AXA Millésimes’ Christian Seely has seen incredible success in reviving iconic estates Pichon Baron and Quinta do Noval. He tells Patrick Schmitt how he got there.
One might think that the man who revived the iconic estates Pichon Baron and Quinta do Noval would be keen to brag about his achievements. After all, restoring the fortunes of a Pauillac property and a Port house are hardly the result of quick-fix entrepreneurial tricks, or luck. But no, Christian Seely, managing director of AXA Millésimes, which owns both these prized places, as well as Suduiraut in Sauternes, Petit-Village in Pomerol, Belles Eaux in the Languedoc, Domaine de l’Arlot in Burgundy and Disznoko in Tokaj, seems more happy discussing his setbacks than promoting his many successes. Hence, within a short period he admits to a major diplomatic error, a couple of disappointing viticultural experiments and certain winemaking techniques that required rethinking. Between these bouts of self-deprecation are amusing anecdotes and tales of convention-breaking behaviour which, with Seely’s charm, one doubts could cause offence.
Of course, his willingness to share such stories makes Seely likeable and his motives believable – this is not a manager with a degree in marketing or an accountant who has turned into a troubleshooter. Rather, Seely, who studied English literature at Cambridge, is a classically educated Brit with a genuine passion for wine, and Port in particular. He traces his love for the latter to a generous glug of Dow’s 55 when he was 16, and not consumed after dinner, but over breakfast, and poured by his father, the renowned wine writer James Seely.
Today, proof of a powerful affection for this famous fortified wine exists in Seely’s decision in late 2004 to personally invest in the Douro with the purchase of Quinta da Romaneira. This vineyard, one of the Douro’s best and most ancient quintas, with three kilometres of river frontage, was suffering from neglect, and Seely spotted its potential.
“It was something dead and gone and now it has come back to life,” he says proudly of the estate, which produced its first vintage Port in 2008 to complement its range of prize-winning table wines, including an impressive rosé made by Seely’s wife Corinne, a former winemaker at Domaine de Chevalier. The project has not been without its difficulties, as rival Port producers seem keen to point out, although Seely stresses that any past financial frustrations were not related to the vineyards or the state-of-the-art winery, complete with underground cellar (a much sought-after rarity in the Douro), but an ambitious on-site hotel, which is now run as a separate enterprise.
Indeed, the gratifying experience of managing his own operation alongside his role as head of the not inconsiderable AXA Portfolio has encouraged him to embark on another personal project – this time in the UK’s rolling Hampshire countryside, where he is now making sparkling wine under the brand Coates & Seely. Once more, his wife has been enlisted to lend her expertise in the winery, where Seely says they are using concrete eggs for fermentations, among other attempts to make the best English sparkling wine possible. Rather than boast about the quality of the result, a rosé released earlier this year, he jokes that he and his wife have “been drinking rather a lot of it”, pointing to an empty case at Quinta do Noval, where he spends his summers. It’s also clear he can’t wait to surprise the French with the new product, and promises to pour it at Pichon pre-dinner receptions, where he once served Manzanilla in an attempt to introduce the Bordelais to aperitifs other than Champagne. “It didn’t work,” he admits, with a smile.
Although he may be gently mocking of the conservatism among those in the Bordeaux wine trade it is done with fondness, not frustration. In fact, Seely’s fascination with fine wine could be attributed to his post university tour of the Medoc while helping his father research his first wine book, Great Bordeaux Wines, and, today he lives in the city with his French wife. His accomplishments at the Pauillac estate can be witnessed in the magazine (db Hong Kong, November, pages 20-28), with Pichon Baron the highest riser in this year’s annual Liv-ex Power 100, a ranking of the world’s most influential fine wine brands. Indeed, Pichon’s latest release, the 2010, was described as a “blockbuster effort” by Robert Parker, who gave it 97-99+ points. However, as with Seely’s other successes, he’s too modest to promote them himself, although he does speak of a positive reaction during a private Pichon dinner with Oz Clark and James May for the BBC television show Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure.
Apparently a glass of Pichon instigated a complete volte-face in motoring journalist May’s views of wine. Seely recounts how May, while the cameras were filming, admitted that the Pichon had completely altered his outlook: now he understood why people became so obsessed with wine, and his life would be much more expensive, but enjoyable, as a result. Seely couldn’t have wished for better publicity. But then the director angrily interrupted May; “You’re not supposed to like the wine,” he shouted, and the section was cut.
Seely recounts similarly bizarre events at Noval, including one night when two of his guests painted over the Taylor’s branding on the vineyard terraces opposite. Seely spotted this prank the following morning and immediately rang Adrian Bridge, managing director of the Port house, to explain and apologise. “What made it worse,” he records, “was that he was so nice about it.”