On March 23 this year, 27 wine professionals were sent the following message:
On behalf of Prince Robert of Luxembourg, we are delighted to invite you to a very special tasting event organised by Domaine Clarence Dillon at the Oswald’s Club in London on May 31, 2022. We apologise for the tardy invitation which is unfortunately due to the current sanitary situation and uncertainties related to this.
The attachment revealed that we were expected to turn up at Robin Birley’s temple to wine at 8.30am and that the day’s tasting would not end before 10.30pm. In my 46-plus years writing about wine, I have never been involved in such a prolonged event. I was probably not the only guest to assume that this long day’s “work” would be devoted to the most famous of Prince Robert’s estates, the Bordeaux first growth Ch Haut-Brion and possibly its estimable sister estate, Ch La Mission Haut-Brion, across the road in Pessac. I knew how superior the setting, food and service would be at Oswald’s so I was confident that the day would not be too much of a trial.
As it happened, we all turned up more or less on time, having made use of the Covid-19 tests we had been sent. Prince Robert had flown in from Boston. His guests included Bordeaux specialist writer Jeff Leve, who had been flown in from Los Angeles and, like others, put up at The Connaught; Hong Kong-based Master of Wine Jeannie Cho Lee; New York-based Jamie Ritchie of Sotheby’s; and wine writer Stuart Pigott from Germany.
There was a sizeable contingent from Bordeaux: Mathieu Chardronnier of negociant CVBG; wine writer Jane Anson; the young Chinese wine educator Alexandre Ma; and Prince Robert’s right-hand men, third-generation winemaker Jean-Philippe Delmas and sales director Guillaume-Alexandre Marx. There were also representatives from just about every important fine wine trader based in London. I shared a table with Le Monde’s wine writer Laure Gasparotto, Neal Martin of Vinous.com and my fellow Master of Wine, Tom Parker of fine wine trader Farr Vintners.
Most unusually, Prince Robert had taken over the entire club for the day. Organising the nuts and bolts of this event, the Farr team were the only ones who knew what we would be tasting before our host announced the theme.
To say it was a shock would be an understatement. In 2011, Domaine Clarence Dillon, the holding company of Prince Robert’s family’s wine-related holdings, bought Ch Tertre Daugay, an underperforming estate in St-Emilion, and extended it two years later by adding its neighbour Ch l’Arrosée, naming the brand-new entity Ch Quintus. (This wholesale absorption of one château into another, with a rebranding operation, is by no means uncommon in Bordeaux.) Last year a third St-Emilion property, the non-contiguous Ch Grand Pontet, was added to the portfolio, reaching a total of 45 hectares and making the Dillon family one of the biggest vineyard owners in this extensive appellation. The Dillons are used to achieving sky-high prices for their wines and Quintus has been priced at about £90 a bottle, considerably more than Tertre Daugay or l’Arrosée used to be, a fact that has not escaped the fine wine traders.
The purpose of our tasting marathon was to compare Quintus with the most celebrated wines of St-Emilion — Chx Cheval Blanc, Figeac, Ausone, Pavie and Angélus. Eight flights were lined up of the six St-Emilions, from vintages 2011 to 2018 inclusive, and the wines were mixed up and served blind. No doubt the hope was that Quintus would stand comparison with these wines that command even higher prices, several hundred pounds a bottle. “You will respect our new baby,” was the underlying message.
We were all urged to use the 100-point scale — quite a trial for those of us more used to scoring out of 20 — and to hand in our scores to Ben Browett of Farr Vintners, whose job was to tot them up. Needless to say, we were keen to know how Quintus had performed. From my personal point of view, it acquitted itself respectably enough.
Once I had added up all my scores, my top three were Figeac, then Angélus, then Cheval Blanc. Of the next three, Quintus actually scored slightly more than either Ausone or Pavie. I should note that the room in general was much more impressed than me by Ausone, which is not only superbly situated on the outskirts of the town but is also run impeccably by Alain Vauthier and his daughter Pauline, who took over winemaking responsibilities in 2005. Ausone is made in tiny quantities and is by far the most expensive St-Emilion.
Pavie, which is also superbly situated, was, as ever, a controversial wine. After acquiring it in 1998, the owner Gérard Perse pursued a policy for many years of making a wine that was as concentrated, tough and exaggerated as possible. I was famously critical of the 2003 vintage. Yet the winds of change have been blowing. Concentration is no longer viewed as an asset in St-Emilion and, to my palate, there has been a gradual stylistic change here, such that I have enjoyed some recent vintages. The 2011 stuck out like a sore thumb for its top-heavy load of tannin that will surely always dominate the rather weak fruit, but I enjoyed the 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Figeac, Pavie’s polar opposite in terms of style, location and soil type, made the most beautiful wine in 2016, my favourite of the whole day. For me, Figeac consistently scored highly apart from the 2011, a vintage in which its equally subtle neighbour, Cheval Blanc, triumphed.
There was a big stylistic difference between Figeac and Cheval, which are both at the extreme western end of the appellation, partly on gravel, and have significant proportions of Cabernet as well as the more usual Merlot, and the other four wines, which tended to be sweeter overall.
This was the first time for many years that I had tasted a sequence of Angélus vintages at the same time and I was impressed.
The 2013 vintage was weak, as it was for all these properties (though not quite as disastrous as I was expecting), but all of the other Angélus vintages had something to recommend them.
When all the scores were added up, Prince Robert and his team must have been consoled to see that, on average for all tasters, Quintus was the fourth favourite out of six over the eight vintages, performing particularly well in 2015, when it was second only to Ausone, and coming last only in 2012.
I wonder whether the assembled fine wine traders will find Quintus easier to sell after this tasting?
Favourite St-Emilions, 2011-2018
In descending order
£236.69 Lay & Wheeler
£390.47 Vinatis UK
Cheval Blanc 2016
£695 Mumbles Fine Wine
$219 Du Vin, Los Angeles
$225 Cellaraiders, New York
£740 per dozen Albany Vintners
£132 L’Ami Jac
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