The AXA man cometh

(by peter)

What follows is a conflation of two tastings, both given by Christian Seely, head of AXA Millésimes. The first took place in February 2008 and featured Pichon-Baron back to 1959; the second was a presentation of six vintages of both Château Pichon-Longueville Baron (commonly known as Pichon Baron) and Château Suduiraut in November 2009. I include the tasting date on each note to indicate what was tasted when; some vintages were tasted on both occasions. Notes on Christian’s knowledgeable take on each vintage are included but should be taken with the usual pinch of salt applicable to those who have to sell poor, as well as great vintages.

One particular moment stuck in the mind following a recent tasting with Christian Seely.

It came when Christian was replying to a question about the financial implications of lowering yields. This has been a key factor in his strategy, especially in Bordeaux and particularly Sauternes, since assuming the role as head of AXA Millésimes – the wine division of the French insurance giant – in 2000. The idea being that the loss in production will be offset by increased quality and, by implication, finer wine, higher prices and improved profitability.

“It’s an interesting question,” pondered Seely gravely in response to the question. “Of course there’s a financial implication. Some properties [in Bordeaux] are resting on their laurels but still charging high prices. Some are outperforming at their level but the market hasn’t realised yet. It’s all great fun. But my gamble is that [our] wine will start selling at a higher price before I get fired.”

Despite a background in finance and a very influential role in the fine wine trade, Christian Seely has most assuredly not lost his very English, very dry sense of humour and sharp wit. It goes hand in hand with his resolutely worn bow tie and pliant yet inscrutable features. It also tends to make what would otherwise be fairly serious, intense tastings a bit more fun than usual.

This is Seely’s trademark approach to winning his audience over, something he achieves with habitual success. You can get a feel for his style on the following video:

By way of introduction, Seely outlined AXA’s main aim with its wine division – which came as a bit of a surprise to the assembled wine cognoscenti. That is, to acquire properties with a great history or terroir but which have fallen on hard times, restore them to former grandeur (by producing good wine) and by doing so ensure the property is worth considerably more than its purchase price.

“Essentially, it’s a property game,” said Seely. “It’s not very romantic but it’s good in a wine sense as it means they have a long-term perspective.”

Make of that what you will.

(As a brief addendum, local readers will also be interested to learn that Seely has a new, personal interest in a sparkling wine project located just outside Whitchurch in Hampshire. The venture is called Seely & Coates and the first wines are expected to be ready for sale by late 2011.)

Château Pichon-Longueville Baron (abbreviate to Pichon Baron)

Summary: Pichon Baron is usually made up of around two thirds Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Merlot, often with a little Cabernet Franc. These days the wine often does 20% of malolactic fermentation in barrel. The norm is 80% new oak every year for the grand vin. Production since 2000 has averaged 200,000 bottles of grand vin (compared to 380,000 in the 1990s), a result of stricter selection and increased production of the second wine, Tourelles.

Château Pichon-Longueville Baron 2006, 13.1% (70% CS; tasted Nov 09) – Elegant cream, tobacco and cassis. Floral notes. Still young – marshmallow cream and oak yet to fully integrate. Grippy, firm, gravelly. Touch of spice. Good, quite full in style. Not a wow-factor wine. Bit warming on the finish. Sinewy and fleshy; a bit lumpy really. Doesn’t quite come together for me. Seely does describe it as more acid, more angular. And he thinks it will age well (or does he have lots to sell?!) Fine, may soften and improve, but not stellar now. Classic style. 7/10

Christian on 2006: “I think 2006 is great; its principal defect is having come after 2005. There was lots of “humidity” (ie rain) in September, so it was a difficult vintage. But I think it may well surprise us in the long term.” Average yield for PB 2006 was 37 hectolitres per hectare (hl/ha).

Pichon Baron 2005, 13.6% (64% CS, 33% Me, 3% CFranc; tasted Nov 09) – Creamy, dusty dark fruit. Not giving much – just hints of tobacco and cassis. Subtext of graphite. Palate is firm, grippy, juicy and lifted. Juicy yet savoury. Spicy. Real warmth and spice. Young, dense and spicy but there’s an integration and harmony there that isn’t on the 06. Seems a touch more alcoholic than i’d like, but this is delicious stuff. Masculine style. Modern edge to it. But still classic claret: a beefy Pauillac lilt with a slight St Julien accent. Bit of a show wine? Maybe. But you still have that glorious typicity. 8.5/10 and will improve.

