Our fourth podcast, featuring Christian Seely

Christian Seely photographed in November 2022 by Brice Braastad

In the fourth episode of The JancisRobinson.com podcast, Jancis grills the managing director of AXA Millésimes about what makes Bordeaux relevant and exciting today. 

Christian Seely is not a winemaker, but he runs a crack team of fine winemakers all over the world as the man in charge of the wine division of insurance company AXA. But he’s no boring executive: he really, really cares about wine and consistently produces some of the highest-rated wines in the world. Under his aegis, second growth Ch Pichon Baron in Pauillac, for instance, is making wine of Bordeaux first growth quality – partly by cutting production by about a half. His Sauternes property Ch Suduiraut is consistently a top scorer too. Seely’s first love was port and AXA’s Quinta do Noval is another stunning property whose wines now match their setting. He also has experience of wine production in fashionable Burgundy, Tokaj in Hungary and, most recently, the Napa Valley. In this episode, Jancis grills him about price of fine wine, what constitutes classic wine, and the notorious en primeur system of selling bordeaux before it’s even bottled. Listen in on SpotifyAppleStitcherGoogle Podcasts, or wherever else you listen to your podcasts.

Photo of Christian Seely by Brice Braastad.

Transcript of Episode 4 – Bordeaux, fine wine, and what constitutes a classic, with special guest Christian Seely

JANCIS ROBINSON: So, describe your job to me.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: My job is managing director of AXA Millésimes, which is a rather unusual winemaking company. Unusual for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones is that it belongs to a large insurance company who have owned most of their vineyards for a very long time, and are unusual in the rather visionary long-term approach they take to managing vineyards, which enables me and the technical teams that I work with in each property to manage these great vineyards with a long-term vision, as if it were a family business. And that’s actually quite rare for a multinational financial investor, to take that sort of long-term view. It’s very important, because without that long-term view, it’s extremely difficult to manage great properties like Pichon Baron or Château Suduiraut as they should be managed.

JANCIS ROBINSON: You have the best job in the world then, don’t you?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I have a job that I absolutely adore doing, and I’ve been doing it for a long time now. I’ve been with AXA Millésimes now for nearly 29 years. And for the first seven years, I was just based in the Douro, Quinta do Noval. And that was rather wonderful. AXA Millésimes parachuted me in as managing director of Quinta do Noval with a brief to polish up the jewel as it were because Noval was losing money and had not perhaps been making wines up to its full potential for quite a few years. And so the two briefs were to make it profitable again and to make it make great wines again. I had seven wonderful years at Noval. And then at the end of that period, AXA invited me to come to Bordeaux to take over as managing director of the whole group. And so now I look after all these wonderful vineyards. And yes, it is enormous fun. I do actually enjoy every single day that I go to work.

JANCIS ROBINSON: You’re very, very lucky. And you are in charge of this great array of classic wines. Just for the ordinary wine drinker, what should they expect from a classic wine?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: That’s a very good question. I’m not surprised that you pose it.

JANCIS ROBINSON: But it’s very difficult to answer, isn’t it?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: It’s quite difficult. I think that in some ways, obviously when you’re making wines in places as diverse and different as California, Portugal, Hungary, Sauternes, or Pauillac or Burgundy, you are definitely going to be making wines of very strikingly different personalities. And so the things that you’re going to be looking for, in many respects, are quite different in each one of those wines. But I do actually think that there are points that vineyards of that calibre have in common. Certainly in terms of how to look after them, it all comes down to looking after the vineyard and making wines that are faithful, balanced, harmonious expressions of the terroir and not trying to make the wine ever be something that it’s not, in any given vintage. And just trying to allow the wine to express the vineyard and what nature gave to us in any given year.

