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April 9, 2024

Laurent Delaunay: Lands of opportunity

The Burgundy winemaker who had to leave home in order to return.

By Margaret Rand

Laurent Delaunay tells Margaret Rand how he made a success of exile in the Languedoc before reclaiming the family name and business in Burgundy.

There used to be a party game called, I think, Twister; it involved a large mat laid on the floor, and you had to put one hand on this spot, the other on that spot, one foot here, and one foot over there, and if you fell in an ignominious heap, you were out. Laurent Delaunay has, most recently, a hand on the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits and one on Chablis, while keeping another on the mid-slopes of the Côte d’Or and both feet (three feet, even) in the Languedoc. It wasn’t planned that way; opportunities arose.

“Opportunity” is a word that crops up a lot in a conversation with Delaunay. On the one hand, his is a classic story of working your way back into wine after a family sell-off; on the other, it’s a tale of agility, like riding several horses going in different directions at different speeds. One source describes him as “an operator, in a good way.”

Plan A had been to take over from his father at Edouard Delaunay, the family business in Burgundy. Well, Plan A2, perhaps: As a child, Laurent fancied becoming a fireman or a pilot, until viticulture began to exert an attraction. It was terroir that he liked. “My father and grandfather were more négociants; they had vineyards, but they were mostly négociants. When I was small, I spent all my time with them in the cellar, playing in the cellar, and I was very attracted by what they called their wine cabinet, which was the tasting room. It looked very secret and mysterious.

“At seven or eight, I remember going to look at my father, grandfather, and uncle working in the tasting room. They were very kind to me, and my grandfather was always calling me, giving me his glass and asking, ‘What are you smelling?’” Later, at weekends and on vacation, Delaunay would work with his uncle in the vineyards; he loved it. At Sunday lunches, his father would bring out old unlabeled bottles, and everyone would spend time tasting and discussing and guessing. The first time young Laurent got it right—Pommard 1973—his father was “very impressed. I saw that he realized I showed some skills. The way he looked at me changed from that day.”

Viticulture school in Beaune followed; then enology at Dijon University, where he met his future wife Catherine; then Napa, as an assistant winemaker. Then back to France and military service, and the realization that he also needed business and marketing skills. “I was lucky to get into ESSEC (École Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales) in Paris.” Then he joined his father at the business. “My dream was to take over from him; I had lots of ideas to increase quality and reputation.” Burgundy had come in for a lot of criticism in the mid-1980s, and a new generation of winemakers, perhaps with minds broadened by experience abroad, was taking over. Laurent felt part of a wave, “and my father was very receptive to these ideas.” All was set fair.

Laurent Delaunay: Up and Oc

A couple of years later, though, it became clear that his father had Alzheimer’s. It was the time of the first Gulf War; the economy was rocky, and some of his father’s financial and managerial decisions were “not the best. And Burgundy was very sensitive to economic conditions then; it wasn’t established as well as it is now.”

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Laurent, it was agreed in the family, would focus on sales and management, while Catherine would spend time with her father-in-law to learn all she could from him. But soon they realized that they couldn’t stay independent, and Laurent was put in charge of approaching potential buyers.

Jean-Claude Boisset had always been a good friend, and “when I approached him, he agreed to help us and made a good proposal to my parents.” Laurent and Catherine would stay on for two and a half years to smooth the transition to the new ownership.

People from independent family companies seldom seem to enjoy corporate life for long. At the end of the two and a half years, these two wanted out. They decided they would start their own company from zero and call it Badet Clément, which was the name of a very small Burgundy house Laurent’s grandfather had bought in the 1930s, and which had disappeared from view. And they decided to move to the Languedoc.

Languedoc was another region reinventing itself, this time with varietal wines from international grapes. Laurent had seen marketing by grape variety in California, and he decided to do the same in the hot conditions of the South. What convinced him was the support of Melvin Masters, a family acquaintance who knew the US market well and “was a kind of godfather to me.” He promised he would build US distribution for the new wines—which had no money, no vineyards, and no winery.

This is becoming an archetypal story of hunting down vineyards and having strokes of luck, but don’t blame me: I didn’t invent the genre. The Delaunays might have had no vineyards or winery, but they did have a car and presumably a map. They traveled around trying to identify the best terroirs for the grapes they wanted to grow, then tracked down the owners and exerted maximum charm. “We convinced a few growers to let us make wines in their winery and buy their wines for a fair price.” This was not about falling for ancient vines from almost-extinct varieties. It was about Chardonnay, Cabernet, and commerce, not romance.