Pichon Baron 2005 (tasted Feb 08). Deep ruby, not opaque, just v deep, some blue/purple. Young bright ripe cassis and plum fruit, open and succulent, some roasted herbs; seems open, expressive, ripe, almost bubblegum style, some earthy pepperiness and ripe cherry emerge. Fresh acidity and ripe fruit, fresh slightly grainy tannin, tho well integrated, bit hot on the finish? But yes, coming back to it after others, this has the balance, roundness, complexity to age and develop v well [8+]

Christian on 2005: “Is 2005 really that good? It’s the greatest we’ve had for some time. Principally due to the weather but it’s also down to an increased quest for greatness in all top Bordeaux estates, and people are making sacrifices for this. The hype is generally justified – it was a very balanced year in the vineyard, not much rain but equally not much stress – a hot stable summer and a magnificent end of season. The vintage’s hallmark in the wines is natural equilibrium.” Average yield 35 hl/ha.

Pichon Baron 2004, 13.3% (65% CS, 30% Merlot, 5% CFr; tasted Nov 09) – Toasty creamy cassis nose. Quite overt and attractive. Touch of animal in there. Growling. Attractive, savoury. Elegant juicy lifted entry. Elegant linearity to it. Good savoury tobacco flavours in there. Focused. Yet rounded. Classic claret yet with a smooth and come-hither texture. Very well done. Again, not a stellar style but very good, and very drinkable, for it. Lovely acid balance will give it ageability too. That trademark warmth and spice is there but restrained in very much in kilter. Lovely stuff. One of the best on show here now. 8/10

Pichon Baron 2004 (tasted Feb 08). Deep ruby, young, some purple/orange/pink. Lovely open oriental spice, sweet dark cassis fruit, ripe confit plum, hint leather, hint cinnamon, hint brett, meaty and slight florality, hint tobacco, pencil lead, cherry. Fresh acid, silky firm tannin, spicy elements, fleshy fruit, seems classic and harmonious, hint warmth on finish, bit meaty, v good, better than 05 for me currently. 8/10

Christian on 2004: “I love this vintage: classic Pichon Baron. It’s been overlooked by the market but there are some beautiful wines. The weather wasn’t at hot as 2005 or as dry as 2003, instead a regular summer and just right, not too hot or cold. And it shows in the wines: lots of balance, harmony, freshness. It will surprise us all with its ageing capacity. Charming now but great staying power.” PB 2004 was 44 hl/ha.

Pichon Baron 2003, 13.4% (65% CS, 35% Merlot; tasted Nov 09) – Dusty baked fruit. Slight leafiness there too. Like the 05, not the most expressive aromatically. Tannin is fine and firm. Just lacks fruit freshness and linearity – it’s a bit broad and diffuse. But structurally it’s not bad at all, probably this might be considered one of the successes of a difficult vintage. A bit too warming and spicy on the finish. 6.5- 7/10

Pichon Baron 2003 (tasted Feb 08). Deep ruby, orange/pink hints. Odd aromas, different from the 2004: baked herbs, some meaty, dried flowers emerge, not bad, just hotter/warmer expression, grilled fruit, yes Pauillac’s earthy meaty notes emerge but not really with great freshness. Firm grainy tannin, slightly hollow, warming alcohol, yes some crunchy green acidity elements, all makes up to OK elements but disjointed, hollow and not for me. 6.5/10

Cristian on 2003:”This vintage aroused a lot of hype and media interest, especially in America. But it was atypical. Very hot and dry conditions. In Pauillac, it normally rains 700-800mm in a year. In 2003 we ended up with 250mm. The results were variable. For me, the PB 03 is a big success of the vintage (whereas stable mate Ch Petit Village I don’t like very much because Merlot got grilled and ended up not dissimilar from Banyuls). What saved the vintage at PB is the old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon on deep gravel beds with deep roots, enabling them to keep functioning during the hot dry summer. So the wines retain some natural freshness. Yes it’s an exuberantly ripe, seductive style. I was a bit worried early on as it wasn’t typical Pichon. But I’m happy to see how it is evolving. The terroir is asserting itself in bottle.” Average yield was 32 hl/ha.

