In 75 years under the same ownership, Château Haut-Brion has gone from being led by a Texan banker to a Prince of Luxembourg. The current owner talks Margaret rand through the story
Prince Robert of Luxembourg tells a story of checking into a hotel in Miami, and being told they had no record of his reservation. It wasn’t under L for Luxembourg. It wasn’t under P for Prince. It wasn’t even under D for de. It was eventually found under H – for Haut-Brion. It’s one of the hazards of the job, says Prince Robert: you get associated with the château.
The château is, of course, Haut-Brion – and La Mission Haut-Brion, and La Tour Haut-Brion, and not forgetting the white Laville Haut-Brion. They come together under the heading of Domaine Clarence Dillon (DCD for the purposes of this piece), Clarence Dillon being the Texan banker who bought Haut-Brion back in 1935.
Today, Prince Robert is Président Directeur Général of the whole shebang, and 2010 is the 75th anniversary of Clarence Dillon’s purchase. So will there be huge parties, firework displays, balloons going up? He looks surprised. Well, is he doing anything to mark the anniversary?
‘We’re renovating the offices at Haut-Brion, we’re building a new art library in the tower, and we’ll use the celebration to reach our customers, wine lovers; we’ll do something that will touch different parts of the world. But it’s not quite finalised yet.’ Nothing showy, then, by the sound of it.
Robert, you see, isn’t showy. He’s as restrained and private as the wine; a perfectionist, one might guess, and of firm opinions. (Christian Moueix says of him, ‘he brings to Bordeaux a sense of elegance and dignity, both qualities found in the wines of Haut-Brion and La Mission.’)
He regards it as a privilege – one of the privileges that go with having had a bank in the family – that he can, as he puts it, ‘be stubborn about maintaining our style of wine… It’s not an easy style to understand. It’s not modern or fruit-forward, and it doesn’t work well in blind tastings. They are not tasting wines.’
And indeed Haut-Brion doesn’t always do well in blind tastings – so much so that Robert elects not to submit it to Decanter tastings (see p48). It’s not that Haut-Brion does badly, in my experience: its endless subtlety, its mineral complexity, finesse and breed show through. It’s just that other wines can seem more vigorous, concentrated, modern (though these are not ends in themselves, of course).
But Robert is relaxed about it. ‘Haut-Brion isn’t adapted to tastings,’ he says. ‘It’s not a problem, providing people understand the reason. If they think it’s because it’s a lesser wine then yes, it’s a problem. But I’m not sure that the greater public pays much attention to blind tastings anyway.’ The market, now that’s a different matter.
‘The market changes the  classification each year’, and it not only keeps Haut-Brion in place, but has promoted La Mission. ‘If ever a wine deserved to be a first growth it’s La Mission…
It has been repositioned where it should be because of the work we’ve done there over the years. Liv-Ex, too, has elevated it to first growth because of our work.’ La Mission 1982 is indeed one of Liv-Ex’s top-performing wines of the Noughties, with a 350% rise in price over 10 years. And if Haut-Brion often doesn’t get stellar Parker points, Robert points out that Parker has named the 1989 as his desert-island wine. Counting the two white wines, Haut-Brion Blanc and Laville Haut-Brion, he says he has four first growths in all. And Haut-Brion is, he says, ‘the oldest luxury brand in the world.’ Ah yes, Pepys in 1663, the Pontacs and all that. But they’ve now found an even earlier mention than Pepys: it’s mentioned in Charles II’s cellar book, now in Kew public library, in 1660 (see sidebar, right.)
History is one thing; but how on earth, once up there, do you progress? Robert lists details of viticulture and vinification: ‘there’s something new every year. Nothing stays the same… we have a young team, and everybody wants to make their mark.’ Including Robert, of course.
Perhaps his biggest – certainly most visible – change has been the establishment of Clarence Dillon Wines, a négociant company, and the launch, through it, of Clarendelle, a branded Bordeaux which sells at e15. Visible, you say? Well, not in Britain. It’s only just appearing now, having been launched in other markets first.
