Exploring Opportunities with Laurent Delaunay

By | 10 April 2024

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


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” frequently features when conversing with Delaunay. One angle is his classic journey of returning to the wine business following a family sale; the other depicts adaptability, akin to managing multiple horses moving at varying speeds and in different directions. He’s been labeled as “an operator, and in a positive sense” by a source.

The original plan, Plan A, was to succeed his father at Edouard Delaunay, the family-owned trade in Burgundy. However, this is more of a Plan A2; Laurent aspired to become a fireman or pilot in his childhood before he became captivated by viticulture. The appeal was the terroir. “My father and grandfather were predominantly négociants, though they owned vineyards. I used to spend my time with them in the cellar, playing, and I was drawn to what they referred to as their wine cabinet, or the tasting room. It had a secretive and mystical aura.”


“At age seven or eight, I recall observing my father, grandfather, and uncle working in the tasting room. They treated me kindly, with my grandfather frequently drawing me in, offering me his wine glass and querying, ‘What scent do you perceive?’” Over time, during holidays and weekends, Delaunay assisted his uncle in the vineyards, a task he thoroughly enjoyed. On Sundays, his father would present old, unlabelled wine bottles at lunch, and the family would engage in tasting, discussion and speculation. The first instance young Laurent accurately identified a wine—Pommard 1973—his father was extremely impressed. “I could see that he acknowledged my ability. His perception of me altered from that moment.”

Viticulture school in Beaune was the beginning, then enology at Dijon University, where he encountered his to-be wife, Catherine. Post this, he served as an assistant winemaker in Napa. After completing military service in France, he realized he required business and marketing proficiency. Subsequently, he entered ESSEC in Paris, followed by joining his father’s enterprise. He always aspired to succeed his father, with numerous ideas in mind to elevate the quality and recognition of their venture.

However, it was revealed that his father was suffering from Alzheimer’s a few years later. Amidst the first Gulf War and an unstable economy, his father’s financial and administrative decisions weren’t at their best. Laurent, taking into account the family situation, turned his attention towards sales and managing the company while Catherine was entrusted with the task of learning everything she could from her father-in-law. The duo came to the conclusion that they must seek potential buyers as maintaining independence seemed challenging.

Laurent then approached Jean-Claude Boisset, who agreed to assist them after their steady friendship over the years. Boisset laid out a favorable proposal for Laurent’s parents, and it was decided that Laurent and Catherine would stay on board for the next two and a half years to ensure a smooth transition.

Corporate life doesn’t always gel with individuals hailing from independent, family-run businesses. After enduring two and a half years of this lifestyle, the individuals in our story craved a change. They commenced their entrepreneurial journey, building a company from scratch named Badet Clément, a homage to a small Burgundy house their grandfather owned in the 1930s. They also opted to relocate to the Languedoc.

Languedoc, a region in the midst of its reinvention, was perfect for cultivating international grape varieties for wine. Inspired by Californian grape variety marketing they had witnessed, California. They decided to implement a similar approach for the warm Languedoc climate. They garnered support from Melvin Masters, a friend who boasted extensive knowledge of the US market, who pledged to support their distribution in the US, despite no initial investment, no vineyards and no winery.

What ensued is a classic tale of determination and good fortune. While vineyards and winery were not in their possession, they did own a car and maps. They embarked on a journey to locate the best terroirs to cultivate the grapes they wished to grow, persuading the owners to let them use their wineries and purchase their wines. Their focus was not on rare, ancient vines, but was instead directed on Cabernet, Chardonnay and commerce, making this a more realistic than romantic tale.

The duo divided their roles distinctly. Catherine was in charge of winemaking, and Laurent took on sales and marketing. They approached their venture with humility, acknowledging the growers’ superior familiarity with the region and its conditions, and their willingness to learn. Surprising even to them, many growers trusted in their skillset. During this flying winemakers era, larger corporations eyed up Languedoc’s potential and growers were intrigued. However, many soon departed, while Laurent and Catherine remained, still working with the majority of these growers. These deals then were all enacted on a simple handshake, given the uncertain future of their enterprise. Yet, through determination, they have continued to ride the wave of winemaking success.