That’s what we try to do in each place. And the approach is remarkably similar, although the results are rather different. But I think what a consumer wine drinker can look for, in wines that come from vineyards of this level, is an experience that goes beyond just the physical pleasure of drinking a very good wine. Ideally, it should be memorable. It should be an experience that you share with people, which gives you a shared emotion and a shared memory. That’s what great wines can do. They can transform a moment and enhance it, a moment of pleasure among friends so that you remember that moment sometimes for a very long time.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Bordeaux is very important in the world of wine. What would you say makes Bordeaux exciting today?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Bordeaux has known how to reinvent itself to a certain degree over the past thirty years. The way that people are working in the vineyards here in Bordeaux, the way that people are working in the wines, the sensitivity of people’s approaches to winemaking are really incomparably different to how they might have been thirty or forty years ago. And so you have with Bordeaux, one of the very great vineyard regions of the world that, although from time to time in the past there have been short phases of complacency, tends to get its act together pretty fast if collectively there’s a feeling that progress needs to be made. If you look back over the history of Bordeaux and certainly over the last thirty-five years, it’s one of constant, I think, upward progress in terms of quality. And I think that the vintage that we are tasting at the moment is a very sensation of that...

JANCIS ROBINSON: Two-thousand and-



CHRISTIAN SEELY: So, 2021 is a year that... There’s no question that it was not an easy year in the vineyard – although there aren’t that many easy years in the vineyard, but it threw quite a lot of challenges at the winemaker. You had the problems in flowering, which reduced the yields. We had hard frosts, which in some places were quite catastrophic. We had the quite virulent mildew, which is a persistent problem these days, but last year was particularly so. All those things meant that it was very challenging year to work in the vineyard. And in many cases, yields are very dramatically down on what they might normally be. And it was a year where we’ve had a wonderful run of solar years, as we say here. The ‘18, ‘19, ‘20.


CHRISTIAN SEELY: Yeah. Where you’ve had lots of sunshine, lots of heat. And in 2021, it wasn’t quite like that. The fine weather really only started in August. We had it in August and September and it acted on quite low yields and it was sunny, but not actually that hot. It was just in enough to get the grapes perfectly right. But it was also, there’s no question that you do not have the big, full, rich, mid palate that you do with a 2018 or a 2020. There’s a coolness and freshness about the wines. The alcohol levels are considerably low. The lowest they’ve been for some years, as a matter of fact.

JANCIS ROBINSON: You had to add sugar to some of the lots, didn’t you?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: There was a degree of chaptalization. In our case between 0.3 and 0.5 on a few of the Cabernet lots. But the results, I think, are some really lovely wines. I tasted all the UGC wines last week.

JANCIS ROBINSON: The Union des Grands Crus, the classed growths, the posh ones.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: The posh ones. And of course I know our wines quite well. I think that what’s really... I find quite thrilling about this year is that I think that 2021 has made some absolutely beautiful wines that probably 25 or 30 years ago Bordeaux would not have made.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Well, even back in 2013, which was another really challenging, as they say, year, the results were much less impressive, weren’t they?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I think that ‘13 was more difficult than ‘21 in some ways. I think there’s an interesting parallel with 1996, which was also, like this year, a wonderful year for Cabernet Sauvignon. There was sunshine, but it wasn’t that hot. But I think that what we have in ‘21 is a purity, precision, energy, whatever you like, and a sort of crystalline quality in the very best Cabernets that wouldn’t have happened in the 1990s, probably because they were people working with higher yields and they were not selecting so strictly and all that. I think Bordeaux is exciting and that we’ve had this wonderful series. And then we’ve just had ‘21 and we show that we can make, I think, a grand classic. Classic is a very over abused word. But it is a grand classic in that it’s like a very beautiful wine from the past, except that it’s made in a way that wines from the past weren’t. And so has more purity and more balanced to it, I guess.

JANCIS ROBINSON: But I do meet people all over the world who are disaffected with Bordeaux. That say, ‘Oh, it’s boring.’ And I should preface this by saying, I also admire the skilfulness of Bordeaux’s winemakers, that they just keep getting more skilled all the time in a more obvious way than perhaps in any other region. Perhaps because of the university and there’s a lot of academic help coming out and techniques and all the rest. But there are people who are bored with it or who just feel, ‘Ugh, Cabernet, I’ve had that. Let’s try lesser-spotted whats-it.’ And I hear that actually, even from quite mainstream wine people. I suppose they’re all mad about Burgundy at the moment and you of course have a foot in Burgundy with Domaine de l’Arlot.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Quite happy to be mad about Burgundy. I think one doesn’t preclude the other [in French]. Yeah, of course I’ve come across people who are disaffected with Bordeaux as well. And I wonder sometimes whether they’re disaffected with Bordeaux or whether they’re disaffected with the idea of Bordeaux, that’s two different things. And I think sometimes for sommeliers, it’s not the most original thing for the sommeliers to say, ‘I think you will find the Premier Cru Bordeaux rather wonderful tonight.’ We could all do that. And it’s probably easier to make a splash as a sommelier to say, ‘I’ve got this marvellous range of natural wines from Beaujolais’ or whatever.

