Prince Robert of Luxembourg tells Steve King how a blend of innovation and tradition lies behind Château Haut-Brion’s enduring success
DAPPER IN DESIGNER specs and one of his trademark Austro-Bavarian boiled-wool jackets — the kind with the neatly upturned collar and dainty lapels — Prince Robert of Luxembourg plonks himself down into a vast, squishy armchair at Claridge’s and sighs contentedly.
He is in London for a discreet do to mark the 75th anniversary of his family’s acquisition of Château Haut-Brion, the oldest and possibly the grandest of the premier cru Bordeaux estates. How the Luxembourg clan got their hands on it makes for a good story — one that the genial 41-year-old Prince Robert could, you sense, talk about cheerfully for hours, in rich, bass-heavy tones, peppered with occasional Americanisms (‘oh-REG-ano’) that hint at his cosmopolitan provenance.
I mention the often repeated anecdote about the manner in which his great-grandfather, the Texas-born financier Clarence Dillon, acquired Haut-Brion. Legend has it that Clarence drove to the château, took one look and agreed to buy it without bothering to get out of his car. ‘It’s a nice anecdote,’ agrees Prince Robert. ‘But it’s not true.’
The truth is if anything even more amusing. ‘He visited a number of estates. When he went to Cheval Blanc the weather was so dreadful and the trip out there so awful that he became far more enamoured of Haut-Brion. When a colleague let him know that it was for sale, he said, “Do whatever it takes to buy it.” But he had been looking for quite some time to acquire an estate in Bordeaux, in fact for over two years.
He was under the charm of Haut-Brion and this was his favourite wine, so he didn’t hesitate when it came on the market. It is also true that he received a cable, when he was on a boat heading back to the United States, saying: “We can acquire Château Haut-Brion if we act fast.” His response was two words, which were: “Act fast.”’
That was in 1935. By then, of course, Haut-Brion had already been a legend of winemaking for more than three centuries. Prince Robert himself refers to it as ‘the oldest luxury brand in the world’. With that heritage, is there a risk of getting mired in tradition for its own sake? He bats this one away diplomatically. ‘We have a very important history but also a very important history of innovation at Haut-Brion.
THEY CREATED RED wine as we know it today, a style of wine that has been emulated around the world since then. The “new French claret”, as it came to be known in the 17th century, was really formed at Haut-Brion. So innovation has always been there.’ In later years, he adds, Haut-Brion was the first of the big Bordeaux names to introduce tractors, steel vats and clones (‘agricultural, not scientific clones,’ cautions Prince Robert. ‘We’re not talking about Dolly the sheep’).
Yet another innovation was the introduction, in 2005, of a ‘premium brand’ wine, Clarendelle, which goes for about £20 a bottle. This idea has worked brilliantly for New World producers, and for champagne. ‘The idea was to reach a new market, possibly younger wine drinkers who are not scared of the notion of Bordeaux as a brand, and who realise that the brand is a promise of quality. When you have the stamp of a company such as ours it means you can trust the bottle of wine that you’re picking up at the wine merchants.’ Die-hards sniffed, but generally the response has been encouraging.
Oddly enough, Prince Robert hadn’t envisioned a full-time role at Haut-Brion until 1997, when, having dabbled with coconut farming and screenwriting, he took over from his mother as president and CEO. ‘It’s an overall management role that I perform,’ he says modestly, ‘and most of my skills were picked up on the trot.’ Earlier this year Robert Parker gave the 2009 Haut-Brion a potential score of 100 out of 100 for all four of its first-growth wines (two reds, two whites). ‘Ah, les quatre as,’ says Prince Robert with a smile. ‘The four aces.’ Must be doing something right.