Christian Seely is no stranger to fine wine. As the son of respected wine writer James Seely, the young Seely grew up surrounded by precious bottles of rare vintages that he would get to sip on special occasions.
Being a researcher for his father’s master tome, Great Bordeaux Wines, propelled Seely to pursue a career in wines. Today, as managing director of AXA Millesimes, Seely is responsible for looking after legendary Grand Cru estates such as Chateau Pichon Baron, Suduiraut and Petit Village. He does this all while looking dapper in his signature Charvet bow tie.
Keyyes speaks to the English gentleman on how he went from researching about wine to managing grand-sized estates.
What was a year when you encountered specific difficulties with a particular vintage?
When you make wine, you are taking a risk from the moment that the grapes start growing. Every single day, you’ll risk each dastardly trick that nature is going to play on you.
Our most difficult year was 2013, because it rained a lot during the year and it was quite a cold summer, really. When you get a lot of rain, some of the grapes get spoilt. That’s the sort of year that, if you were going for the highest yield of wine, you couldn’t have made a decent wine at all in 2013.
Everything that didn’t look like perfect fruit, we left on the vineyard. It’s a big sacrifice if you think of the value of Pichon Baron wine. But if we had not done that, we would have had mouldy grapes in the wine. Our 2013 is not a big, ripe and complex sort of wine, but it’s absolutely pure. And that was only made possible by being extremely strict with ourselves.
What measures do you have in place to manage the cyclical ups and downs of the wine business?
Some estates sell all their wines en primeur, which is an attractive system where you get paid early on and don’t have to worry about selling the wine later. But it does mean that if you have a great year where the wines fetch a high price, followed by a difficult year where you make less wines and fetch less, you might end up with tight cash flow.
At Pichon Baron, we tend to put up as much as 60 percent of our wines en primeur, and keep the remaining stock to sell in the following years. When you do that, it means that at any time, you are selling several vintages a year. So your results don’t fluctuate, and it’s much easier to keep steady cash flow.
What gives you the biggest satisfaction?
It’s almost a cliché to say it. But when you look at a winery like Pichon Baron, you think this is a large enterprise. And then you walk into the vineyard at flowering time and you see all these tiny little flowers that are just emerging. I look at that and I’m always very conscious, to remember that everything we do, it all depends on these tiny, delicate flowers.
And when I drink a bottle of wine and think about the whole cycle of nature involved in producing it — the answer to what is most satisfying is that you taste your whole year’s work in a bottle, and if you think the wine is quite lovely, then it’s an incredible feeling to know that, collectively as a whole team, you all looked after the estate well enough to produce a good wine.
Share with us some particular wines you’re enjoying now.
The Chateau Pichon Baron 2005 is one that I’m really enjoying now, partly because 2005 was one of the first great vintages that was produced when I started. In the last 18 months, (the wine) has gradually opened up – and I know it’s going to be even better in another 10 years.
The 2010 Petit Village — I know it’s a crime to drink it now because (the wine) is a real baby, but it’s one of the most beautiful wines we have ever made. And it’s just beginning to show what it’s all about.
Then there’s the 2009 Sauternes from Château Suduiraut – where all the circumstances came together and we had a ripe year with amazing Botrytis (noble rot).
If I was going to have a little dinner party, those would be the three wines I’ll like to share with some people.