This article was originally entitled 'AXA plans a move into Spain'. They may have been planning it but they never made it.
The man who runs the insurance giant AXA’s considerable international wine interests admits that he cried on the day he left his first AXA posting, the world-famous Quinta do Noval port estate in the Douro valley in northern Portugal. “I absolutely adored my seven years there,” Christian Seely says. “But it was like finding paradise too soon.”
An extensive wine, fruit, olive and pig farm in the seductively wild landscape of the Douro must indeed have seemed “heaven” after Seely’s previous job managing troubled companies for Guinness Mahon, especially the one which billeted him in a small flat above a glass factory in Birmingham, but Noval and Seely were made for each other.
When Seely arrived in 1993 Noval had a worldwide reputation but was suffering from serious under-investment. He had been brought up by his wine merchant father James Seely to drink fine wine “from an illegally young age”, developing a particular love of port. Thanks to an INSEAD MBA, his management experience and AXA’s avowed policy of revitalising historic vineyards to create long term capital value, he was able to reverse Noval’s fortunes in an impressively short time.
Made the year after his arrival, the 1994 vintage Noval was widely acclaimed (even if he thinks the 1997 better expresses this single-estate wine’s particularly elegant style) and, as noted on these pages, the quality of the full range of Noval ports has risen impressively. More than half the vineyards have been replanted or upgraded, although the most famous, ungrafted, pre-phylloxera Nacional vineyard has been left largely alone. A precursor of the robotic lagares, mechanical grape treaders much vaunted by other shippers, was introduced back in 1994.
“It was wonderfully exciting and satisfying”, enthuses Seely, “But I don’t pose at all as a winemaker. I’m just a manager.” And indeed rather than haunting cellars, he is to be seen on the wine circuit around the globe, quietly pouring, listening and occasionally talking, in trademark bow tie, double breasted pinstripe and boyish curls. He was a popular addition to the tight circle of port shippers in
One of his key decisions was to keep the influence of
During this period according to Seely, and many others, the terrace at Quinta do Noval became a sort of social turntable. “I was the only port shipper actually living in the
But all good things come to an end, especially if you are only 40 as Seely was in 2000 when the original managing director of AXA Millésimes, Jean-Michel Cazes of Ch Lynch Bages, reached 65 and had to retire. Having done such a good job at Noval, and overseen the complete revitalisation of AXA’s Disznókó investment in the Hungarian
AXA Millésimes exists because AXA’s Claude Bébéar is such an old friend of Cazes. Bébéar made a modest initial investment in Bordeaux but under Cazes’s direction an altogether more glamorous portfolio was assembled in the 1980s and early 1990s so that today it comprises, in addition to Noval and Disznókó, Chx Pichon Longueville and Pibran in Pauillac, Cantenac Brown in Margaux, Petit Village in Pomerol, Suduiraut in Sauternes and, a Seely acquisition, Belles Eaux in the Languedoc. (There is also Domaine de l’Arlot in
Huge sums have been spent on each of these properties, all of them run down in some way or another before AXA acquired them. Turreted flagship Pichon Longueville for example is by quite a measure the snazziest property in Pauillac, one of the few actively to welcome visitors, and certainly the only one used to entertain insurance executives on a regular basis.
Although Seely is clearly a wine fanatic (he and his Bordeaux oenologist wife serve each other wines from all over the world blind every evening at home) with a strong personal interest in upgrading AXA’s investments from soil to bottle, even he realised that Gérard Perse’s highly publicised, record-breaking offer of 53 million euros for the 27-acre ChPetit Village just before the primeur campaign in 2001 was too good to refuse. Dealing with Perse of Ch Pavie’s failure to raise the money and subsequent litigation must have been one of his less pleasurable duties.
But perhaps Seely deserves a few tribulations for he really does have the perfect job. Having decided there were terroirs in the
To fund this geographical diversification, offers are quietly being sought for Ch Cantenac Brown, a respectable but slightly stodgy ingredient in the AXA mix. He acknowledges that there is still work to be done to ensure that
And, perhaps even less surprisingly, there is the news that Seely is in the process of acquiring his own personal stake in the