But I do think we are talking about fashion sometimes. And what I’ve noticed, of course I’ve come across people who’ve expressed things such as what you’ve just said, but they quite often come back. And I do think that Bordeaux is a place and Bordeaux is a wine that, in the end you come back to. It’s quite fun having adventures all over the place, but it’s very wonderful to come back to and rediscover it. And also if you’ve been away for a few years, to discover that not only is it just as good as it ever was, it’s moved on.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Yes. It gets better with every vintage. That’s true. I suppose the two negative factors are one, that famous Bordeaux needs keeping. You can’t really say to a newcomer to wine, ‘Try this latest vintage and you’ll love it’ in its youth. You do need to age it. And then there’s a question of price. It is expensive. Why is famous Bordeaux so expensive when it’s not that expensive to make?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I don’t think there’s ever been much of a link between the cost of making wine and the price you sell it at. If there were, we would be selling Sauternes much more expensively than we sell it.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Yes, which would be really justifiable.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: There’ve been quite a few years where the cost price of a bottle of Suduiraut is higher than the selling price. But in the end, I don’t think that the person who buys the wine is terribly interested by whatever problems a producer may have had or whatever circumstances a producer may have had. What they’re interested in is the intrinsic quality of the bottle in front of them and how much they want it. In the end that’s what decides the price. And intrinsic quality in something like a great Sauternes is obviously there, but how often do people want to drink it? Alas, for Sauternes at the moment, not that much. And so the price is relatively low.

For the very great red wines. How many people in the world want to drink them? And how often do they want to drink them? Quite a lot of people, as often as they can. And that has its effect on the price. It really is a question of a huge demand and a limited supply. And I think the supply also has got considerably more limited. If you look at the history of Pichon Baron, in the 1990s, we were making up to 350,000 bottles a year of the grand vin of Pichon Baron. Since 2001, we’ve averaged 160,000.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Because you’re selecting-

CHRISTIAN SEELY: We’re selecting much more strictly.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Which is part of the reason that the quality seems to be going up and up and up.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: That’s part of the idea, I hope. And that’s quite an extreme case in the case of Pichon Baron. And it was a big strategic decision we took in 2001. But there are many other great Grand Crus who are doing the same. And some of the very great names, when you actually ask them what portion of their vineyard has gone into making the grand vin, it’s surprisingly small, which probably 30 years ago it was a much higher proportion. And so I think everybody is making sacrifices in the terms of quantity to make the wine as beautiful and perfect as it can possibly be. There’s less of the very, very best wine. And the demand for those wines is very, very strong, really every year.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Top Bordeaux is sold in a particular, slightly peculiar way. Isn’t it? Can you describe the en primeur system?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I’ll have a go. So the en primeur system, it’s a bit like what Winston Churchill said about democracy: it’s the worst of all possible systems, apart from all those others that have been tried from time to time. At first sight you think this is a very strange way of commercializing the wine. And quite often people arrive in Bordeaux, they buy a big château and they think ‘This is crazy. I don’t think we should be working with an antiquated system like this.’ But invariably after a few years they realize that actually it’s a system that really works rather well. So how does it work? A château like Pichon Baron might work with approximately 40 to 50 different négociants.

JANCIS ROBINSON: And négociant being a merchant wholesaler?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Yes, merchant wholesaler based in Bordeaux and they vary enormously in size and character and in specializations. You might have some very large négociants, which are generalists who sell all sorts of wines all over the world. You might have a really quite small one just specializing in selling wines to Scandinavia, or you might have another one who’s particularly strong in Japan. Some who like the good life, who only supply the Caribbean. Things like that. And some who specialized in supplying supermarkets and some who specialize in supplying restaurants. As the château, what you tried to do is to make yourself a cocktail of négociants. You go through all the specialities, all the different people, and you try and make yourself a group of négociants, each with specific talents and specific distributive capacities. You establish relationships with them, which are long and durable and are based on transparency and trust.

