Fizzing with Energy

Jonathan Ray profiles Christian Seely, one-half of one of English sparkling wine’s blue-chip names

By Jonathan Ray

July 5 2023

For any wine lover, Christian Seely must surely have one of the peachiest jobs of all. As Managing Director of AXA Millésimes, the vineyard- owning arm of AXA Insurance, he travels the world spending other people’s money to buy up choice vineyards.

And when he isn’t travelling, Christian oversees some of the most celebrated winemaking estates in the world, including Quinta do Noval in the Douro Valley; Château Pichon Baron and Château Pibran in Pauillac; Château Suduiraut in Sauternes; Domaine de l’Arlot in Burgundy; Disznókó in Hungary; and Outpost Wines and Platt Vineyard in California. It’s one heck of a portfolio. Talk about tip-top.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, Christian also makes his own hugely successful English sparkling wine – Coates & Seely – with his old chum, Nicholas Coates.
“It’s wonderful to be an actor in this phenomenon that is English wine,” says Seely. “And I’m delighted by how well our sparkling wines have been received. I never wanted to make anything average and, given my day job at AXA, I simply couldn’t. It’s just not my game.”

So successful has this foray into English fizz been, that the original 12 hectares of vines planted on the wooded chalk downlands of Hampshire have grown to 20 hectares and, with another 30 being planted, will reach 50 within the next two years. Coates & Seely produce and sell around 45,000 bottles a year and, ultimately, will have capacity for 200,000.

Christian Seely, of Coates & Seely sparkling wine
Christian Seely, of Coates & Seely sparkling wine

“We couldn’t be more confident about the future of English wine,” says Seely. “And I wouldn’t want to make my own wine anywhere else. The climate’s right, the soil’s right, the demand’s right. We are already making sparkling wines to rival the best in the world and, with new plantings, there will be more wonderful wines to come. All the lights are green!”

Seely’s enthusiasm is infectious and it’s hard not to be swept along by his passion, not just for his own wine, but for those of AXA Millésimes too. His role there is to continue the company’s philosophy of long-term blue-chip property investment by looking for underperforming or small estates with fine potential, turning them around, and ensuring they make great wine again, thus increasing their value.

Each estate is run separately, with its own chief winemaker and team, and Seely stresses that there is no AXA formula to be followed. The brief is to make the best possible wine from the best possible terroir.

Having been made MD of Quinta do Noval at just 32, Seely brought that once great port-making estate back to its former glory thanks to an intense programme of replanting, renovation, and restoration. Seven years later, he was appointed MD of AXA Millésimes itself.

The Quinta do Noval estate in the Douro Valley, Portugal
The Quinta do Noval estate in the Douro Valley, Portugal

Seely travels abroad for half the year, presenting his wines to an admiring public and scouting for new properties. His latest acquisition for AXA is Platt Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast in California, a neat move following the purchase of Outpost in the Napa Valley in 2018. “There’s something poetically appropriate about Outpost being our outpost in the Americas, producing remarkable Cabernet,” says Seely. “It’s our California Pichon and Platt is now our California Domaine de l’Arlot.”

The AXA machine is run from the attics of Château Pichon Baron and Seely lives nearby when he’s not travelling or spending time at Quinta do Noval. “My job is to keep our shareholders happy, our workers happy, and our customers happy,” Seely says, glancing at the smiling faces around him. “And I find that one of the sure ways of creating happiness is opening a fine bottle or two and sharing them with friends. I’m not claiming that I have the best job in the world, but I do love what I do.”

Jonathan Ray is Drinks Editor of The Spectator