How to build a super premium wine, Asia-style
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.