Early in the ill-fated 2020, Prince Robert of Luxembourg, the urbane, aristocratic owner of Domaine Clarence Dillon, unveiled eye-catching plans for the two jewels in the crown of the Bordeaux-based group – Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. “We’re going to be opening a visitor centre,” he announced.
While such a venture might seem fairly standard fare for most wine properties around the world, in Bordeaux, and at a first growth, the concept is nothing short of groundbreaking. Only 20 years ago, it would have been considered rather vulgar – and even today, there are few classed growths in the Médoc that open their doors to unannounced guests. Haut-Brion and the neighbouring La Mission Haut-Brion, though – just 15 minutes from Bordeaux’s town centre in Pessac-Léognan, and a rarity in being family-owned – will become the exception.
The venue will essentially be a wine shop (the first time the group will have sold its wines on-site), with dining rooms for hire and a cellar available to book for private tastings. The aesthetic will mirror that of the group’s Parisian wine shop Le Cave du Château and two-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Clarence. “We’re receiving more and more visitors [at Haut-Brion],” says the prince. “Up until now, we have tried to receive anyone who requested to come and do a tour. But we just have too many requests these days.”
We want people to come and enjoy what we have and to be free to do what they would like
The two châteaux receive around 10,000 people a year, of whom 4,000 are professionals: buyers, distributors, retailers, restaurateurs and press from around the world. “We organise tours for free, and everyone gets a glass of wine. It’s wonderful, but unfortunately, that model simply isn’t sustainable.” The prince was keen to add, however, that he hopes the visitor centre will mean more guests, not fewer. “We want people to come and enjoy the fruits of what we have – and to be free to do what they would like: to have their own guests, hire a room, have a formal tasting, dinner and the rest of it.” The facility won’t be a restaurant as such, he adds; catering will be provided by external suppliers. “I was naive enough to open a restaurant [in Paris]: it’s a whole different business, and I’m not ready to take that on again…”
His self-deprecation is false modesty – Le Clarence, on Avenue Franklin Roosevelt in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, has been a huge success, garnering two Michelin stars and numerous plaudits in its six years, even flourishing with a €19 three-course takeaway menu from the staff canteen during 2020’s lockdown. The interior of the restaurant is based on the living quarters of Château Haut-Brion but has been adapted by the polymath prince, who, it transpires, also fancies himself as something of an interior designer. “I’ve never used professional designers or decorators; I’ve always done it myself. It’s the same with our wine labels: I’ve tended to design or redesign all of them. I designed the logo for our company, too. And the Christmas card that we send out. That’s something I very much enjoy.”
Now the prince is seeking to expand the group’s reach in Bordeaux, where, as he says, “the whole tourism experience has developed enormously”. It is a development that he is keen to encourage. Early in 2020, he had co-hosted a fund-raiser for Bordeaux’s wine museum La Cité du Vin (he was among the institution’s founding board members) at the Louvre in Paris, where 200 guests were served dinner cooked by Le Clarence chef Christophe Pelé with wines from the group. The event raised more than €250,000.
This support of cultural enterprises comes naturally to the markedly cosmopolitan prince, who credits travel as providing his most important education. He grew up at the family home, Château de Fischbach in Luxembourg, whose ambience he compares to “a mini Downton Abbey but without the pomp and grandeur”, amid a decidedly international backdrop. His great grandfather, the eponymous Clarence Dillon, was a Texan banker of French descent who purchased Haut-Brion in 1935. His son – and Prince Robert’s grandfather – Douglas Dillon, served as US ambassador to France and then secretary to the treasury under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, as well as chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
But it was Douglas Dillon’s daughter, Joan Dillon, who, without Wall Street or Washington to distract her, was able to focus on the estate full time and propel it towards the 21st century. Her marriage to Prince Charles of Luxembourg (a descendant of King Henry IV of France) yielded two children, including Prince Robert, and also gave him his royal title. After Charles’s death, she remarried, this time into French aristocracy in the form of the Duc de Mouchy, who later served as managing director of Domaine Clarence Dillon for 23 years.