Each year you give, according to their size and according to the market you want to develop, an allocation of your wines to that negotiation. An allocation might vary from for a really small one, could be five cases. And a really big one might be 500 cases of your wine. And then, when you come out with your wine, you declare your wine. One day you decide, ‘This is the day that I’m going to declare the availability on the price of Pichon Baron.’ You declare it. You send a message to all your négociant partners. Those messages pass through the courtier. And this is a very unique system, very specific to Bordeaux, but there are brokers, intermediaries in between the châteaux and the négociants. They announce their price. They announce the allocations. And in a good year for strong property, you can announce your price at 8: 30 in the morning, and all your wine will be sold by midday. That’s a very significant advantage for a château, to know that the proportion of your year’s crop that you wanted to sell en primeur is sold in a few hours.

The next phase of course is absolutely vital because selling to the négoce is one thing. Their job after that is to distribute it around the world. So they in turn, as soon as they’ve received their allocations, will then contact all their clients all over the world. And again, if it’s a great wine from a strong château in a great year, they can actually sell on through, everything they want to sell on through, within the day. It’s quite a usual thing, if all is going well, for a wine to be declared in the morning and by the end of the evening, a worldwide distribution for that wine has been achieved. It is a system that works.

And in the meantime, there are some négociants who will keep back stocks, some sell it all on, and some who are well-funded will choose to keep back stocks for a number of years. And they’re providing a very useful function as well because they are actually keeping stocks in perfect conditions in Bordeaux, so that they can propose them to the market a few years down the line when the wines are more mature. Obviously, they’re going to charge more for them then, but at least the wines will be available later.

JANCIS ROBINSON: The end user, the client, is generally offered the wine pretty soon after that merchant in a distant country has agreed to buy it, aren’t they?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Yes, exactly.

JANCIS ROBINSON: So us, the consumers, are asked to pay for this wine long before it’s even bottled, aren’t we?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Yes, that is the way the system works.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Which seems unfair to me as a consumer. It seems wonderfully efficient from your point of view as a producers.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Hang on, I’m also a consumer and I buy wine en primeur for myself, for my neighbours and friends, because I think that it’s a great opportunity to get hold of it. That sometimes there are wines that you really like that just aren’t available later on. And so you can be sure of getting it. I particularly like magnums because I’ve always thought it was the right size. One of the nice things about primeur is that you can specify what size you want, magnums, double magnums, whatever you like. And it’s usually the case if you buy well, there’s an element of luck as well because not all vintages do this. But by the time five years have gone by or ten years of gone by and you’re thinking about maybe having a first bottle of it, the price in the market would’ve gone up considerably. And so–

JANCIS ROBINSON: Mostly, it does.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Yeah, mostly it does.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Hasn’t always.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I can give you a little Excel spreadsheet of Pichon Baron over the last 20 years. It’s highly convincing. So convincing, in fact, that as from 2014 onwards, we stopped putting... We used to put 95% of our wine on the market en primeur. We now put 50% en primeur and we keep the other half back.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Gosh, that’s a big drop, isn’t it?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: It was a huge drop. And it actually had the curious effect of artificially depressing ourselves for a number of years because we are keeping the wines back. But it’s a very long-term idea. It’s because we believe in our own wine. And by doing that, we’re allowing the consumer to have two choices. You can either buy it en primeur with all the advantages and inconvenience that entails. Or if you say, ‘I don’t want to buy it en primeur,’ I can always say, ‘Well, I’ve got some’ and you can come back later. It’ll be more expensive probably but we’ll have it at the château as well. That I think is quite a reasonable way of dealing with any possible objections you can choose.

JANCIS ROBINSON: What do those courtiers, the brokers, do to earn their commission?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: The courtiers are very good at advising the château on which négociant is raising its game and improving its distribution, which ones are perhaps a little bit static, where we should be giving more allocations. So in fact, they do provide a function which is a lot more useful than it might appear to be.

