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How to build a super premium wine, Asia-style

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I’ve always been skeptical when a high-end winery turns out a lower-priced line of ordinary wine it then tries to burnish with the halo effect of its own prestige.

This happened most famously, of course, with Mouton-Rothschild, whose Mouton-Cadet, an indifferent wine, patently trades on the Mouton sheen. In California the best known instance was at Robert Mondavi, and helped ultimately to cause the family to lose control to Constellation. Sometimes, upscale wineries that decide to play the low-price game do so under a different brand. Learning from the Mondavi debacle, they hide the visible connection between the original, prestigious parent brand and the cheap new bastard child.

What prompted these thoughts was a recent article in the online journal, Luxist. They interviewed Prince Robert of Luxembourg, the managing director of Domaine Clarence Dillon (DCD), which owns the Bordeaux chateaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. DCD has launched a new brand, Clarendelle, which makes red, rosé and white wines from Bordeaux that retail here in the States for just north or south of $20. Production seems to be between 60,000-65,000 cases. The grapes are bought from producers throughout Bordeaux.

In the interview, the Luxist reporter was very flattering to her subject, the Prince. She told him, “It will be nice for customers to walk into a wine store and find $20 to $25 bottle of wine with a name on it like yours that represents quality. Who wouldn’t want to buy it?” The Prince did not demur, nor did the reporter press Prince Robert when, in response to her question of how Clarendelle is blended, he replied, “We are doing the same exercise we do when we make Chateau Haut-Brion every year,” as if there were qualitative parallels between Clarendelle and Haut-Brion, a Bordeaux First Growth. Nor did the reporter follow up when Prince Robert said his goal is “to create a super premium brand from Bordeaux that goes beyond the chateaux.” This suggests, to the average reader, that a negociant brand, made from leftover grapes in Bordeaux not good enough to go into top crus, can be as “super premium” as the wines from “chateaux,” a nonsensical statement on its face. Any Bordeaux producer can call himself a “chateau,” but most consumers will assume, quite mistakenly, that the word “chateau” applies only to the Lafites, Latours, Moutons and, yes, Haut-Brions of Bordeaux.

The Prince has been hitting the streets promoting Clarendelle. There’s a story in this Japanese magazine, “Lisa Your Family Magazine,” that calls Clarendelle “a trendy wine” (that’s what the link on Clarendelle’s website says). The Prince recently told the Chinese publication, Beijing Youth Daily (BYD), that “Clarendelle has incorporated the balance, elegance and spirit of Haut-Brion,” and in the course of that Q&A, the following howler occurred:

BYD: If you compare Clarendelle with other class-one wines from Bordeaux area like Mouton Cadet, how do you think Clarendelle differs from all other wines?

PRL: Please don’t make comparison between our wine and others…Clarendelle does have a very limited production…and it is super premium.”

Limited though the production may be, Clarendelle is sold in at least 18 countries, and is served in Conrad Hilton Hotels and on Swiss Air Lines.

Prince Robert also went to Moscow to promote Clarendelle. The article in Passport Moscow says “Clarendelle is a super premium class wine and is the new project of Prince Robert,” which words sound right out of Prince Robert’s mouth. Then the Prince is quoted as saying, “We trust, that connoisseurs of wine search for names which they trust and which represents alternatives to existing brands. Creating Clarendelle, the team of our wine makers aspires to find and make the best of the potential of Bordeaux terroir and from the from centuries of knowledge which this region possesses”. The typos and other mistakes are no doubt due to translation or language difficulties, but the underlying gibberish is clear.

Is Clarendelle wine any good? I haven’t had it, but my colleague, Wine Enthusiast’s European editor, Roger Voss, has. He scored it between 83 points and 87 points. He called the 2005 red “awkward [and] stalky” and said it left “bitterness” in the finish. But then, Roger is an accomplished wine taster, impossible to fool with associations with “chateaux,” and not likely to believe a wine is trendy because it says so in a magazine. Nor is Roger the type to describe Mouton-Cadet as a “class-one” wine.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on the Prince. A guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, especially these harsh days when First Growth Bordeaux is a hard sell to everyone except Asian billionaires. Still, it rubs me the wrong way when people like the Prince — who is basically a P.R. guy in an expensive suit — take advantage of the gullibility of naive people by telling them falsities, such as Clarendelle is like Haut-Brion because it’s made from the same grape varieties. Wide-eyed reporters in Moscow and Beijing actually believe that kind of thing. Then they write it up, and their even more credulous readers believe it, go and out seek the wine, tell their friends, and there you go: A trend is born. Clarendelle ends up being a “class-one” super-premium wine, even though it’s just another supermarket brand.