Pichon Baron 2002, 13.5% (65% CS, 35% Merlot; tasted Feb 08) Celery?! Grilled ripe dark fruit, seems spicy, warm, bit heady/modern in style, some floral/meaty notes emerge, also tobacco box/cedar, coffee. Balanced, integrated, spicy, savoury, warm on finish, spicy, quite broad and fleshy, good in this broad/fleshy/spicy modern style. But good classic terroir notes too. Does it lack slightly in length esp vs 04? A bit. 7.5/10

Christian on 2002: “People have been mean about it; I love it. I’m struck by the powerful tannins, a very different tannic structure to 2003. But it’s perfectly ripe tannin, so one to wait for. It was necessary to do hard work to make great 2002. We had big problems with millerandage due to a wet and cold spring. You had to be strict and control on a vine-by-vine basis. It needs bit of age but is open now and will improve. An underestimated year.” Average yield was 33 hl/ha.

Pichon Baron 2001, 13% (70% CS, 27% Merlot, 3% CFr; tasted Feb 08). Bit lighter ruby than others, no real purple/pink but equally no huge sign of age, some orange on rim. Seems quite marked by oak, nutty coffee hints, some creamy caramel in background, first one with real evolution, dried herbs and pepper. Seems quite old school in style, evolved, herbal/pepper/tobacco, earthy, but structure is well integrated, perhaps best so far for me. Firm, rounded, evolved/crunchy tannins, savoury green pepper, not big/warming on finish…8/10

Christian on 2001: “People are coming round to it now; it suffered from following 2000. It’s a really lovely vintage – some people made better 01s than 00s, despite the market prices. It was irregular weather, some summer rain and lots of pressure in the vineyards with disease. But it was OK if you worked hard in vineyard. This shows classic PB elegance – ripe, good end of season. It’s from the same family as 2004.” Average PB yield was 40 hl/ha.

Pichon Baron 2000, 13.2% (70% CS, 25 Merlot, 5% CFr; tasted Nov 09) – Very elegant, classic nose. Cassis. Stewed tobacco. Creamy dried fruits. Hint of ginger. Some cedary spice. Very inviting. Beautifully adolescent. Palate is firm, cedary, drying but round and savoury. Quite grippy and earthy. Layered and with a delicate softness of texture. Touch of age becomes it very well. That classic freshness and masculinity is here, sinewy structure and peppery fruit depth. It’s a lovely wine. It just doesn’t, for me, have that extra wow factor of the very best claret. I don’t know why. Just too masculine? Perhaps. Bit too spicy? Maybe. This is lovely stuff. But just not great. 8/10

Pichon Baron 2000 (tasted Feb 08). Deepish ruby with ruby/orange rim. Floral/cassis nose, bit mute/awkward, some meat/herbs, coffee/caramel, toasted nuts. Smooth, friendly, rounded, supple, engaging, balanced, beautifully constructed palate, with minerality, round firm tannin, supple fruit, layered and complex. Just nose is a bit shut/awkward. Spicy, warm but in balance and in a riper way than 2001. Seductive, silky. Best of this decade? 8+/10

Christian on 2000: “A spectacular year, regular climate, not too hot/dry. Very similar to 1990 in the vineyards, though the yields were a bit lower.  The wine was charming early in youth, shutting down a bit now.” Average PB yield was 50 hl/ha.

Pichon Baron 1990, 13% (75% CS, 35% Merlot; tasted Nov 09) – Elegant nose of roasted coffee and dried fruit. Roasted green pepper and cedar. Seems like it belongs to a different era, when fruit was harvested less ripe and selection was less rigorous. But not necessarily the worse for it…it’s much more lifted and drinkable than the 2000, for example. And perhaps this is what i was missing before. Perhaps the others are just technically very proficient wines, but which leave me a bit cold. Here there’s an edge of rawness, of beautiful imperfection. The jolie laide of the party. But which gets my vote. Maybe it would have been hard to taste young. But who cares? Consensus in room is 2000 way better. Not for me. 8.5/10

Pichon Baron 1990 (tasted Feb 08). Deepish ruby core, wideish orange/ruby rim, still some hints of young purple ruby in core, but not much (more than 89/88 tho). V evolved, dried green pepper nose, coriander, herbs, sweaty leather hints, cream, caramel, dried fruits, glazed fruit, tobacco box. Delicious silken juicy spicy, warming/meaty, hugely long, developed but still loads of life left here, sweaty leather hints, with a lovely long spicy warming finish, tho all balanced. Superb wine: evolved but complex, fresh, balanced, spicy – lots of life left. Meaty masculine style but v elegant…9/10

Christian on 1990: “One of the best years of my time. A lovely fresh balanced wine. An abundant year. All wines from the 1990 back were chaptalised – many did it automatically even in warm years. I would have loved to seen 1990 with today’s vineyard practises.  2000, by contrast, has more compact tannins and is cleaner and denser. I like the wine but I worry a bit about this green note and it’s evolving quite fast. ” Average PB yield 65 hl/ha (“or at least that was what was declared,” comments Christian wryly…)