JANCIS ROBINSON: We’ve talked about nothing but very smart Bordeaux. But I think, and it’s a view that’s not widely disseminated, but I keep repeating it. Nobody seems to take much notice. Bordeauxs can provide some of the best value wine in the world, way below your exalted level. But if you’ve got these ripe vintages like ‘18, ‘19, ‘20, the so-called petit château, the ones that don’t have a grand reputation, they’re making fantastic wine some of them at the moment, aren’t they? And giving it away practically because the region’s so big.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Absolutely. And I think it’s most unjust for châteaux of that sort to be tied with the brush of being Bordeaux and therefore very expensive when they really aren’t. My house is in the middle of Listrac and I’ve got one or two neighbours who make absolutely stupendous wines, especially when it’s a nice, hot, sunny year. They’re real bargains. Bordeaux is full of little secrets like that. And it’s a bit of a shame for those kind of producers that it is such a secret, but it’s definitely an opportunity for wine drinkers to find things, because while wines like that do not have the grandeur and the –

JANCIS ROBINSON: And the price.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: The precision and all that, of the great, beautiful grand vins, they are absolutely authentically and recognizably serious Bordeaux, and it is possible to find them.

JANCIS ROBINSON: How would you describe those hallmarks of serious Bordeaux?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I’ll tell you what I’m looking for – and it’s probably fair to say that I’m more of a Left Bank drinker than a Right Bank drinker.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Left Bank meaning Médoc, Graves.


JANCIS ROBINSON: Right Bank being Saint-Émilion, Pomerol.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Exactly. I love all those wines too, but I really love the Médoc in its grandest expressions and also in its humbler expressions. I think that Bordeaux has always had, and I think still has, and still can have the characteristic of drinkability, this notion of freshness, where even in quite hot years, because Cabernet is growing on the right terroir in the Médoc, can give you fresh balanced wines where it’s just a pleasure to sit down and share a bottle or more with friends. And when you get up after lunch, you still feel pretty happy and refreshed rather than knocked over the head, which can happen with wines from other parts of the world that don’t always have this equilibrium and freshness and drinkability.

JANCIS ROBINSON: You haven’t mentioned tannin, which I would say is quite a characteristic of red Bordeaux.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Absolutely. People have different tolerances of tannins at various ages of the wine. I’m actually very tolerant of tannins, but I do think that when you have a very young, tannic wine, it really helps to have something to eat with.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Oh gosh, yes. It’s not an aperitif wine in any way, is it?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Right. Going back to your question about what is great Bordeaux, it’s, above all, a gastronomic wine. It’s a wine for eating.

JANCIS ROBINSON: What advice would you give to wine drinkers looking for a bargain red Bordeaux?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Read Jancis Robinson’s books.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Quite right. So right. Absolutely. And I didn’t even feed you that line. We keep finding lots of really good ones. And I think there are various retailers who go above and beyond to nose them out of the... Certainly in the UK, The Wine Society’s always been very good at finding out-of-the way petit château. And I think there are a few people in the US doing the same thing. But of course they’re not making as much money selling them as they do selling the grand stuff.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: No, but in a way it’s perhaps... builds a more perennial business. If you establish long-term demand among customers for that style of wine, I think you can build a very nice wine distribution business all of a sudden.

JANCIS ROBINSON: And it’s something quite satisfying about selling wine actually knowing it’s going to be drunk. Because that’s a big criticism of Bordeaux, isn’t it? That some people just buy it to invest in, that it’s just a financial commodity.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Of course. I hate that idea. And I have never knowingly sold a bottle of wine to a company specialized in investing in wine. And I’ve had people come and approach us at Château Pichon Baron saying ‘We have an investment fund.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s not what we’re making the wine for.’ And that’s been my answer for 22 years. Of course, when we make the wine, what we’re thinking about is making somebody or some people happy one day when they’re drinking it, we’re not thinking about stashing it away in a vault in Zurich. And so now I’m completely against that notion. I think the exception to that would be the fairly healthy idea of somebody buying a few cases of wine for their own cellar. And if they find, after five years, that actually it’s doubled in value, well, they can sell off half of it and feel that they’ve drank the other half for free or reinvested in something else. That doesn’t strike me as being investment. That’s just cellar management.