Prince Robert’s formative years were spent in England, boarding at Worth Abbey in Sussex, which was run by Benedictine monks, before he headed to Georgetown University in Washington, DC, for a philosophy and psychology degree that never quite materialised. Pursuing African studies and Buddhism, among other facets of philosophy, he says, opened his eyes to the outside world, and he determined to discover it – so that’s exactly what he did, dropping out of university to journey through the Middle East and North Africa, India and Nepal, and Central and South America. “I was a young man without responsibility, constraints or family commitments – a total idealist starting out on life. It’s a wonderful time: you have this purist vision of the world, and it’s something that I think is important to try to hold on to and not get lost with all the pressures that come later in life.”
So, has he managed to do so? “I hope so,” he says. “Meeting people from all different religions and philosophies and not judging the world from my particular viewpoint was one of the most valuable things I could have learned. We work in a global marketplace, and you need to respect and understand all these cultures you’re working with.”
On the flip side, Prince Robert has gone on record to bemoan a “global homogenisation of style” that champions “more concentration and sugar”. Instead, he values subtlety and elegance in a wine, and in pursuit of that pairing, he gravitates towards France. “France still has an extraordinary amount of wines that are made not according to [the taste of] any particular critic but according to personal passion, love and the culture of the winemakers,” he says. “I don’t think they’ve wavered much in this; they’re wonderfully headstrong and say, ‘This is the kind of wine I want to make and drink.’ It’s a very iconoclastic, French characteristic and is driven by a desire to defend the originality of terroir-driven wines, rather than the bottom line.”
A case in point is the group’s St-Emilion estate Château Quintus, which Prince Robert feels is underappreciated. “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. 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 (the neighbouring L’Arrosée was added two years later), but as the prince is quick to point out, “We’re already in that [more elevated] category price-wise.”
Bordeaux, though, is not a place where things change overnight – “especially when we were, by local standards, considered revolutionary and possibly stupid to do away with two classified growths and come up with a new name that didn’t make much sense to people,” he admits. “And initially, they said, ‘Oh, Domaine Clarence Dillon is coming in here, telling a tall tale, talking about dragons and whatever. [Quintus’s logo is a dragon.] It’s all hogwash; they’re just trying to put one over on us so they can sell wine at a higher price to an Asian market.’ That’s the short cut that people can and have made,” he says.
“But the terroir was always among the top terroirs of St-Emilion, going back decades – centuries, even. And whereas the two estates used to produce 120,000 bottles of grand vin between them, today we’re producing 30,000 bottles of the first wine, so the selection is dramatically different. But because of its style – it’s softer and has a certain charm – it suffers by comparison to our other wines, which have more of a tannic structure. No one wants to be the first person to come out and say, ‘Actually, this is great.’ But,” he predicts, “I think that within the next two years, there’ll be a turning point in the way Quintus is perceived.”
It certainly won’t be for lack of effort, though the prince is equally keen – if not more so – to trumpet the merits of his Clarendelle range of affordable generic wines as he is the higher-profile offerings. More than anything, he evidently relishes the challenge of promoting the various strands of the business. Many scions of Bordeaux winemaking families refer to themselves as “custodians”. It is clear, though, that Prince Robert sees himself as more than, in his words, “a mere caretaker”. It’s important, he admits, that he is able to innovate.
“I don’t want to rest on my laurels and feel special just because I was associated with this trophy asset,” he says. “I want to grow it. If you’re just twiddling your thumbs, saying, ‘Aren’t we great,’ it’s not going to motivate people. It’s certainly not going to motivate people like me, who are excited by growth and change and challenge. But I’ve noticed that through the likes of Clarendelle, Quintus and Le Clarence, my colleagues are motivated too.”
Given such restless energy, 2020 was doubtless a year of frustration for the prince. The visitor centre, originally slated for September, has, for obvious reasons, yet to open its doors, while a three-year overhaul of all of the Haut-Brion facilities – including its cellars and attendant buildings – has also been delayed. Don’t expect him to stay still for long, though. “Any problem is an opportunity,” he says, with a tangible appetite in his tone, and a distinct glint in his eye.