Being a top wine producer involves a visceral relationship to the earth. Taking pride in the quality of the product, is about respecting what you use and return to the land. Christian Seely, long-term wine connoisseur and Managing Director of world-famous vineyards for 27 years, illuminates how viticulture is the embodiment of our ecosystem.
Growing up, what influenced you on your passion for wine?
My father was a passionate wine journalist and writer, who owned various wine and restaurant businesses. From an early age, he shared some delicious bottles with me, I just had a real love for the product and everything around it right from the start. What fascinated me is how wine takes its character from a particular place, its expression unique and individual. Making wine is a way of allowing the earth to speak and express itself. When you make wine, you can make a product with a unique personality. The other thing is, of course, the influence of nature - every year is completely different.
Could you tell us about your venture with your father when writing his book 'The Great Wines of Bordeaux'?
After quite a bit of journalistic writing, my father decided to write his first book in 1982. I had just left university, where I spent three years reading English, wandering around reading poems, and dreaming. I was then horrified to find that there were no marvellous jobs available to people whose principal talent was reading poems. So, my dad offered me to join him on his journey and help with the historical research. We were going to visit 159 Chateaux to taste all their wines and write about them. It was like a prolonged holiday with my dad, but it changed my life because it was a baptism by fire in tasting. We visited a Chateau in the morning to taste at least ten vintages and then we'd have lunch with the proprietor who'd serve more lovely vintages. Then we'd get in the car and visit another Chateau where we'd try ten more vintages, followed by dinner with more lovely wine. When we got home in the evening, we had to write it all up as we quickly learnt that if we didn't, within two days everything had gone blank. It was huge fun to do with my father and I learned a great amount in a very short space of time. I discovered the region of Bordeaux and what life was like for people looking after vineyards and making wine. I thought to myself, I've got to get into doing this one day.
In 1993, you were named Managing Director for Quinta do Noval in Portugal. What was Portugal like, and could you share with us your experience of the first few years?
It is one of the greatest vineyards in the world and historically has been making wines for a very long time. But it had gone through about 20 years of making wines that were perhaps not so great as before, and the vineyard was a bit run down. I was parachuted in as MD to give it lots of love and attention, which I have been doing now for 27 years. Portugal at that time was old fashioned. The roads were terrible – now, it takes you an hour and a half to drive to Porto, back then it would take three and a half hours. There was one telephone at the house. I would be out on the vineyard all day, which is vast, so if anybody tried to call me on business, somebody in the house would answer in Portuguese, and by the time they'd found me, the caller had given up. It was almost impossible for anyone from the outside world to contact me, which was incredibly nice and unimaginable today. It was like stepping back in time, I just concentrated on the magical place, looking after the vineyards and making wines.
What are the perks of the job?
When you're involved in looking after vineyards and making wine, you're working with people who share your passion and aim. It's almost impossible to work in this business of producing wine and looking after vineyards if you don't love it. Every year, the goal is to look after the vineyard as best you can, grow the best grapes, and then make the best wine. The verdict of the work is in the bottle and that bottle is the result of your year's work. Every year is a new beginning, and you see the results of what you do together. Some years are better than others because of the weather or how you choose to do things. There's always something to learn for the next time and there's the endless pursuit of a dream, which is to make the most beautiful wine. When you have a great year, then open that bottle to taste, it's a wonderful feeling.
When you've got a historic vineyard like Quinta do Noval, you've got the evidence from the sublime Vintages of the past – 1931 is one of the most beautiful wines in the world and I've been fortunate to taste it. These wines express something of the personality of the place. I fondly remember tasting our 2017 Vintage Port and recognising characteristics from the great Noval wines of the past.
How do you manage your time between multiple vineyards for AXA Millésimes group?
Before COVID, I divided my time between Bordeaux and the Douro Valley. Quinta do Noval is a big operation - it's 200 hectares of vines now. We've got a couple of vineyards in Bordeaux and I often go to our vineyards in Burgundy. I sometimes go to our Hungarian vineyards, and we also have one on the top of Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley. I then have my vineyard in England called Coates and Seely, where we make sparkling wine in Hampshire, so I spend a lot of time going from vineyard to vineyard.
Now, I can manage things by talking to people on Zoom. We do Zoom tastings and blendings these days as I can't get to the vineyard. I also talk about the wines we make, and we've done quite a few Zoom tastings with wine lovers from all over the world. I sit in the tasting room or my house with different bottles in front of me, everybody around the world sits with theirs, we open the same bottles together, drink and talk about them. It's not as much fun as being all together in the same place but it's not a bad substitute.
Are there any wines that you are particularly pleased with?
As you can imagine, you become particularly fond of the vineyard you look after, which happened with Noval. All I've done is work with the people who work with me, we are the servants of the place, we look after the vineyard and the vineyard then produces great wine. Above all, Noval is known for Vintage Ports and has been making them for a long time.
Over the last 30 years, one of the most exciting things happening in the Douro Valley is not only are the Port houses making their finest Vintage Ports, but the whole region is reinventing itself in making red and white wines. In the 90s at Noval, we started doing experiments and released our first red and white wines in the early 2000s. In 2018 we had a wonderful harvest, and the red wines are some of the best we've made so far. I'm happy about that because first of all, they're lovely and secondly, it's a dream that we've been pursuing for 25 years to express this great 'terroir' with red wine. This 'terroir' found its expression in the Vintage Port, but I believe that we are now making red wines that give you an idea of Quinta do Noval’s personality.
Could you tell us about your experience making sparkling wine with Coates & Seely in England?