Catherine was in charge of winemaking, while Laurent handled sales and marketing. “We didn’t have an arrogant approach,” he says. “We admitted that they knew the conditions of the region better than we did, and we would learn from them, but we were not bad at winemaking… I am still a little amazed they accepted and dared to trust us.” It was the era of flying winemakers, with every big corporation casting interested eyes on the Languedoc, and a lot of growers keen to join the party. “A lot [of incomers] left, though,” says Laurent; “we stayed. We still work with most of those same growers.” It was all done on a handshake then, partly because the Delaunays couldn’t be sure they’d still be there in a year’s time; but they were. Another wave neatly caught.

The wines? There are so many labels now that it’s difficult to keep track, but the flagship, and the cash cow, is Les Jamelles, varietal wines from the Pays d’Oc. They were intended to be commercial, and they are. They’re reliable and competent. To ask if they taste of their origins is, says Laurent, “a philosophical question,” which is perhaps a way of saying that it misses the point. “There is something French about them that is not Australian, Californian, or Chilean. The expertise is to make something that pleases an international palate but with a French touch. We realized over the past two or three years that some wines needed to speak more of the terroir… After more than 20 years, we found some exceptional terroirs, and we were frustrated to have some beautiful vineyards on fantastic terroir and then blend them in big tanks. So, we decided to release a new tier of sélections parcellaires.”

From 1995 onward, the Delaunays were focused on Languedoc; however, when Laurent explained his background, merchants would sometimes ask to buy Burgundy, too—which, of course, he didn’t have. Then in 2003, a friend of his father’s wanted to retire from his company, which sold the wines of small Burgundy growers. Laurent saw an opportunity, and back to Burgundy he went. It meant recreating relationships with growers there. And then in 2005 there was another opportunity (see what I mean?), this time in Languedoc again. The Delaunays had been looking for a winery after ten years of making wine in other people’s cellars. “I got a telephone call from a young Australian couple, Nigel Sneyd and Nerida Abbott, who had a winery in Languedoc. They had started Abbotts in 1996, and we had become friends. They had decided to divorce, sell the winery, and leave the region, and they thought of me.”

The winery was beautiful, says Laurent, but the Abbott approach was different, and about small parcels from old and forgotten vineyards. “Ours was closer to good prêt-à-porter.” But they appreciated Abbotts, which became Abbotts & Delaunay.

And another opportunity: In 2014, after two or three years of looking for somewhere cool to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Limoux, they found about 24ha (60 acres), already planted, belonging to Jean-Louis Denois; this was Domaine de la Métairie d’Alon. The Pinot is from Champagne clones: “A good solution, because Burgundy and Languedoc are so different. The best clones in Burgundy are related to low yields. In Languedoc, we want to avoid overripeness and overextraction. If you were to vinify it as southern French varieties, it would be overextracted. If you had Burgundy clones as well, it would be 20hl/ha, and too concentrated.”

Then, another opportunity. “We were ready to create something, a winery, and our first idea was to reunify the family name with what we were doing. I asked Jean-Claude Boisset what he was doing with the Delaunay brand and name; was it strategic?” It wasn’t. Would Boisset sell it back? “He said he’d always thought it would come back to me.” It took some months—“Jean-Claude is a good negotiator”—but Laurent bought back both the name, from Boisset, and the buildings, which had belonged to another branch of the family. “The planets were aligned.” The name had almost been dropped by Boisset, so it carried no reputational baggage.

“We are very lucky,” he says. “We have always been very lucky in our lives. We had good opportunities, and we seized them. We are cautious, we believe in providence; things happen when they should happen. You can’t force things. Providence offers you opportunities, and your duty is to take them.

“A sense of duty is important for me; I try to behave as my parents and grandparents would have liked me to behave. When you have clear principles, it’s not such a problem. There were probably opportunities that we thought were not the clearest—I have refused proposals that could have made us grow faster. My goal is not size, volume, or ego, but to try to do the best I can. We are winemakers, Catherine and I, even if I am now a manager and I spend more time managing than making wines… But I am still a winemaker.” Catherine is particularly involved with the Languedoc operations, but “there is nothing we make that she doesn’t check and taste and finalize.” He adds, “I had to learn the entrepreneurial side, which is why I went to business school, because I realized I knew nothing, and if I was to replace my father, I had to learn.” In doing so, he found a passion for marketing as well. “I think my talents, if I have any, are a mixture of winemaking and marketing. I feel the expectation of the market. I love to go to wine shops, look at how people are buying, and taste with them. I always come back with ideas. Burgundy is not a marketing region, but this talent is important for Burgundy, too.”