JANCIS ROBINSON: On a general level, then, what’s Bordeaux doing to invest in the future, for its own future?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I think that we touched on the progress that’s generally been made in the way that people work in the vineyards. And that is a huge investment in the future, which is going to continue. Everyone who can has invested in their wineries to enable them to get the absolute finest wine they possibly can out of whatever nature gives them that year. I think that everyone has also become much more conscious of the notion of sustainability compared to what was happening in the 70s and 80s. Herbicides disappeared. Insecticides disappeared. Another aspect of sustainability is how you treat the vines because if you try and make the vines produce gigantic yields, which they used to do, the vines will not last so long. And it’s not just a question of the sustainability of the earth, but also of the wonderful vines we planted.

JANCIS ROBINSON: There used to be an amazing resistance to the idea of organic viticulture in Bordeaux, didn’t there? But that’s changed rapidly recently. Wouldn’t you say?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I think it has changed quite considerably. I think the major concern that remains is that moving from, especially in the Médoc, we have an oceanic climate with lots of rain. When you finally go over the edge into organic – and for a lot of people who aren’t organic, it’s just a small step, actually – the one thing that is problematic is the protection of the vines against mildew, in the humidity that we have. And there’s no doubt that if you do go ever to organics, you do have to rely on more frequent treatments using copper sulphate. And although copper sulphate’s allowed in organic, copper is a heavy metal, and it does build up in the soil. That for me, is the principal obstacle in Bordeaux, particularly in the Médoc, to moving full-on organic.

JANCIS ROBINSON: It is a problem, but at least the vines aren’t covered with blue powder the way they used to be when copper sprays were so frequent. They’re less frequent now. But I can see that problem. But Bordeaux’s also investing in research into varieties that can handle hotter summers too, isn’t it?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Yes. I mean, why not? Personally, I’m very happy with the Cabernet Sauvignon at Pichon Baron. So I think it would be a very, very long way down the road before we actually moved to trying other varietals. But what is definitely happening, if you take Pichon example, and it’s not unique, is that a lot of these great properties are going progressively towards higher proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon. The Merlot, definitely in any given weather conditions, will get riper and have an extra degree of alcohol. And so Pichon Baron, which used to be 60: 40 Cabernet: Merlot, tends today to be 80 to 88% Cabernet Sauvignon. Much higher proportions of Cabernet, which we’re thrilled about because the Cabernets are always wonderful, but it also helps us to maintain the freshness and to avoid high alcohols.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Which Bordeaux vintages are you choosing to drink at the moment? Because you can presumably raid the cellar, get your hands on anything you like.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I’m really enjoying 2008 at the moment. I really like that vintage. I actually really like 2007 as well. I had a bottle of that while I was watching the debate last night actually. Most surprising one is 2003, which when it came out, I thought it was too ripe and it wouldn’t…

JANCIS ROBINSON: That was the heat wave year, wasn’t it?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Yeah. Very hot, very dry.

JANCIS ROBINSON: A burst heat wave.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: What’s astonishing about the 2003s from the great Médoc properties, like Pichon Baron, is that as the years gone by, in the bottle it’s like the terroir has affirmed itself and they have absolutely lovely freshness today. I absolutely love the 2003s, 2001 as well. Had a glass of that before I came out. That’s true by the way.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Well, I believe you. I absolutely believe you. Don’t worry. Now, when I interviewed you in 2004, you said that your most exciting opportunity then was Asia. How’s that panned out?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Commercially speaking, yes. There’s no question. It’s panned out extremely well. Because if you look at what we were selling in China, mainland China at that stage, the sales of grand cru Bordeaux were really quite low, still in 2004. They’ve since increased in a very dramatic way. So much so that it’s something that needs to be managed because you... I definitely tried to manage it at Château Pichon for years. From the time we had that talk for the next 12 years, I used to go to China about three times a year, talking about the wines and all that. Anyway, you can’t go in there anyway at the moment. But these days we’ve got to a point where we’re actually selling as much Pichon Baron in China as we can without being unbalanced in the rest of the world.

