Why, I asked Prince Robert of Luxembourg, an ex Hollywood screenwriter who has been running his family's matchless Bordeaux properties Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion since 1997, has he decided to launch a range of branded wines selling for just £15/$30 a bottle. "Why not?" was his initial reply.
The Bordeaux wine trade, not the least prone to gossip in the world, has been able to think of many reasons. Why for a start should one risk tainting the reputation of the world's oldest first-growth, selling for hundreds of pounds a bottle, with a range of wines entitled only to the lowly Bordeaux appellation. And then there's the name. Prince Robert dreamt up Clarendelle which "takes its inspiration in that of Mr Clarence Dillon and aims to be true to the heritage of perfection which this great man instituted in his family".
While the name Clarendelle shows admirable loyalty to his great grandfather, the American financier who acquired Haut Brion after a brief trip to Bordeaux in 1934, reputedly because it was the closest first-growth to the city, it is hardly cutting edge, and may be unfortunately close that of Hirondelle, the late 20th century brand that some of us can remember at 59p a litre.
But Prince Robert is undertaking this new project for some noble motives. "We have great terroir and an extraordinary brainpool in Bordeaux – we just need a new, more attractive way of presenting our wines to the consumer. The New World has premium brands. Why shouldn't we? Not that I want to make the same style. I'm not interested in making fruit-forward, jammy wines. I want to retain our own special character."
The initial, 2003 vintage of Clarendelle Rouge does indeed contain a little of the press wine from the family's own vines on the outskirts of Bordeaux but most of the wine needed for Clarendelle is bought in, and through this Prince Robert sees the possibility of some salvation during the current crise viticole. If he succeeds in establishing the Clarendelle brand to the extent of "somewhere between one and 10 million bottles a year" which is his aim, then he will indeed be doing his bit to drain the Bordeaux wine lake. "If we can help Bordeaux survive then I'll be happy".
My guess is that the extremely value-conscious British are not the ideal target market for these relatively expensive wines. But if he succeeds in presenting the wines as imbued with the glamour of a first-growth (and the packaging, while unadventurous, is certainly high quality – think the hint-of-Versailles of a traditional American hotel) in the US and Asia, Clarendelle could indeed "create growth for the mother company".
But this is far from the only first-growth mother company to try its hand at a diffusion line. Wily Baron Philippe de Rothschild launched Mouton Cadet as a genuine 'second wine' of Ch Mouton-Rothschild back in the 1930s (when Mouton was still a second-growth) and saw it grow into a million-case brand. The Mouton Cadet range is also AC Bordeaux nowdays but more modestly priced than Clarendelle. Today Ch Mouton-Rothschild is the flagship of a substantial company just outside Pauillac which sells a huge range of wines from the Languedoc, Bordeaux and Chile, including Almaviva produced in conjunction with Concha y Toro, Chile's biggest wine producer. The Napa Valley Cabernet Opus One was the first ever transatlantic joint venture, initially with Robert Mondavi and now, rather less glamorously, with Constellation Brands.
And beside the panoply of diffusion lines and estates managed by the cousins of the Rothschilds at Mouton, Domaines Barons de Rothschild-Lafite, Clarendelle looks a distinctly modest venture. The famous five arrows of the Lafite branch of the family adorned the labels of some relatively modest Chilean wines even before 1988 when they took a majority interest in Los Vascos estate. They invested in Quinta do Carmo in Portugal in 1992 when the southern Alentejo region was hardly on the world wine map. Like the Rothschilds of Mouton, they too have ventured into the Languedoc, in 1999 acquiring their own estate Domaine d'Aussières near Narbonne where they make a Chardonnay and two levels of Corbières - and perhaps their greatest foreign venture is a partnership with Catena of Argentina which has been in the works since 1988 but produced its first Caro only in 2000. Until very recently when they were bought out by Diageo, they were major players in California and Washington state through the Chalone group.
Baron Eric de Rothschild is an unlikely salesman for this electic international collection. You probably have to be a Rothschild to wear a shirt with a frayed collar to a presentation of your wares at London's Connaught Hotel, and he has a disarming lack of media training, admitting that Los Vascos produces its special Le Dix bottling "just to get journalists to write about it really". For Baron Eric, a Chardonnay 2004 Vin de Pays d'Oc is "an extraordinarily good buy" at £8 a bottle. But I take my hat off the team for the consistency of (Bordeaux-like) style they have imposed on their Chilean and Argentine reds, even though they are obviously not from Bordeaux.
As for the other firsts, François Pinault's team at Château Latour seem determined to concentrate on what they do best. I cannot imagine that he wants them to waste time on designing Vin de Pays d'Oc labels when they could be working on lifting Latour's scores and prices ever higher. As for Château Margaux, run by Corinne Mentzelopoulos for nearly 20 years, it has yet to show any signs of interest in a diffusion line, but Baron Eric is surprised. "I always thought that Corinne with the international viewpoint would be interested", he commented wistfully, surveying his own family wine collection – of estates and brands.
The best of the firsts' diffusion wines
Opus One 1999 Napa Valley (Mouton)
£110 Four Walls Wine of Chilgrove
After a shaky start this wine has established itself as a classic and the 1999 is delicious. It's terribly overpriced though.
Almaviva 2001 Puente Alto (Mouton)
£32.32 Albany Vintners of London N8, £37.95 Divine Fine Wines of Solihull
Chile's most consistent premium Cabernet, made in an architecturally stunning winery.
Caro 2002 Mendoza (Lafite)
£25-£30.09 Alouette Wines of the Wirral, Bristol Wine Company, Bibendum of London NW1
The most convincing vintage of this Argentine joint venture. Seriously opulent and interesting blend of Cabernet with 40 per cent Malbec.
Los Vascos Grande Reserve 2003 Colchagua (Lafite)
£10.50-£11.50 Averys, Bristol Wine Company, Lea & Sandeman around London
An unusually dry, Bordelais take on dense, peppery Chilean Cabernet.
Clarendelle Amber 2003 Monbazillac (Haut-Brion)
About £23 for 50cl, UK importer MARC Fine Wines, London W1
Super-clean, transparent, fruity sweet wine. Shame for Bordeaux it's not from the Bordeaux region.