The world of wine is bustling with countless labels, making it hard to keep track of them all. Les Jamelles rules in popularity, varietal wines hailing from the Pays d’Oc. They were designed to be commercial, and brilliantly so. They are trustworthy and proficient. Questioning their taste of origin prompts Laurent to refer to it as “a philosophical question”, likely implying that it might be missing the point. The wines embody a French finesse, distinct from the flavours of Australia, California, or Chile. The challenge is to create a taste that satisfies an international palate while retaining a French touch. Realizing that certain wines should convey more of the terroir, after two decades, they found some astounding terroir and decided to introduce a new selection of sélections parcellaires.

From 1995, the Delaunays concentrated their efforts on Languedoc. When merchants inquired about buying Burgundy wine, Laurent couldn’t provide for he didn’t have any. However, in 2003, an opportunity arose when a family friend wanted to retire from his company that sold the wines of local Burgundy growers. Laurent identified a potential there and returned to Burgundy, rebuilding connections with the local growers. Then in 2005, another opportunity presented itself in Languedoc. The Delaunays had been on the hunt for a winery of their own after a decade of using others’ cellars. A friend, Nigel Sneyd and his wife Nerida Abbott, who were planning to sell their winery and leave the region, suggested they buy it.

Laurent found the winery stunning, even though it bore the imprint of the Abbott’s distinct methods involving small parcels from old, neglected vineyards which significantly differed from their own. Nonetheless, they took over Abbotts, forming Abbotts & Delaunay.

Another opening came their way in 2014, after extensively exploring for a suitable location to cultivate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Limoux. They found about 60 acres, already sown with vines, owned by Jean-Louis Denois; this was Domaine de la Métairie d’Alon. The Pinot is derived from Champagne clones which were ideal due to the notable differences between Burgundy and Languedoc. High yielding clones would be excellent for Burgundy but in Languedoc, the goal was to avoid overly ripe and over-extracted grapes.

Another occasion presented itself. “We were primed to forge something, a winery, and our initial notion was to reunite our family name with our endeavors. I questioned Jean-Claude Boisset about his plans with the Delaunay brand and moniker; was it a strategic move?” Apparently, it wasn’t. Would Boisset be willing to sell it back? “He expressed that he always envisaged it would eventually return to me.” It took several months—“Jean-Claude is adept at bargaining”—but eventually Laurent satisfactorily reclaimed both the name from Boisset, and the bricks and mortar, which belonged to a different family branch. “The stars were in perfect alignment.” The name was about to be abandoned by Boisset, so it bore no dubious reputation.

“We’ve been tremendously lucky,” he states. “Fortune has consistently been on our side. We were presented with golden opportunities, and we grabbed them when they came. We are careful, we hold faith in providence; events unfold at their designated time. You just can’t force things. Providence hands you opportunities, and it’s your responsibility to seize them.

“Accepting one’s duty is crucial for me; I strive to emulate the conduct my parents and grandparents would have approved of. Having transparent principles makes it much easier. There were probably opportunities that seemed unclear—we’ve declined offers that could have triggered faster growth. My objective isn’t size, volume, or ego, but to strive to deliver the best I can. Catherine and I are vintners, even though I presently assume a management role and devote more time overseeing than cultivating wines… Yet, I am still essentially a winemaker.” Catherine actively participates in the Languedoc operations, but “everything we produce is meticulously scrutinized, tasted, and approved by her.” He further explains, “I needed to comprehend the entrepreneurial aspect, which is why I enrolled in a business school. I realized I was bereft of knowledge, and if I were to succeed my father, I had to learn.” In the process, he also discovered a love for marketing. “My strengths, if any, lie in a combination of wine making and marketing. I can perceive market needs. I enjoy visiting wine shops, observing people make purchases, and tasting wines with them. I always return brimming with ideas. Although Burgundy isn’t a marketing region, possessing this skill proves beneficial for Burgundy as well.”