And I think it’s very important to... We go back to your question about négociants, when you are managing your relationships with the négociants. It is a transparent relationship where they will tell you where they’re selling it. You make it clear to people that you want to keep a balance of distribution. You actually have to limit. If you’ve got a really booming market like China, you actually have to say, ‘Hang on a minute. If you sell it all over there, you’re going to be neglecting all our traditional markets.’ So for a start, they’ve been faithful to our wines for decades and it’s not at all a decent thing to abandon them. But secondly, it’s not actually very smart long term. It’s much healthier for châteaux to have a balanced portfolio around the world. Going back to your question, yes, Asia, China in particular, has been wonderfully dynamic. We’ve now reached a stage where that actually has to be managed quite carefully to ensure an even distribution of a wine like Pichon around the world.

JANCIS ROBINSON: There was a time, wasn’t there, when one used to joke, there ought to be a direct flight from Bordeaux to Shanghai, because there was so many of you Bordeaux châtelains going over there. You must have bumped into your neighbours over there.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Far more often in China than in the Médoc.

JANCIS ROBINSON: When did that stop, would you say?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: For me it was about five years ago. There’s not much point in going there all the time to stimulate sales when you can’t supply.

JANCIS ROBINSON: And then also in 2004, you said the biggest challenge was selling Sauternes. And of course, you’re responsible for three great sweet wines: the lovely Château Suduiraut, Noval Port and the Disznókö Tokaj. Has it got any easier?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: No, it hasn’t got easier, but there are actually some quite positive signs on the horizon. One major thing that... It’s good that you mentioned 2004 as the start date because 2004 was the first year that we produced a dry white wine at Château Suduiraut. And we’ve been working on the quality dry white wines at Château Suduiraut. Very small volumes, but in an almost experimental way, just making a few hundred cases a year for a long time. And at the beginning, we were quite Bordelaise about it. And so it tended to be a majority Sauvignon, minority Sémillon. We realized that Sémillon was what was the most interesting thing. And so today our top dry white wines from Suduiraut are majority Sémillon. And actually we’ve... Into 2020 we made a 100% pure Sémillon which will go on the market this year. And it’s lovely.

JANCIS ROBINSON: What’s it called?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: It’s just called Château Suduiraut Pur Sémillon. Château Suduiraut, we’ve stuck to our guns of small amounts of very great Sauternes, very strict selections to make the grand vin. To a certain extent, that has worked because... Well, apart for anything else, the wine’s been all right I hope. But Château Suduiraut is one of the few Sauternes châteaux that actually does sell its wine en primeur and has actually been able to defend its selling price to a certain extent. But even-

JANCIS ROBINSON: Although you say sometimes that selling price has been lower than the cost price.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Of course. And there are years like that. We’ve actually this year just launched a complete, new range of dry white wines. So there’s now a Château Suduiraut Grand Vin Blanc Sec, Vieilles Vignes and that’s probably the most important element in the mix, which deliberately takes the label of Château Suduiraut Sauternes and puts it on a dry white wine bottle. And we’re investing quite a lot in new cuverie to make the dry white wine because we’ve got to the stage where we’re making dry whites with usually about 60% Sémillon from the grand terroirs and all that, of sufficient quality that I think they deserve to be given equal priority to the Grand Vin Liquoreux And so our ten-year plan is to get to a stage where we’ll still be making small amounts of very great Sauternes. But something like 30–40,000 bottles a year of Suduiraut Liquoreux and 30–40,000 bottles of the Grand Vin Blanc Sec. And that’s where I see the future of Suduiraut in ten years’ time. And we’re moving that way now.

JANCIS ROBINSON: So does AXA give you pretty much free reign then, all this investment and whatever?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: No, it’s not really like that. I answer to a very rigorous system of controls, with two board meetings every year, which are very intensive day-long affairs with some very high-powered directors who are from AXA. That’s an opportunity for me to give a report to them about everything that we have been doing, everything that we’re planning to do and discuss it with them. If there’s any strategic decision about to change, that has to be approved at that board level. Once it’s been approved, then operationally as the managing director, I can get on and implement it. But then I have to answer another board meeting in six months’ time. ‘Did I do it? Did I do it right?’ That’s the system. Definitely not a free hand, but a remarkable degree of autonomy, with a very intelligent system of control.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Why buy in California?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I think that it’s-

