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Christian Seely: A long and winding road

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.

Realising potential

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.”

Drawn to the Douro

Today, of all Seely’s outposts, he admits that Quinta do Noval is where, “I feel most at home”. He arrived at the estate in 1993, having persuaded the then AXA Millesimes managing director Jean-Michel Cazes that he could revitalise the performance of the property, even though Seely’s previous roles were unrelated to wine (he started his career with a business selling hampers called Presents of Mind). He also promised to learn Portuguese during the job interview, which he did to conversational standard within the next six months. Seven years later, in 2000, he took on the management of the entire AXA portfolio following Cazes’ retirement, taking him to the head office at Pichon. But it’s the Douro he visits whenever he can, and over the last 18 years Seely has rejuvenated every aspect of Noval.

In particular, he has overseen the systematic replanting of the quinta’s 145 hectares on restored terraces, arranging the grapes in blocks, not the traditional field blends, to ensure each variety is harvested at the optimum ripeness. Then, for the red Douro wines specifically, Seely has planted experimental plots of Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre, Petit Verdot, and Syrah – and it’s the latter, he says, that’s “really exciting”. In fact, he adds: “I think Syrah will soon be allowed in Douro DOC wines because there’s so much of it and it’s so good.” Presently, only native grapes are allowed in wines under the Douro designation.

A range of single variety wines are available from these plots using the Labrador label, named in honour of the dog owned by Antonio Agrellos, Noval’s technical director. Seely says he will release a 100% Petit Verdot under this brand next year, but, Syrah aside, he’s critical of the results from the other experimental plantings. “The two grape varieties that have not worked here are Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre, although I thought they would be naturals.” The Cabernet Sauvignon he adds, “has curiosity value and sells well in Portugal”, but “exotic single varieties are not my idea of a way forward in the Douro”, he concludes.

Instead Seely is convinced of the potential of indigenous Touriga Nacional to make fine and perfumed table wines, using, since 2007, a more gentle phenolic extraction and a reduced proportion of new oak during barrel ageing. “Touriga Nacional has a wonderful floral nose which is evocative of wild roses that you find growing in the Douro… this place is capable of making great red wines that express a sense of place, in the way that vintage Port has done.”

Native white varieties are his next area of focus having planted Noval’s highest vineyard with Viosinho and Gouveio five years ago. “The idea is to make a serious Noval white,” he says of the two-hectare site.

Noval hasn’t been inactive when it comes to Port product development either. It launched “Black” last spring as an accessible but high-quality fortified wine that didn’t fall within the traditional categories. “It is a way of showing what you can do with really high-class Douro fruit, but in a Port that you don’t have to age and decant,” he explains.

But to return to non-fortified wines, 2007 seems to have been a turning point at both Noval and AXA’s estate in the Languedoc, Mas Belles Eaux. It was this vintage when Seely dramatically reduced the proportion of new oak in Noval’s wines because “Douro reds seem to suck in new oak in an alarming fashion”. While in the Languedoc, he recalls: “From 2008 onward the wines are better, and like those from the Douro, I’m happier with them.” Changes at Mas Belles Eaux include “gentler extraction and allowing yields to go that little higher”.

Such wines, above all those from the Douro, Seely thinks have a “great potential now that a lot of traditional quality wine drinkers have been priced out of the market for Bordeaux and Burgundy. They are looking for wines with a sense of place and the Douro is well placed to provide what those people are looking for… and for me it is not the economy option, these are equivalent in quality, they are just a different style”.

Sweet sensation

But, despite his intense focus on dry reds, it is sweet wines which are, Seely acknowledges, “a passion”, and alongside Port, Sauternes provokes strong feelings. Although he says, “it’s no secret that Sauternes has its difficulties,” he adds that AXA’s Château Suduiraut is profitable. At this estate, like Noval, Seely has been experimental, and in the same way he created Black to attract a younger consumer to Port, he has just unveiled Les Lions de Suduiraut as a lighter and less expensive style of Sauternes to cater to a new and more youthful audience.

Speaking of the category more generally he says: “I continue to be optimistic about the long-term potential for these wines because they are so beautiful… and I think the wines of Sauternes are better than they have ever been.”

The total production of Sauternes and Barsac “in a good year” is six million bottles, and demand is currently around five million, which does mean that: “For individual Sauternes proprietors life can be very hard, but if you can afford to take the long-term view then there is a very serious reason to be there and to stay there… it requires a very little change in consumption habits to make a big difference.”