Laurent’s approach for the revival of Edouard Delaunay revolves around emphasizing the legacy of the brand and company’s name, to the point that you try to recall what you seem to have forgotten, and why the name doesn’t elicit the association it should probably have. But that’s alright: You haven’t missed anything crucial. You may experience a slightly disturbing feeling that history is being amplified through a hindsight view. But when is it not the case? Now, with Catherine and Laurent’s daughter Jeanne stepping in, and the group’s name altered to Delaunay Vins et Domaines, the emphasis is on the multi-generational attribute of the venture, with the sale to Boisset appearing merely as a fleeting disruption, a wound healed by the seamless continuity of the succeeding generation. But more on Jeanne later.

A few years back, Laurent outlined the hurdles facing Edouard Delaunay. The first hurdle is the complete renovation of the winery, which he doesn’t view as overly complicated. The second challenge is hiring a team, specifically a winemaker, after their original winemaker, Christophe Briotet, departed to focus on his own inherited vineyards. His replacement at Edouard Delaunay is Capucine Haroun. However, the main challenge that faces them is the procurement of quality grapes, as they are not the only ones in the hunt. Over the past decade, numerous wineries have sprouted, making Burgundy an attractive destination. Luckily, they have built solid relationships with some great producers over the years, which came to aid in grape sourcing.

According to Laurent, a lot of dealings in Burgundy occur under the radar. Producers mainly aim to sell most of the produce in bottles; however, for financial reasons – either to balance cash flow or even out the supply of certain appellations – some do sell grapes or bulk wines. Even top-tier Beaune houses partake in this practice. The process is challenging, and having a firm network is crucial. Kickstarting with generous vintages from 2017 and 2018 certainly aided their case.

Since Laurent’s departure and return, Burgundy wine and the trade have undergone significant changes. There’s been a role reversal; growers have turned into négociants and vice versa. The quality has significantly improved. Already, Edouard Delaunay occupies one of the top spots, quality-wise, with exceptionally good 2022 vintages.

Next in Laurent’s plan is the acquisition of vineyards. However, before that, they might venture into renting and managing vineyards on a fermage or mettayage basis. They already manage a few hectares of Pommard Pézerolles and Chaponnières, both high-quality premiers crus. He also mentions potential investments in the Hautes-Côtes. While purchasing vineyards in Côte de Nuits or Côte de Beaune might require new investors, they could independently handle the Hautes-Côtes.

“In 1995, our journey began with some private individuals and friends investing in us. Initially, we had a 51 percent ownership of our venture,” he continues. As more capital was injected, this number dwindled to 34 percent, and a fragment of this investment lost along the way. His disclosure that the journey wasn’t all rosy brings a sense of comfort. Turning to banks was necessary when more financial resources were required. Eventually, they bought back all the shares, rendering Catherine and Laurent the sole owners of the business. “The model we’ve established seems to be working well,” he adds. Their financial recovery in Burgundy was largely funded by the Languedoc, while the profit margins in both regions are similar. The same margin is maintained in both Burgundy and Languedoc and they invest hefty amounts in marketing on top of winemaking. He further explains, “Although we began with slightly higher margins in Burgundy, as establishing Edouard Delaunay at the pinnacle required more investment in marketing, the discrepancy in percentage isn’t dramatic. The value that marketing brings is a different story.”