JANCIS ROBINSON: It’s Outpost, isn’t it, is the brand.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Outpost is the brand, that’s the brand there, yes. With Pichon Baron, we have a vineyard terroir that’s one of the great Cabernet Sauvignon terroirs in the world. And I hope we’re making one of the great Cabernet-based wines of the world. I thought, ‘If we’re going to go somewhere else, why not go to Napa Valley, to a place where Cabernet has found another great expression, quite different.’ Definitely not going to Napa to try and make Pauillac. We might just as well stay here if we wanted to do that. And we were looking for... And I spent two years looking in Napa, visiting lots of vineyards. What we were looking for was a vineyard that had something that we recognized as a serious terroir capable of making very beautiful Cabernets. And it was only after quite a lot of searching that I found myself in the tasting room of Outpost one day at the top of Howell Mountain and I had the tasting and I literally went out to the tasting room and called home and said that we found it.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Having a property there also allows you to sell your other wines – French wines, Portuguese wines, Hungarian wines – direct to the American public, doesn’t it?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: We haven’t started doing that, but it definitely raises your profile as a European producer in America. And I think America is the most wonderful market for wine of all kinds. And it’s very important to be there. So if you are a European producer and you are also an important producer in Napa, it definitely changes the perception and the notoriety of your wines. I think there’s also a security aspect, which is that perhaps a drawback to making Grand Cru Bordeaux is that it is actually rather vulnerable to interruptions in global trade flows. Sounds a bit dull that it’s true. As we’ve seen, anything can happen in this mad world. And with a serious, high-quality Cabernet produced here in Napa, that is not going to be interrupted by any tariff wars or war wars or anything.

JANCIS ROBINSON: I’ve seen that other high-profile French wine producers who own California properties are starting to market their French wines on their own American websites and whatever.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I think that may well come.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Yeah. Wouldn’t surprise me.

JANCIS ROBINSON: What are the differences in ethos between the wine worlds of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa? How differently do you feel in each of those places?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Yes. They’re different worlds. People are different, attitudes are different. And yet the underlying thing is the same: looking after the vineyards and making great wine. And there’s that underlying current that unites all the great winemakers and vineyard managers in those places. And they are, although they’re not talking the same language in that respect, it’s in one way extremely familiar, and in other ways, refreshingly different, because everyone’s different wines and they have different conversations. But I feel really quite at home. English people are supposed to feel at home when they see the sea. And I feel at home when I’m in a vineyard; it doesn’t really matter where.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Do you dress the same in all these places? Do you wear a bow tie in Burgundy?


JANCIS ROBINSON: What do you wear in Burgundy?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I take it off. It’s a disguise. No, no, definitely more relaxed. I just always tend to wear a bow tie here. Although I would sometimes take it off crossing the river into Pomerol. They’re just slight differences everywhere. Yes.

JANCIS ROBINSON: What are you proudest of?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: I think I’m proudest of the fact that over the last 28, 29 years, I’ve managed to gather around me, in all the different vineyards I look after, a team of people who really love what they do and do it very, very well. There’s a lot of actual emotion involved in looking after vineyards and making wines. And to have participated in creating an ambiance where people who feel like that about vineyards and wines, feel at home and want to stay with us, and people tend to stay with us, and concentrate on their jobs, which are growing the grapes and making great wines.

JANCIS ROBINSON: And a final, final. What advice would you have for a wine lover today?

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Keep an open mind and have an inquiring mind and not to be limited by any prejudice you might have either in favour or against any wine or any style of wine. Because if you taste any wine you come across with an open mind, you can find yourself being agreeably thrilled or surprised. And I think it’s also important to keep that open mind about the great iconic ones. Because if you find you don’t like it, then you should think to yourself ‘I don’t like this one. There’s no point in buying it.’ Be faithful to your tastes and preferences and above all, never forget that it’s all about pleasure and shared pleasure with someone else or with other people.

JANCIS ROBINSON: Thank you. Perfect. Took the words out of my mind. Lovely. Thank you very, very much.

CHRISTIAN SEELY: Thank you very much for asking.

JANCIS ROBINSON: It was lovely.