Similarly in Tokaj, where AXA manages Disznoko, Seely believes the globalisation in wine drinking and culture that has benefited grand cru classé red wines will soon benefit this great sweet wine-producing region. “It is one of the very great vineyard regions of the world and it is great to be a participant in the renaissance of the region,” he says referring to AXA’s involvement in Tokaj since 1992 as part of the first wave of Western investment post-communism. Continuing, he says: “The quantities of six-puttonyos wines are very small and so you don’t need the entire world to start drinking them, you just need one or two countries for it to take off.”

Certainly, judging by the properties purchased and the investments subsequently made, it’s clear that AXA Millesimes is not in the wine business for short-term gains. Pichon was acquired in 1987 along with the Pauillac’s promising Cru Bourgeois Château Pibran and Burgundy’s Domaine de l’Arlot, followed by Pomerol’s Château Petit-Village and Margaux’s Cantenac Brown in 1989. Then came Château Suduiraut and Disnoko in 1992, and Noval in 1993. More recent was 2001’s purchase of Château Tour Pibran, the neighbouring property of Château Pibran, and the following year, Mas Belles Eaux in the Languedoc. All of these estates are still within AXA’s control apart from Cantenac-Brown which was sold in 2006.

Value creation

The motivation for the expansion of the portfolio is seemingly simple. “The AXA investments are about the creation of long-term capital value in the vineyard,” explains Seely, adding: “If you acquire land in great terroir and do everything possible to make the greatest wines you can then it will increase the value of the property.”

Of course it helps if you can pick great sites which are not, at the time of purchase, performing to their full potential, as well as appointing someone such as Seely at the helm – a manager who mixes common sense with a genuine devotion to the product. It’s also worth noting that the AXA under Seely would consider wine regions other than Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tokaji, the Douro and the Languedoc. Seely even admits a yearning to do something in Champagne – “although a lot of houses are more about the brand than the land” – as well as make Pinot Noir in New Zealand. Using the expertise gained at Domaine de l’Arlot, Seely believes “we could do something very interesting if we acquired a property in New Zealand with vineyards in Otago and Martinbourgh, but it’s not on the cards”. He would contemplate a Cognac too.

Meanwhile, Seely’s focus is on the enhancement of AXA’s existing estates and the development of his own projects in the Douro and Hampshire. And what’s notable about his approach is the focus on vineyard improvements alongside a willingness to experiment in the cellar, from minor tweaks to the mix of coopers used at Pichon to new product development at Noval or Suduiraut.

Oh yes, and the greatest diplomatic error of his career? This involved a brimming glass of Pichon, a contingent of excited Chinese fine wine collectors, and Seely on a month off alcohol. No doubt you can guess the faux pas which ensued, but if not, it involved an after dinner gan bei which Seely declined. As a welcoming host and bon viveur he still regrets the decision, but one senses that, like those experiments in the vineyard and cellar, he learnt a valuable lesson.


Biography: Christian Seely

• Born in 1960, Christian Seely was educated at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge.

• In 1982 he accompanied his father, James Seely, wine merchant and writer, to Bordeaux, to work with him on his book The Great Wines of Bordeaux.

• He then created his own company, Presents of Mind, specialising in wines and gastronomy.

• In 1987 he gained an MBA at INSEAD and after a year spent at L’Oréal Paris, he worked for Guinness Mahon Development Capital, for whom he managed the turnaround of several companies.

• In October 1993 he became managing director of Quinta do Noval, a new investment of the AXA Millésimes group.

• In 2000, Seely became managing director of AXA Millésimes, following the retirement of Jean-Michel Cazes.

• He manages the AXA Millésimes group of vineyards, including Château Pichon-Longueville Baron, Châteaux Pibran in Pauillac, Petit-Village in Pomerol, Suduiraut in Sauternes, Belles-Eaux in the Languedoc, as well as Domaine de l’Arlot in Nuits-St-Georges, Disznóko in Hungary and Quinta do Noval in Portugal. He is also the president of the Compagnie Médocaine, the Bordeaux négociant, which is wholly owned by AXA Millésimes.

• He lives today in the city of Bordeaux with his wife Corinne, stepson Antoine, and sons Theodore and Alexander.

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