En Primeur Insights: The Château MD

I recently interviewed a fellow ‘Brit in Bordeaux’ for the subscriber section of JancisRobinson.com. There’s a great deal of free content on the site but for any wine enthusiast, the ‘Purple Pages’ are well worth £69 a year. Jancis has kindly allowed me to publish the article here:

This is the second in a series of articles looking back at the 2010 Bordeaux En Primeur campaign.

Christian Seely

Englishman Christian Seely is the managing director of the AXA Millésimes group of estates, based at Château Pichon-Longueville in Pauillac. Besides this ‘Super Second’, Seely looks after Châteaux Pibran, also in Pauillac, Petit Village in Pomerol and Suduiraut in Sauternes, as well as estates in the Languedoc, Burgundy, Portugal and Hungary. He is also president of the Compagnie Médocaine, AXA’s Bordeaux négociant business.

Gavin Quinney, the owner of Château Bauduc (a recent Wine of the week), interviewed his compatriot about the 2010 campaign. Here is the transcript.

GQ: Why does the campaign have to take so-ooh long?

CS: Everybody agrees it should be quicker and start sooner – it is very annoying for customers. But each campaign has its own rhythm, and each property is waiting for the right moment. It shouldn’t be like that, of course. The timing though is key and it’s an incredibly important decision. There is an unofficial order, or hierarchy, and each property has their own idea of where they’re situated in that order. It’s their decision – and there are hundreds of individual decisions.

GQ: What do you think about the proposal by Jancis and others like Tim Atkin for critics to publish scores after prices are announced?

CS: I understand perfectly the argument – that critics are concerned about feeding a speculative movement. [There was a pause before the word ‘movement’, at which point I thought CS was going to say ‘monster’.]

Pichon 2010: Barrel Sample

It is important to understand why journalists taste – that is, to guide consumers as to what they should buy, if at all, and to make recommendations. But to say that critics should publish scores after the prices have been set is to ignore how the system works. Prices are announced when the wines go on sale. When I come out with a price for Pichon, the wine can all be sold (to the Bordeaux négociants) within a matter of hours. If the critics’ scores are announced after that it would be too late, and then you really would hand the market over to speculators.

Even if you could get the critics to agree not to publish their scores until a certain date, which is highly unlikely, the trade would speculate on the wines in advance of the critics’ scores, as they taste the samples at the same time – and before that in the case of the négociants. I can’t see it happening.

GQ: So how could the system be improved?

CS: The biggest improvement would be if châteaux could decide on their prices sooner. Believe it or not, it’s a period of anguish for châteaux too. I have to choose the right moment to come out for each property. I can quite imagine that we’ll have a quicker campaign for the 2011s – I’d be much happier if it were quicker.

GQ: Is there anyone who could make that happen?

CS: There’s no governing body and we cannot collude on price-fixing as that’s illegal. It is all about hundreds of individual decisions and the properties are free to decide for themselves.

GQ: Parker gave you a very high score. How important is he?

CS: Very important, but Parker’s score is not the only thing. I think that what we’re seeing emerging is a more multi-lateral world in which more and more people have a say. There’s the phenomenon of social media and increasingly more ‘power to the people’, and over the next decades we’ll see the likely evolution of the ‘collective wisdom’ of people who buy the wine.

GQ: Do you hold wine back or do you sell it all en primeur?

CS: I get it out there – that’s the whole point of en primeur. Our business is to make great Pauillac, not to speculate on future wine prices. I don’t think that’s the job of the châteaux – it’s not my role to add a margin as a producer, plus another as an investment. We keep a small amount back to have some stock at the château for events and the occasional sales from here (Pichon, unusually, sells a small amount of wine at the cellar door to visitors).

GQ: On the négociant side, do the higher prices lead to greater risk?

CS: I’m not involved with the day-to-day [of AXA’s Compagnie Médocaine] – I’m the chairman – but as a négociant, we work on a wine-by-wine basis, matching each wine’s reputation, intrinsic quality and the price. Yes, there is an element of risk. Some individual producers make wonderful wine at a high price and sometimes we have to keep the stock (if it doesn’t sell en primeur). That’s fine if we’re confident of the quality. The key is that you have to believe in the wine yourself, which is why I go to the tastings too. If you have doubts, don’t buy it.

GQ: How’s 2011 looking?

CS: It’s just possible that the very good fortune we’ve had over recent vintages may not be with us for 2011. It was very hot and dry until mid July and then the weather turned, and we’ve had quite a lot of rain. Now it’s fine again, although it’s so humid today I think even I’m developing botrytis. It’ll still be an early harvest but we’ll have to wait and see.

This is sent to friends on our mailing list.