Burgundian heritage and relationships

Laurent’s strategy for the reborn Edouard Delaunay has been to stress the heritage of the name and company, to the extent that you rack your brains to try and remember what it is you’ve forgotten, and why the name doesn’t ring the bells it presumably should. But it’s okay: You haven’t forgotten anything vital. You might have a slightly unsettling sense that the past is being magnified by a rearview mirror. But then, when is it not? And now, with Catherine and Laurent’s daughter Jeanne joining, and the name of the group changed to Delaunay Vins et Domaines, there is a stress on the multigenerational nature of the enterprise, the hiatus of the sale to Boisset now seeming nothing more than a passing interruption, a lesion healed by the continuity of another generation. But more about Jeanne later.

A couple of years ago, Laurent detailed the challenges of Edouard Delaunay thus: “The first is to totally refurbish the winery. That’s not too complicated. Then to find a team, especially a winemaker.” The original winemaker, Christophe Briotet, left just over a year ago, to focus on vineyards he had inherited from his grandfather; his replacement at Edouard Delaunay is Capucine Haroun. “But getting the grapes is the main challenge. We are not the only ones [looking for them]. Burgundy is a very attractive region; people come in every year to take their chance. Over the past ten years, a lot of new wineries have been created. We have a network: our family and close friends. We have never totally left Burgundy, and we have relationships with some great producers. When we said we were buying back the name, people were happy for us. They said, ‘Normally we don’t sell grapes, but we’ll sell you a barrel or two at the start because we’re very pleased for you.’”

In Burgundy, a lot of things happen on the quiet, he says. “The ultimate goal of producers is to sell the vast majority in bottle, but they sell some grapes or bulk wines for economic reasons”—for cash flow, or because they have too much of one appellation and not enough of another and they need to rebalance. “Even the great houses of Beaune sell a bit. It’s not easy, and a network is very important; and it helped that we started with the 2017 and 2018 vintages, which were more generous than the years before. Friendship opened doors. It wasn’t easy at the start, but it’s easier now.” Being in the know is the key to getting grapes.

Burgundy the wine has changed a lot in the years between Laurent leaving and returning; the trade has changed a lot, too. Growers have become négociants, and négociants have become growers; quality has rocketed. Is Edouard Delaunay yet in the top drawer, quality-wise? Certainly one of the upper drawers. The 2022s are particularly good.

The next stage, says Laurent, is buying vineyards, but before that there might be another step, of renting and managing vineyards on a fermage or mettayage basis. They already have a few hectares of Pommard Pézerolles and Chaponnières, both premiers crus, signed up. And didn’t we mention the Hautes-Côtes? Buying vineyards in the Côte de Nuits or Côte de Beaune would probably mean new investors—even the proceeds of the Languedoc might be stretched at that point. But the Hautes-Côtes, “We could do 100 percent ourselves.”

“When we started in 1995,” he goes on, “we started with investors—private individuals and friends. We owned 51 percent at the start.” That went down to 34 percent as more capital was needed, and some money was lost at one stage. (It’s slightly reassuring that it hasn’t been entirely plain sailing.) They went to banks when they needed to. But later they bought back all the shares, and now Catherine and Laurent own 100 percent. “We’ve built a [business] model that works pretty well,” he says. The Languedoc financed the comeback in Burgundy, though “in percentage terms [the profit] is not so different in Burgundy. We take the same margin in Burgundy and Languedoc.” And they invest a lot—in marketing, as well as in winemaking. “We started with slightly higher margins in Burgundy, because to establish Edouard Delaunay at the top end would need more investment in marketing, but there’s not a drastic difference in percentage. The value of the marketing is different.”