  1. The beauty of the wine business is that truth will out when it comes to quality. The wine will get tasted, blind one hopes, by hundreds and thousands of people with a voice whether in print or on the Internet. Tom Merle’s friends over on Cellar Tracker will pan it because it is not pricey enough to impress them.

    And with folks like Steve Heimoff telling the story, what chance does it have? At least they did not call it Haut-Brion Light.

  2. Steve – Have you read the websites and press material from wineries here in the US? Most proclaim their grapes and/or wines are “world class” or “ultra-premium” or “super premium” or even “super ultra premium”.

  3. Scott, right. Since there’s no legal definition to any of these terms, anyone can use them. “Reserve” also.

  4. You’re right that there’s no legal definition but wineries are often just using the categories as the various sales tracking agencies have defined them (and there’s not much agreement there either). Industry shorthand has (very roughly) been premium $8-10, super premium $12-20, ultra-premium +$25 although these are constantly redefined, overlap, and have descriptors above and below. World class though? Depends on what planet you live on, for some wines I’ve seen….

  5. Well, the creation of a middle class in those expanding economies comes with bright-eyed, gullible people who, not knowing what to buy or what wine is “supposed” to be good, will buy based on the wrong factors.

    Now… where have we seen this before… ;-)

  6. Dude: Everywhere!

  7. You say “he’s a P.R. guy in an expensive suit” like its a bad thing. :-)

  8. Kelly — busted! Well, what I really meant was that when you strip him (so to speak) of the “Prince” title, “Your Royal Highness” and all that, he’s basically just a guy with a product to sell.

  9. This is Bordeaux, the wine region that makes Napa pricing look logical in comparison. I’d be concerned if there wasn’t some marketing BS coming from this Prince Robert fellow. After all, this is the region that gets people lining up to taste specially prepped samples so they can buy the non-special version of the wine with the same producer name for delivery in several years’ time. If every other year is the greatest vintage ever, then surely there’s room for super-premium prince plonk in Bdx is well.

  10. A couple hundred years ago a gentleman did not soil his hands with business. There were few enterprises that suited a man of nobility. Farming on one of thy estates perhaps- a suitable enterprise if one did not get one’s hand dirty. Oh, and of course there was wine. A business where fraud was so easy, with dilution, sophistication, tampering with the product so ramped by coarse heathens. A business where often something was represented to be something it wasn’t.

    But then we had men of principle, of values, of stature in whom we could trust. Virtuous men. Noble men. Yes, wine was and is a business appropriate for gentleman. Even today, we are comforted. In an age where we dare not trust anyone, we still have men of nobility in whom we can place our faith. A Prince, we have no less, who foregoes financial gain to bring us an honest product. Bravo, I say. Bravo!

  11. Morton, long live the Princes. And Princesses. And Kings and Queens and other figments of our fairy tale imaginations.

  12. I’m in South Korea. Sadly, lack of education and consumer choice being limited by brand driven conservative, (and more conservative after financial crisis) distributors wine importers mean wines that shout bling or have name recognition sell more.

    Asian gift giving and networking business culture means you should order a bling bling label or famous Chateaux at a bar or restaurant also. I know business men who have drunk 2 bottles of Opus One just to impress a client.

    So many producers look towards Asia as easy money. But taxes adn consumer understanding alters things. Not so simple when you have 67.5% tax in Korea. Entry level NZ Sav Blanc is $30 USD a bottle and good everyday drinking Sangiovese mid range is $45 USD a bottle. The really good wines, (and I like Burgundy and Barolo), are $120-150 USD a bottle. These are retail prices! It’s madness.

    So the market in Korea is polarized. Sadly many good wines in the mid market, (ie. most of the world’s wines) are hard to sell and struggle to differentiate themselves.

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