Reputation building goes hand in hand with scores, awards and general recognition by critics. He says, “Elevating the best of every asset you have to accelerate your progress faster than anyone else isn’t arrogance, it’s based on real factors. A considerable number of individuals are venturing into Burgundy. With our family’s legitimacy and history, and our expertise, we can surpass many. The journey to the top is never-ending. Is the distinguished reputation of DRC not the result of four centuries of commitment to excellence? Time is of the essence in Burgundy. Although there will be fractions of failures among the newer entrants, I am genuinely impressed by the new smaller wineries, all with an ambition of producing high-end wines. Their presence fosters a positive competitive atmosphere, pushing every Burgundy winery to up their game. Years ago, I was unsure if we could immerse ourselves in this world. Now, I’ve come to know we have a bit of knowledge, but nothing is ever for certain.”

We keep circling back to the Hautes-Côtes discussion. So, here’s a bit of a backstory. The family once had vineyards in this area, which Laurent is well-acquainted with. “No notable négociant or producer has shown a particular interest in the Hautes-Côtes until now. It has always been perceived as an entry-level wine sold in French supermarkets,” he explains. With climate change taking its course, the Hautes-Côtes is expected to make a remarkable come back. Laurent is actively identifying its more preferred locations. “In about 100–150 years, or maybe earlier, the next premiers crus or grands crus will be found here. Just like the monks had done in the Côte de Nuits in the 12th century, someone has to do the same for the Hautes-Côtes,” he expresses. His aspiration is to hold a specialization in the Hautes-Côtes. So far, he has procured five wines from this location, all bought-in. Laurent looks forward to owning or managing vineyards in this region, given an appropriate opportunity.

The next project in line is Chablis, a location where his cousin with a vineyard resides. “Being of the same age and maintaining a close relationship, we have both our mother’s Delaunay blood flowing in our bodies,” he says. They hold a joined venture termed Gruhier & Delaunay, under the trademark Grand Calcaire. Future plans? “Rest,” he says with a chuckle. He has no more regions to twist himself around: Languedoc and Burgundy are more than enough.

Jeanne is their only child and her parents were cautious not to pressure her into joining their business. Surprisingly, when Jeanne was 17 or 18, she asked why they never discussed her future or the possibility of her joining the company. Jeanne seemed keen on joining, so she decided to attend IESEG, a top business school in Lille, France. Her five-year study included internships with Francis Ford Coppola, in Tahiti with an importer, and in China and Canada. Jeanne put further effort into her career by studying viticulture and enology for another two years in Beaune. Her journey continued with experience as assistant winemaker at Thibault Liger-Belair and making white wines at DRC, before spending six months in Australia with Coldstream Hills. Finally, she returned to France and was eager to start her career.

Jeanne was given the responsibility of handling Abbotts & Delaunay and she manages everything. Laurent shares that the company needed a refresh and that Jeanne is doing exactly what they initially dreamt for the company–to turn it into a high-end boutique like Edouard Delaunay with the same business model. The Languedoc is more intricate than the Burgundy, states Laurent. Convincing people requires a focused and involved disposition every day. If you lose momentum, you will see it in the sales. Laurent was more involved a decade ago but, now, has less time because of Edouard Delaunay. To his satisfaction, everybody now has their own responsibilities: Catherine with Badet Clément, Jeanne with Abbotts & Delaunay, and himself with Edouard Delaunay.

Laurent feels that now, since he’s past 55, he is settling into a niche. He does not want to compete with Drouhin or Louis Latour but prefers to stay small. Peculiarly, he claims, “I’m not a naturally charismatic person like Gérard Bertrand or Jean-Claude Boisset; I it’s challenging for me to talk about myself.” He volunteers that his strength is not in management, revealing that he is slightly disorganized. It’s important for him to work with talented people, possibly even those more skilled than him. According to Laurent, he is not driven by ego or wealth, but rather a need to be loved. For him, money is just a means to build projects, and profitability is not of personal interest.

Laurent now resides in his grandparents’ 19th-century château in the Hautes-Côtes. He loves being a country boy, working in the garden, operating the tractor, and interacting with his farmer neighbor. Laurent also has a passion for history and is working to preserve the ruined medieval castle of Vergey, hoping to turn it into a venue for concerts and cultural events.

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