We all have our tales of lockdown silver linings. For Prince Robert of Luxembourg, owner of Bordeaux empire Domaines Clarence Dillon, it comes on a suitably lavish scale. ‘We were heading to the Caribbean for a holiday to celebrate my son’s 18th birthday,’ says the urbane, aristocratic Swiss-American behind Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. ‘We ended up on what turned out to be the last flight out of Switzerland to Miami, and were then marooned in the Bahamas for eight weeks as the only guests of a hotel that had just opened.’
He doesn’t confirm it, but one assumes the hotel wasn’t the Bahamian offshoot of Premier Inn.
Instead, the prince is keen to move the conversation on to the other, more business-relevant upsides of the pandemic. He was pleasantly surprised, for example, to find that takings at the group’s high-end Parisian wine shop, Le Cave du Château, were, by the end of July, up on the previous year, despite the shop having been closed for the best part of four months. Online sales have long been a focus of the store (a new website – currently in beta testing, but already live for anyone curious – launches in September). But while previously the bigger orders tended to come from international clients, the average sales during lockdown were, he says, at lower price brackets (around €35) with some of the store’s more niche lines (it has a surprisingly extensive range of unorthodox, esoteric wines alongside the expected grand Bordeaux and Burgundies) proving popular with a local clientele.
Equally in demand was the €19, three-course takeaway menu from the staff canteen of the group’s two -Michelin-starred Le Clarence restaurant (housed in the same 19th-century, Avenue Franklin D Roosevelt mansion as the wine shop).
The other obvious lockdown highlight was the 2019 en primeur campaign, which at one stage faced calls to be cancelled. “Any problem is an opportunity – and this was a major problem,” says Prince Robert. “But one has to say it was a huge success. To be able to connect with enough people in a short period of time, so that they got a sense of what the wines are all about was no mean feat in these circumstances; as was selling the wines through so that everyone was happy, including consumers, who I believe rightly feel like they got a great bargain.”
So can we expect to see a similar approach in 2021 – samples sent out around the world, a condensed campaign? If travel restrictions aren’t at play, the prince feels that the trade should still come to Bordeaux. “But it’s always worth asking if we can improve things, and one of the elements I’d be very happy to see change would be the timescale. The wines are usually tasted in mid-March – you could move that to May, and give people a much better sense of the wines, which would tally more with the time that the wines are sold. So yes, I’d recommend that we run a similar timescale to this year – taste in mid-May, sell in early June.”
All five of the group’s wines that are offered en primeur – Haut-Brion red and white; La Mission red and white; and St-Emilion estate Château Quintus – sold out within 24 hours, with the prince revealing that he sold more Quintus than intended. “It’s a new wine, and the best vintage we’ve produced so far, so I wanted to hold a bit more back. But the demand was there and it’s important to get the name on the shelves, on menus, in cellars.”
Prince Robert is open about the fact that he feels Quintus is under-appreciated. “To say I feel it’s worthy of more attention would be an understatement. I treat Quintus as a Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ of St-Emilion. I make no bones about that whatsoever. My feeling is that it’s just a case of the market realising that and catching up.” The estate lost its previous grand cru classé status when it was bought by the group in 2011 and changed name from Tertre Daugay, but, as the prince is quick to point out, “we’re already selling in that [more elevated] category pricewise”.
In the short term, the next major focus is the opening – most likely later this year – of a visitor centre at Haut-Brion, the first time the group will have sold its wines on-site, via an offering the prince says will be similar to Le Cave du Château. The venue will also have two dining spaces available for private hire, plus another entertaining space and cellar for tastings, all decorated in the same ornate style as Le Clarence, and all available to consumers.
“Lockdown made us all more aware of what social creatures we are,” says Prince Robert. “The little things we take for granted like sitting in a café or a pub for a little while… I haven’t been to a restaurant since February – and I miss it.”