It's great fun. Looking after vineyards like Quinta do Noval, or Pichon Baron has taught me about the importance of place. When you spend time looking after vineyards, you realise that different parcels in the vineyard will give you different qualities and personalities of wine. Some years ago, I realised that there are certain areas in southern England which geologically are more or less identical in terms of the soil makeup you have in Champagne, France. Finding parcels of land with this unique combination of chalky and clay soil meant it could be possible to plant a vineyard with Champagne grape varietals, like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and make great English sparkling wine. Although I've made my life in Portugal and France, I remain an Englishman and the idea of trying to make world-class sparkling wine in England was fun. My friend Nick Coates and I found perfect soil in Hampshire and planted it with the Champagne varietals. We had our first vintage in 2009 and today we're making about 70,000 bottles of English sparkling wine a year. I think we've started to prove our point that it is possible to make high class sparkling wine in England. It's exciting to be part of something new that is going to go on forever.
Which growing region do you see emerging/taking off next?
The Douro Valley is rediscovering itself as a producer of non-fortified red and white wines. Paradoxically, although the Douro is ancient, it's also an emerging region. Southern England for sparkling wines is also a thrilling emerging story. I'm enthusiastic about Beaujolais – it's probably best known for Beaujolais nouveau, which is a cheerful fruity drink but not really what you'd call a great wine. Yet, there are some great vineyards in the Cru Beaujolais - like Fleurie and you can make great wines from those places. The wines are still quite cheap, but the quality is rising, and people are becoming more interested. That would be my hot tip for the next decade.
How do you feel about biodynamic wine and its reduced/ positive impacts on soil?
Anyone involved in looking after a great vineyard and striving every year to make great wine from it is aware that wine is an expression of the soil, but it also relies entirely on nature. You can't make great wine if the soil and environment are not healthy, and serious winemakers are aware of the need for environmental protection. It is something that I've seen evolving over the last 27 years. There was a period in the 70s and 80s when people discovered various systems to help control pests in the vineyard and were enthusiastically applying products in a way that they certainly don't do today. The problem with viticulture is that you have various diseases like odium or mildew, and if you do nothing about it, they will destroy your crop. It's a question of doing the minimum necessary to make sure that there will be grapes because it's only sustainable if you're making wine.
Biodynamics is a specific approach - I manage a vineyard biodynamically in Burgundy, Domaine de l'Arlot. It is a very coherent system of looking after a vineyard in a biological organic way. It’s built on a rather mystical approach to viticulture and agriculture, based on the work of a wonderful, eccentric Austrian philosopher called Rudolf Steiner. For example, part of it is putting quartz crystals into cows' horns and planting them in the soil so that cosmic energy will radiate into the roots of your vines. However eccentric it may seem, it works. You can be sure that a biodynamic winemaker spends an enormous amount of time in the vineyard.
How is climate change impacting the wine industry?
Viticulture is the canary in the coal mine about climate change in that we tend to notice differences as the evidence is there in the bottle. Harvesting dates are changing, getting earlier and the Douro is particularly sensitive to this because it's quite a dry region anyway, but we're getting less rainfall and warmer average temperatures.
In the vineyards, some grape varietals resist drought better than others and need more sunshine. In the Douro Valley, we are trying to manage the canopy to have as many leaves as possible to protect the grapes from sunshine. So, there are various techniques you can use to resist the problems, but we need to be respectful of the climate accords and put a stop to global warming.
What steps do wine producers need to take to be more sustainable?
From my own experience, I think that many things can be done. Even just introducing systems of limiting water usage can make a gigantic difference. Using unharmful products on your vineyard is vital, or instead of using weed killer in between the vines, you can grow grass. Wine producers are becoming more aware, which is encouraging. Even if they didn't care, which would be a big mistake since you can't produce great wine if nature is in poor health, consumers care and consumer awareness helps to drive sustainability as much as the personal convictions of winemakers.
How has COVID-19 affected winemaking?
Last year when it was all new and uncertain, I was worried there would be an outbreak just before the harvest and people would get sick. But we made sure that everybody took the necessary precautions to ensure their health and safety, so we didn't have that problem. It's been difficult, but people still seem to be ordering wines and drinking them at home, which helps wine producers keep going. We worry not just for ourselves, but for all our friends in the restaurant business who have been hit incredibly badly. Restaurant and wine bars are so much a part of our culture and sharing a glass of wine with friends is a wonderful celebratory thing to do. We just hope it will come back soon.
As a conscious consumer, what should we look for in a wine?
What I'm looking for in wine is personality. The wines that I most admire and enjoy come from the attitude of the winemaker looking after their vineyards and doing their very best to allow the vineyard to express itself. Nobody wants to drink a bland wine that's made like Coca-Cola, so by seeking out wines of character you'll increase your enjoyment because each one is going to have a different personality. You're also actively encouraging and helping the individual winemakers who subscribe to that sort of idea. It's important in the choices we make of what we buy to encourage people who do their best to look after their vineyards and make the best wine they can.
Finally, if you could drink one vintage bottle what would it be and who with?
I have four sons, who range from 19 to 4 years old and I'm expecting another baby in two weeks. My ideal is to drink a vintage bottle of wine with all of my family, which means that I can't drink it for at least 18 years, and it has got to be a wine that's going to be ready in that time. It must be a wine that I love that comes from a place I love, so I would choose the Quinta do Noval Vintage Port from 2017. 2017 was a difficult year in terms of climate change, but miraculously produced one of the most outstanding Vintage Ports of the vineyard. It would need to be a magnum because I have so many children. So, I'd like to have a Magnum of 2017 Vintage Port, lay it down now, and open it in 20 years with my family.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Christian Seely, Managing Director at AXA Millesimes