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The Christian Seely interview    

Bow-tied 40-something Christian Seely is a very important dude. After the wine arm of French insurance group AXA purchased Quinta do Noval in the Douro, in 1993, it was Christian’s job to revitalize it. He spent seven years in the Douro, and did a great job. He was rewarded by being given charge of all of AXA-Millésimes properties on the retirement of Jean-Michel Cazes in 2000, which as well as Noval include Pichon-Baron, Petit Village and Suduiraut in Bordeaux, Belles Eaux in the Languedoc, as well as Disznókó in Hungary. I caught up with him in London before the Bibendum Bordeaux 2005 en primeur tastings in April 2006.

Natural wine
I kicked off by asking him what he thought of the concept of ‘natural wine’: is it meaningful or important? ‘You can’t make wine great by technological means alone’, was his response. ‘The properties I look after all have one thing in common: they have great vineyards and terroir: this is what creates great wines’.

Seely gave the example of Pichon-Baron. ‘It has 70 hectares, but 40 hectares of these are the ones that make the great wine.’ He explained that they do everything the same for all 70 hectares, and the winemaking is the same, but continually, year after year, the greatest wine comes from the greatest terroir. ‘If technology alone were enough, then this shouldn’t be so’, maintains Seely. ‘There’s something special about the “place” that gives the wine the character, and we have to be humble in the face of that’. There are limits to what technology and winemaking can achieve.

Traditional versus modern Bordeaux
I quizzed Seely on stylistic issues in Bordeaux. What did he think about the new wave ‘international’-style wines that the traditionalists are so alarmed about? Is it possible to make a fake or dishonest wine by aiming for super-ripeness from low yields and then pushing the wine in the winery? ‘I wouldn’t say that a wine like that isn’t honest’, was his response, ‘At the end of a year wine is a result of many things, including the decisions people have taken—their idea of what they should be doing in the vineyards’. I suggest to Seely that he’s a bit of a libertarian at heart, and he doesn’t disagree. ‘They [the wineries making modern-styled wines] are doing their best to make the greatest wine they can, and as consumers you can choose whether to buy them or not. Those techniques require lots of expense and they aren’t done out of laziness’. Seely adds, ‘It’s too easy to condemn what someone else does: the fascinating thing is the extreme diversity of wine.’

Seely won’t be drawn into discussions about particularly controversial Bordeaux wines. ‘There are wines that polarize opinion, but I find it rather interesting’, he comments. ‘If a wine excites extreme disagreement among those who taste it, then why not?’ In true libertarian fashion, Seely leaves it all up to the individual. ‘It’s up to the person who buys the bottle to decide, and to decide which critic to agree with. The wonderful thing about wine is that it inspires passion: the worst thing would be if people were indifferent.’

I apologise for raising the subject of closures, an important but potentially boring topic. ‘I wouldn’t be ready to change the closure on Pichon Baron, Noval or Suduiraut, which are wines made to be aged over a long time’, maintains Seely. He reckons that it’s too soon to make these decisions, and more time is needed for trials. These trials are underway, and bottles of Pichon have been sealed with various alternative closures: the idea is to leave them for 10–15 years to see how they do. ‘Personally, I’m quite attached to the romance of the cork, but as a significant consumer of wine I have disappointments at home. It’s upsetting.’

2005 Bordeaux
Seely admits that en primeur time isn’t a comfortable one. ‘It’s a terrifying time: it’s not just that year’s work that is under examination, it’s the quality levels of the
Château that are the result of cumulative extraordinary hard work. When you put a vintage into bottle it is not just that year that is being judged, but everything you have done.’ But 2005 seems to be pretty well received. ‘I think it’s a great and outstanding vintage. In fact, from 2000–2005 we have had a series of wonderful vintages’, adds Seely. 2001, 2002 and 2004 haven’t attracted hype, but 2000, 2003 and 2005 have. ‘2004 is a year that no one is really excited about, but it is also a beautiful, great vintage’. What about critics? ‘There are three or four who are more important than most, but usually with a vintage there is a cumulative weight of journalistic opinion: you can see quite soon how the wind is blowing.’ But he adds that, ‘the most important thing is that people who buy the wines and drink them will have their own opinions in the end.’

Has Bordeaux changed much in recent decades? ‘Very much’, says Seely. ‘The technology hasn’t changed much, but the way people work in the vineyards has. ‘Most of the great properties are stricter with themselves than they used to be, eliminating grapes that aren’t perfect. The final selection of the grand vin is also much stricter.’ He gives some examples. Pichon Baron in the 1990s produced 300–380 000 bottles each year; Since 2000 it has been 200–270 000 bottles.

‘The reason for this is that it is worth our while to do it’, says Seely. ‘The market rewards excellence, and there is a corresponding increase in demand and price when you make a great wine.’ 

I asked Seely whether he had any plans to make a table wine from Quinta do Noval. The answer is that one is soon to be released. ‘We have made one in the past, but not from the best grapes. We replanted lots of Noval’s vineyards in the period 1994–6, and now we are starting to have Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Cao in quantities to be able to start experimenting. In 2004 we came up with a wine worthy to bear the Noval name.’ 1000 cases will be produced. I mentioned to Seely that I’d been hugely impressed with the 2003 vintage Port from Noval. What was the secret? ‘It is the cumulative work that has taken place here since 1993’, he reports. Two things have changed: ‘We have been applying the same ruthlessness in the vineyard with respect to fruit that we do in Bordeaux: we reject shrivelled grapes and those with rot’. But this trie in the vineyard is not east to achieve: the pickers have a problem with wasting grapes. ‘It is difficult to get people to change their techniques, so we do a preliminary trie in the vineyard, picking out the rubbish fruit’, says Seely. The second change has been to replant much of the vineyard. Noval has 66 hectares, and 35 of these were replanted in the first three years, all with Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cao, a bit of Tinta Barocca and a bit of Touriga Francesa. These 1994/5 replantings were in the 2003 Vintage Port.  

See also: Visiting Quinta do Noval

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