When wine connoisseurs consider the different vintages of Château La Mission Haut-Brion, they recognise them as some of the world’s greatest wines. When Prince Robert of Luxembourg looks at these wines, he sees the history of the company his family has managed for four generations – and much more. “What I see in these bottles is a number of old friends, a number of legends, a number of bottles that I’ve never had the opportunity to taste and probably never will, because they’re so rare in their number,” he says. “And I would never dare open up some of these old vintages, because they might be one of four bottles that we have left in the cellar.”
On 19 October, collectors will have the opportunity to acquire such rarities and more from a century of winemaking, when 270 lots from Château La Mission Haut-Brion come up for auction at Sotheby’s New York. “It’s always with a heavy heart, to a degree, that we relinquish some of the stars of our cellar,” says Prince Robert. “But this is a wine estate. We make wine to be shared, to be enjoyed, and it’s exciting to have an opportunity to do this in New York, which is also where my family comes from.”
PRINCE ROBERT OF LUXEMBOURG IS PRESIDENT AND CEO OF DOMAINE CLARENCE DILLON. © DOMAINE CLARENCE DILLON SAS
Raised in Luxembourg and educated in England, Prince Robert was destined from a young age to run the family wine business, Domaine Clarence Dillon, of which he is now the president and CEO. His great-grandfather, Clarence Dillon, the American financier of Dillon, Read & Co. fame, acquired the First Growth Château Haut-Brion in 1935; Prince Robert’s mother, the Duchesse de Mouchy, acquired La Mission Haut-Brion nearly a half century later, in 1983. Such was the significance of that event that Prince Robert was called away from boarding school to attend the signing.
Like his forebears, Prince Robert has demonstrated an entrepreneurial streak. Since assuming the management of Domaine Clarence Dillon in 2002, he has established the Bordeaux négociant business Clarence Dillon Wines; launched a line of branded Bordeaux wines named Clarendelle (offered for sale at Sotheby’s New York retail business); acquired and merged two Saint-Émilion chateaux into a single property now called Château Quintus; and, most recently, opened a new restaurant, Le Clarence, and a wine shop, La Cave du Château, both housed in a luxurious yet comfortable 19th-century town house off the Champs-Elysées. Prince Robert’s idea was to recreate the charm of his Bordeaux properties in the centre of Paris. He has overseen every detail, including the decoration and the acquisition of the paintings and furniture.
THE VINEYARD AND CHATEAU IN BORDEAUX. © DOMAINE CLARENCE DILLON SAS
Of course, Prince Robert is also very passionate about the exceptional wines that his family produces. Château Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion are situated directly across the road from each other in Pessac-Léognan, and while they are supervised by the same winemaking team under the direction of Jean-Philippe Delmas, they are undeniably different wines. When asked why, Prince Robert evokes “the difference in terroir, ecosystem or micro-climate” but hastens to add that “it is [also just] as much the history that has sculpted and formed the soils as they exist today.” When describing the characteristics of each wine, he says that La Mission is typically “a little bit more charming when it’s youthful, and it has an extraordinary softness and density. I compare it to velvet,” he explains, as opposed to Haut-Brion, which he associates with silk: “You have this extraordinary elegance, this intellectual quality to the wine – it’s a little bit more difficult to understand. A little bit tighter, a little bit more complex.” Proudly, he adds: “There’s something mystical about La Mission. Also, it probably has something to do with a century and a half of care and tending from the good fathers of La Mission.”
ONE BOTTLE, A DOUBLE MAGNUM AND A MAGNUM OF CHÂTEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION 1982. © DOMAINE CLARENCE DILLON SAS
Dedicated entirely to wines from Château La Mission Haut-Brion, this month’s sale is the first-ever auction to focus solely on one wine that was not made a First Growth in the famous 1855 classification. This status most likely resulted from the fact that, at the time, the production was too small to be taken into consideration. Yet by most reckonings from critics, consumers and trade indexes, La Mission is considered an equal to the First Growths. It is known as “the sixth First Growth” and garners some of the highest ratings of any wine.
Considering his life’s work, Prince Robert seems torn between the joy he derives from this historic sale, which celebrates his family’s dedication to making great wines, and the loss he feels from releasing these bottles from the property: “It’s obviously a reflection of La Mission’s history, but ultimately it’s a blip, because at La Mission, they have been making wines from their soils for close to two thousand years now.” For connoisseurs, the opportunity to own a piece of that history should be irresistible.
THE CHAPEL AT CHÂTEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION. © DOMAINE CLARENCE DILLON SAS
So should the fact that all the wines come directly from the cellars of La Mission, offering the perfect provenance. Yet another draw for collectors, this sale has something for every taste: the red Grand Vin of La Mission Haut-Brion; the second wine, La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion; as well as the whites La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc (formerly called Laville Haut-Brion), with a tiny production of around 500 cases each year, and La Clarté de Haut-Brion, the second wine of both Haut-Brion Blanc and La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc, with a production of around a thousand cases. “We also have all kinds of different size bottles that you won’t find elsewhere,” says Prince Robert of the sale lots.
In addition, the auction makes it possible for bidders to contribute to a good cause. Philanthropy has always been important to Prince Robert and Domaine Clarence Dillon, who have supported many charities, such as the recently inaugurated Cité du Vin in Bordeaux. Included in this sale is the chance for six people to experience the combination of great food, wine and service at the new restaurant Le Clarence in Paris, along with a visit, tasting and lunch at La Mission Haut-Brion. The proceeds will benefit New York-based non-profit Getting Out and Staying Out, which seeks to reduce recidivism by supporting young men in their education, employment and financial independence. A wonderful opportunity to embrace a great wine and support a great cause.
Jamie Ritchie is the Worldwide Head of Sotheby’s Wine.
Château La Mission Haut-Brion Direct from the Cellars will take place on 19 October in New York. For more information, go to sothebys.com/wine.