The reason? It’s all to do with our attitude to brands: in the UK, we think that Bordeaux = châteaux. But younger people here will happily pay a premium for a branded Bordeaux of good quality, reckons Robert. Robert stresses the higher-than-market price they are paying for the wines in the blend: it must, he emphasises, be sustainable.
Overall, Robert is taking a small company which used to be insignificant in financial terms and which grew into ‘a small luxury brand with global reach’, and preparing it for the future. Along with any other Bordeaux properties they pick up along the way; because yes, they’re on the lookout. Something underperforming would be nice. But not abroad: ‘we’re already foreigners in Bordeaux… In a joint venture you can lose quality control. And I don’t have the time to invest in a property on the other side of the world: it’s very time-consuming to do it properly.’
Of course the Dillons have already crossed the Atlantic once; and from a Texan banker to a prince of Luxembourg appears to be a bit of a leap. The link is Prince Robert’s mother, Joan Dillon, who married Prince Charles of Luxembourg and later, after his death (Robert was just nine when his father died) the Duc de Mouchy.
The Duc and Duchesse de Mouchy are both on the board of DCD, as is Prince Robert’s sister Charlotte; this is a family business. But Robert is the only one of his generation to be working in DCD full-time: part of his job, he says, is to be a bridge between the generations. If you want a story of a ruthless operator slipping cyanide into his cousins’ coffee in order to run the show, this isn’t it: he says he was the only one of his generation able or willing to do the job.
He’s a bit short on family on his mother’s side, it’s true: just one sister, in Europe. But wine is not the main family business. They sold the family bank in the mid-1980s, but still do plenty of things (mostly in the US) which come under the general heading of finance. Wine was a sideshow. In fact, it was a bit of a folly.
‘For the first 70 years we invested all we had,’ says Robert. ‘In 1975 things started to take off; and the last 10 years have been golden years.’ It’s easy now to forget the dire state Bordeaux was in for much of the 20th century: there were times when you could hardly give estates away. For the Dillons, it was also geographically a long way away from their main business, and people didn’t visit all that often.
Only the most francophile family members wanted to take it on, but luckily they produced a string of francophiles: first Clarence himself and his wife’s nephew, Seymour Weller, who ran it; then Joan. For most of that time only the richest families could afford to invest in their Bordeaux properties, and the Dillons did invest in Haut-Brion: Robert’s earliest memories are of his mother doing up the château. ‘I played in a sandbox outside the château from age zero,’ he says.
Robert loves the continuity of all this. His mother included him in major decisions – to the extent of taking him out of school to witness the purchase of La Mission in 1983 – ‘but I never thought I was the heir apparent.’ School was in Luxembourg until he was 10, after which he was sent to the Benedictines at Worth in Sussex.
After that he had a year in London, went to Georgetown University for 18 months, did some art courses, and then wanted to pursue his interest in agriculture; but oddly enough he never thought of wine. He thought he might end up in agriculture in the US or New Zealand. At one point, during a seven-month journey by car to South America, he bought a coconut grove in Belize.
What he ended up doing, however, was sceenwriting for Hollywood. He and his American wife Julie lived in LA, wrote scripts together, travelled a lot and were given the full Hollywood treatment: the limos, the first-class flights. None of their scripts reached the screen, but that’s showbusiness. They were, he says, nonetheless making a very good living. And he seems to have enjoyed it hugely.
It was when they returned to Europe that Robert began to be more involved with DCD. ‘My grandfather asked me if I was interested in becoming more involved; there wasn’t anyone from the younger generation more involved than me. They didn’t have much of a choice.’
And the next generation? Robert has three children: Charlotte 15, Alexander, 13, and Frederik, 8. He’s cagey about the detail, but seems certain that the company will be passed down without mishap. But whoever takes over, he says, will need different training to his; there’s no actual family policy in place, but anybody joining will need to prove themselves elsewhere first. That will also, he says, give them the personal grounding needed to withstand the association of themselves with the brand. Like being called Mr Haut-Brion.
Written by Margaret Rand