Pichon Baron 1989, 13% (75% CS, 25% Merlot; tasted Feb 08). Deepish ruby, orange/ruby rim (still no brick), ruby core. Some oxidative character; leathery, dark choc, less expressive/obvious than 1990, seems more obviously evolved, some leather/dried nuts, dried herbs, fruit seems bit more cooked/baked, some green pepper emerges. Sleeker, altogether less body/clout/concentration/depth of flavour than 90, v different palate feel. “Graceful” you could say, but for me this is just less interesting. Savoury pepper, still fresh red/black fruits. Yes layered, meaty, integrated, but falls away a big on back palate. Less integrated on finish for me. Is this how 2003 going? Slightly dry/dusty finish. 7/10

Christian on 1989: “A hotter, less regular year than 1990. More extravagant in its ripeness. The nose is a bit “hot” but that goes with decanting. A tropical year, with a good end of season. 1989 sold well at the start and 1990 didn’t – proof that Bordeaux is not a perfect market and initial enthusiasm is often overdone.” Average PB yield was 60 hl/ha.

Pichon Baron 1988, 12.5% (tasted Feb 08). Mid-deep ruby core, still ruby but with more orange hints, still not brick. Immediate vivid dried green pepper and tobacco box aromas, like the 90 in that sense, piercing, expressive – and I like it. Perhaps even more green pepper/more monolithic than 90, tho. Spicy, fleshy, firm tannin, perhaps slightly greener/harder tannin than 90, but not that much. Delish wine, perhaps not as impressive integration/power/length of 1990. Lacks the intensity of core of 90, but still delish and I prefer it to 89. Perhaps not the breadth/completeness of 90 though…8/10

Christian on 1998: “A forgotten year in this trilogy [following Axa’s prescient acquisition of PB in 1987]. Cold and wet spring, but a nice sunny year with a good end of season and a late harvest in October. It had hard tannins in youth, vegetal/green hints on CS – but has since developed and mellowed, softened this greenness, now elegant balance.”

Pichon Baron 1959 en magnum (tasted Feb 08). Mid-deep ruby/orange/garnet core, with brick/orange/garnet rim – tho still surprisingly not super-evolved colour. Confit red fruits, some oxidation but gentle, cedar/tobacco (dried), hint leather, dried fruits/leather emerges, still some good fruit presence here, dusty notes. Fades quite fast, becomes saline/metallic. Soft rounded juicy, beautiful balance, length, yes tertiary character and then some but this proves how long lived these wines can be. Unbelievable, really. What must the 61 be like?! Rounded, delish, bit old and old school but what a wine to have survived this long and still be going strong. Exemplary. 9/10

Christian on 1959: “This shows what terroir is all about at PB. It’s still youthful, fresh, alive: a lovely glass of wine. This is the kind of wine that is our inspiration for today.”

Conclusion: Some beautiful wines. But I do worry that, with the most modern wines, technical proficiency and scrupulous cleanliness are being achieved at the expense of charm and individuality. And the alcohol levels are going up – something that Christian describes as an inevitable result of greater ripeness and quality in the fruit. But Bordeaux’s greatest charm is its drinkability and distinctiveness, and I think that should be prized above all. Sometimes the modern wines just leave me cold. They lack the endearing character flaws that are what make sometimes even the best wines so seductive. It’s easy to say, I know, and hard to do in practice. But it’s a thought.

Château Suduiraut

“Can you make money on Sauternes?” came the rather impudent question from one of the tasters.

“Good Lord no,” was Seely’s quick-fire response. His more serious explanation was revelatory. “Actually you can and do. But it’s nerve-racking. Suduiraut is considered in the top three or four Sauternes estates, after Yquem. And demand is good. In a great year, you make money. In others, you don’t. For example, in 2004 there was lots of disease pressure and we had to leave 75% of the fruit on the ground. We only made 2,000 cases that year and we lost quite a bit of money. When you do make money, it’s not much. Considering all of this, it’s not an easy life.”

“Sauternes is a difficult world to be in,” rues Seely. “There is only a future for properties that make great wine. Even those who love it drink only very little.”

So why do it? “It’s part of a long-term plan. While the Sauternes appellation makes six million bottles (ie not huge), global demand is about five million. But it’s a great classic wine and appellation. And it will only take a minor change in the market for it to become very much in demand. It’s one of the cheapest great wines in world along with sherry and vintage port.”

