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Antoine Clasen

“We’re fortunate that bubbles are in vogue. But the competition is fierce”

When he took over from his father, Hubert, in 2016, Antoine Clasen became Bernard-Massard’s General Manager. Today, aged 36, he represents a new generation of entrepreneurs in the Moselle wine industry.

Antoine Clasen cuts a very individual figure. He is a distinguished man, just like his father before him. Chic but relaxed, with a close-cropped haircut and profuse red beard (still somewhat shorter than it was a few years ago!) he is more likely to be taken for an upper-crust Parisian than for a man from the Moselle. That’s because this man, in his mid-thirties, is not only a winemaker, but most importantly he is running one of the leading businesses in the Grand Duchy, and not just here on the German border.

Antoine Clasen’s time at university was initially geared more towards working in an office than on the land. Set on a financial career, he started at the faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Lausanne and finished at the HEC Paris Business School. He had a quick excursion into the world of banking (Pictet in Geneva) which to his annoyance he found boring. “It was so abstract,” he says with a sigh. “Lots of figures, but not much else behind them…” He had a better time working in business consultancy at PwC with its more varied horizons.

However, in 2011, he was presented with a more interesting opportunity. This was a key time for Bernard-Massard as the company was forced to find another importer for the Belgian market, by far its largest export market with a million bottles sold every year. It went with Vasco, which imports Carlsberg beer into Belgium. And they were looking for a new brand manager – a golden opportunity. “It was perfect as it enabled me to get to know inside out our product range and this market that’s so crucial for us.”

Two years later, he left Brussels to return to Grevenmacher and to prepare to take over the reins from his father. At first, he was Sales Manager, and then three years later he became General Manager. And it has to be said that this had always been on the cards: “I knew that one day or another I’d run the company, but I didn’t want to do it without having tried other options first and until I was sure that it was what I really wanted.” So when in 2013, his father asked him to choose, he admits that “it didn’t take me long to decide”.

Since the beginning, our objective has been to look beyond our local market.

Today, Antoine Clasen has no regrets about the path he has taken, although he acknowledges that “if I’d been ten years older when I went to university, I would have perhaps focussed more on production than finance”. It didn’t matter, as he has learnt the art of winemaking by doing it: “I didn’t study in Geisenheim like other winemakers in the Moselle, but I’m hugely interested in the processes and go to all the weekly meetings with the production team,” he says with a smile. “My father and I, we talk about everything and we taste everything. We’re really involved with the production of our wines.”

And he has to be because it’s absolutely crucial that he knows everything there is to know about these wines so he can really champion them, particularly in the export market. “From the very beginning, Bernard-Massard looked outwards to foreign markets: it’s an important part of our DNA.” The brand was founded in 1921, and already just two years later, there’s a photo of King Leopold at a Bernard-Massard stand! “Since the beginning, our objective has been to look beyond our local market.”

The Grevenmacher estate exports to around twenty countries, in particular with its flagship sparkling wine, Cuvée de l’Écusson. In some of these countries, it performs spectacularly well. “We do really well in Quebec, we’ve been there since 1998 and it’s our second export market with annual sales of over 400,000 bottles.” Cuvée de l’Écusson is the fourth best-selling sparkling wine in Quebec.

Quebec overtook Finland a few years ago. The company was able to make its mark in Helsinki when a juicy contract was landed in 1996: “For eight years, our wines were served on board Finnair flights, the Finnish national airline, which was a fabulous showcase.” The State monopoly’s gates were opened and Bernard-Massard has remained there ever since. Today, it still features in the top 10 for sparkling wine sales.

With such a focus on foreign markets, to have studied theory in prestigious institutions is no small advantage. “But even if you’ve been to business school, it doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to do business,” Antoine Clasen says jokingly. The challenge is no easy task, “it’s not a great help coming from a small winemaking area since nobody knows us! It’s a tall order to get a Luxembourg product established in a market that scarcely has a clue about our country,” he stresses.

I take equal pride in releasing Cuvée de l’Écusson as I do the more restricted series from excellent Luxembourg terroirs that belong to my family, such as the Groärd or the Palmber.

So to sell his wine, Antoine Clasen has also become an ambassador for his country. “I talk about Luxembourg, about its vineyards and also about other winemakers. As we’re not able to run advertising campaigns like LVMH, we have to try something else and inevitably that means promoting Luxembourg. Anyway, there’s room for everyone in the Moselle. We’re fortunate that bubbles are in vogue. But the competition is fierce, especially since our wines are in a niche between champagne and Cava and Prosecco that are less expensive than us. To achieve our goals, the quality has to be there too.”

The quality is indeed there in the wines produced by Bernard-Massard the vintner in Grevenmacher, but also in its Clos des Rochers wines from the Clasen family’s own estate. “I take equal pride in releasing Cuvée de l’Écusson as I do the more restricted series from excellent Luxembourg terroirs that belong to my family, such as the Groärd [in Grevenmacher] or the Palmberg [in Ahn]. Clos des Rochers, along with the Thill and Château de Schengen estates, are pure gems, but they’re only able to exist because Bernard-Massard, which still remains the core market, runs smoothly.”

The forty hectares of family vines continue to be farmed using sustainable farming practices, “for the past twenty years we haven’t used any glyphosate here,” Antoine Clasen confirms. “Moreover, during 2015, an excellent year, we were almost at the point of becoming organic.” The Clos des Rochers and Thill estates are comprised of over one hundred plots spread across the Moselle, which doesn’t make the work easy, but it does allow tests to be carried out here and there, in particular tests to cut back on inputs. “We’re investing a lot for the environment. The idea is to be more efficient so we can be as environmentally friendly as possible.”

And if Antoine Clasen were to be asked about his vision for Bernard-Massard in ten years’ time: he’ll be keeping his feet firmly on the ground while having also identified several areas for development. “I don’t want to double our production, but we do need to expand our presence abroad. Although we do well with our sparkling wines, there are still markets out there for us to explore with our still wines. I can see that this is in my own interest, but for the region this is good news too. However, for this to happen, wine tourism will also have to expand. There are still not enough hotels and restaurants and more estates will need to open to visitors.”

Bernard-Massard’s early days

The winery at the foot of the Grevenmacher cross-border bridge was founded in 1921 by Jean Bernard, a Luxembourg oenologist who had worked in Champagne and who was convinced that his native country’s terroirs had great potential. To create a name for his brand, he combined his own with that of his wife, Massard. The building was then constructed where the cellar still is today.

To expand his business, Jean Bernard found investors: Bernard and Frédéric Clasen (one was a doctor, the other a lawyer) who also owned vines (some of the Clos des Rochers vines) and they became the main shareholders along with almost one hundred others, who were not all from Luxembourg. For example, there was the Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb’s grandfather, whose family still holds shares. This sift towards Belgium was in response to historical imperatives. In the aftermath of the First World War, the customs agreements with Germany (Zollverein) were abolished. Belgium then became the preferred destination for Luxembourg’s wine production, as shown by the signing of the Belgian-Luxembourg Economic Union Treaty (the prelude to Benelux) in the same year as Bernard-Massard was founded. When Jean Bernard passed away in 1937, Bernard Clasen took over the running of the company. Since then the Clasens have remained in charge.

Today, Bernard-Massard produces 3.5 million bottles of sparkling wines (mousseux and crémant) and 500,000 bottles of still wine per year. The company has 85 employees in the Grand Duchy and 170 across the whole group.

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