To build a reputation, one needs ratings, critical mentions, trophies—the whole caboodle. “You must take advantage of every asset you can get… Our goal is to go as fast as possible, and faster than anyone else. It’s not pretentious, because it’s based on facts. A lot of people are taking their chance in Burgundy. We can get farther than others because we have family legitimacy and history, and we have know-how.” How long will it take? “You’re never finished. What makes DRC what it is? Four hundred years of working for excellence. Time matters in Burgundy. I don’t think the new entrants will fail, although there’s always a small proportion of failures. When I look at the new small wineries, all with the goal of high-end wines, I am very impressed. I see positive consequences—it helps all Burgundy to improve, and it’s challenging to have new young competitors. I wondered, those years ago, if we could take part in this world; I wasn’t sure. I realized we knew a bit, but nothing is ever guaranteed.”

The Hautes-Côtes and the future

We keep getting deflected from the Hautes-Côtes. So, here’s the background. There used to be family vineyards there, and Laurent knows it well. “There is no emblematic négociant or producer who has focused on the Hautes-Côtes. So far, it has been entry-level wine in French supermarkets.” But with climate change, the Hautes-Côtes should come into its own—and indeed, in Burgundy’s recent warm vintages there has been a huge improvement in what used to be fairly stringy wines. So, Laurent is busy identifying the best spots. “In 100–150 years, or earlier, the next premiers crus or grands crus will be here. What the monks did in the Côte de Nuits in the 12th century, someone has to do in the Hautes-Côtes.” He would like to specialize in the Hautes-Côtes. So far, he has five wines from there, from bought-in grapes. He’d still like to own or manage vineyards there, but the right thing hasn’t come up yet.

The other project is Chablis, where he has a cousin with vines. “He’s the same age as me, and we’ve always been close; his mother is a Delaunay.” They have a joint venture called Gruhier & Delaunay; the brand is Grand Calcaire. After that? “A rest.” He doesn’t plan to twist himself around any more regions: Languedoc and Burgundy are enough.

As for Jeanne: She’s their only child, and they were keen not to put pressure on her to join them; with the result that when she was 17 or 18, she asked, “Why do you never talk to me about the future, or about my joining the company?” And it turned out that joining was exactly what she wanted to do. So she went off to IESEG in Lille, one of France’s top business schools, spending five years there, with internships with Francis Ford Coppola, in Tahiti with their importer, and in China and Canada; after that, she spent another two years studying viticulture and enology in Beaune; then she worked for Thibault Liger-Belair and became assistant winemaker at DRC, making the white wines. Then she went to Australia for six months, working at Coldstream Hills; and then she came back to France and said, Right—now for it.

They’ve handed her Abbotts & Delaunay, and Jeanne does everything—not single-handed, obviously. It needed a refresh, says Laurent, and what she can do now is what they wanted to do in the first place, which is turn it into a Languedoc equivalent of Edouard Delaunay, with the same business model: a high-end boutique operation based on a Burgundian architecture of grands crus, premiers crus, village wines, and generics, all precise, all terroir-focused. “Languedoc is more complicated than Burgundy,” says Laurent. “You have to convince every day. If you lose momentum, you see it in the sales. You need a lot of focus, a lot of involvement. I was more involved ten years ago, but I have less time now because of Edouard Delaunay.” And now, he says with some satisfaction, “Catherine, Jeanne, and I all have our own backyards: Catherine at Badet Clément, Jeanne at Abbotts & Delaunay, and me at Edouard Delaunay.”

Alongside the drive to go farther and faster, is there a feeling, now he’s past 55, of settling into a niche and finding what he does best? He doesn’t want to compete with Drouhin or Louis Latour in size, and he wants to stay small: “I’m not a naturally charismatic person like Gérard Bertrand or Jean-Claude Boisset; I find it difficult to talk about myself,” and “I don’t know if I’m the best possible manager; I’m slightly disorganized. It’s important to me to hire very talented people, people more talented than I am in their specific activity.” He says he’s not driven by ego; “I’m driven more by a need to be loved than by money. I’m not driven at all by money. Money is not a value in itself; it’s what allows you to build projects. The balance sheet has to be profitable, but it’s not a personal interest.”

The other thing he has settled into is his grandparents’ house in the Hautes-Côtes, a 19th-century château with a big garden. “I’m a country boy. I spend a lot of time working in the garden, and I love to be on a tractor and go to talk with my neighbor who’s a farmer.” History is another passion, and he’s working to preserve the ruined medieval castle of Vergey and make it a place for concerts and cultural events. And vintage party games, perhaps.

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