What of the cost of production per bottle? “Well, yields are tiny. 2007 was 16hl/ha, 2001 was 15hl/ha, 2005 is 19hl/ha. Production costs for a great vintage is around 15 euros per bottles. In 2004 this was more like 30 euros. But most Sauternes is sold at 12-15 euros per bottle. Many have lower production costs but it’s quite precarious. It’s just not remunerated very well. Many do it just because they’re there – few would come in now.”

AXA acquired this Sauternes property in 1992. In direct contrast to Pichon Baron, they then fell upon a disastrous sequence of vintages – 92 and 93 – when no wine was made at all. It had made great wines (for example the 1900, 1967) but had been in decline since the 1970s.

In the 1990s, production averaged around 10,000 cases. Now the average is nearer 6,000 cases, while in 2004, only 2,000 cases were made.

The property is planted 90% to Semillon with the balance Sauvignon Blanc.

Tasting notes

Château Suduiraut 2007 – Honeyed mushroom and apricot. Wet wool. Creamy. Spicy. Good acid and lift here. Dense, succulent texture, not actually a super sweet style, acid and extract is great. Crunchy undertow. Complex and will age very well. One for the classicist, not the hedonist. So right up my street. One to watch. Spice on the finish. (8-8.5+)

Christian on 2007: “A coolish summer. But September and October are always the keys for Sauternes and we had a great back season. Ripe fruit but with very good acidity. Lovely freshness and balance from good botrytis on ripe grapes. We started harvest on the 15th Sept and went through to 30th October. Five tries. The first was just raisined fruit. Some rain came in early October. Then it was fine and dry. The third trie in early October was great. This was a great Sauternes year but marked by freshness and delicate balance.” The wine spent 16 months in oak.

Suduiraut 2005 – Creamy. Car leather notes. Ripe peach. Apricot kernel. Lush attack, round and succulent. Good balance. It’s a lusher style than the 2007 (165 g/l of sugar versus 130) but still not in the least overblown. I like this style of Sauternes: not too big or rich, just sweet and succulent and balanced. 7.5/10

Christian on 2005: “A hot summer, much riper grapes and lower acidity. Lovely botrytis forming but on riper grapes. Only four tries.”

Suduiraut 2003 – Quite expressive, exotic nose. Apricot rind. White pepper. Hint leather. Palate good, lush, but with that characteristic chalky underscore that’s really refreshing and grounds the wine beautifully. Acidity is really quite prominent, surprising really. Doesn’t quite hang together well for me. A bit hot and prickly. But i like it more than i was expecting to. 7/10

Christian on 2003: “Hot. Dry. Acidity is quite low. A lush style. Only 1 trie, exceptionally. Botrytis arrived all at once on very ripe grapes.”

Suduiraut 2001 – Lush ripe botrytic nose. Hints of old furniture and baked peach. Palate is altogether smoother, more harmonious, more linear and just nicer than the 03. Less hard work. Just great, spicy, well grounded and refreshing stuff. Really good. My favourite so far. Probably how 07 will develop. 8.5-9/10

Christian on 2001: “A great and beautiful year. Somewhat in the style of 07. Coolish summer. Naturally high acid. But the grapes were ripe when the botrytis arrived. Great Sept/Oct/Nov. Great botrytis. Very complex.”

Suduiraut 1999 – Gold with amber hints. Woolly, nutty nose. Old furniture. Gorgeous depth to it. Really refreshing, grounded acidity. Savoury and mouth-watering on the finish. Lovely stuff: again, like the 07 and 01, a refreshing style that’s really complex and savoury. My kind of Sauternes. Gently spicy too. Lovely vanilla pod, toasted almond and apricot depth to it. Delish. 9/10

Christian on 1999: “My favourite year from the 1990s. Like 07 and 01, a cool summer so fresh high acid grapes. Pure botrytis in October in particular. Lovely balance.”

Suduiraut 1970 – Amber. Wow. Creamy mushroom and truffle risotto. With glazed honeyed apricot notes. Smoky, tea leaf nose. Old leather and forest floor. Gentle oxidative entry. Mushroom and leather. Gentle spice. Vanilla edge. Savoury. Hardly notice the sweetness: just lovely gentle seductive breadth. And that characteristic refreshing acid lift on the finish, elegant and replete but not in any way over the top. Gorgeous classic. 9/10

Christian on 1970: “A great, beautiful old classic. Lovely wine. Reputed to be among the better 70s.”