2005 Clarendelle, which hit store shelves in 2007 was a production of 750,000 bottles (including red and white wines), which is more than twice the size of the production of Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion combined.

Prince Robert's goal is for Clarendelle to rank among the top 100 brands in the ultra-premium segment (wines priced under $25 a bottle), which is a healthy growth segment even during the economic downtown. Currently, there are no brands from Bordeaux that are ranked in the top 100. "We aim to be the first," the Prince adds.

"This is only the beginning for us," says Prince Robert. "We are at the beginning of this adventure. We aim to be far more important within the global market one day."