Pierre Seillan lives a charmed life — perhaps the most charmed life of anyone I’ve ever met. The acclaimed winemaker splits his time between bucolic vineyards in Sonoma, Tuscany and Bordeaux. On a recent Monday, however, he’s diverged from his utopian itinerary to taste some of his wines as part of Midtown Manhattan bistro Benoit’s French winemakers in the U.S. series — and to discuss how he’s come to make some of the most beloved wines of our time.
Not surprisingly, when I start chatting with Seillan over a glass of his Bellevue-Seillan 2011 Cotes De Gascogne, he seems like one of the most contented souls I’ve ever met. He’s particularly excited about the Bellevue because it represents a return to his childhood roots in Gascony, the southwestern French region hailed for its rich duck confit and charcuterie. “It represents the future of the new region of wine country,” Seillan tells me of his native terroir; indeed, Bellevue is the family estate, where he first learned to make wine.
Seillan is best known as a winemaker whose Californian Bordeaux blends, particularly those marketed through the luxe Vérité label, have earned multiple 100-point scores from Robert Parker. His story starts in Gascony, then continues to the Loire Valley and on to Bordeaux, where he spent 20 years making wines for Raoul and Jean Quancard, perfecting the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other grapes that have made Bordeaux the world’s most famous wine region. In the 1990s, Jess Jackson (of Kendall-Jackson fame) met Seillan and convinced him to visit California. The two hit it off, to say the least.
Seillan, who had honed a knowledge of soil types that led to a philosophy about what he calls “micro-crus,” where neighboring properties can produce varying grapes due to topography, was fascinated with the scope of Jackson’s land holdings.
“I understood his vision of developing vineyards in many parts of California,” Seillan says of his partner, who passed away in 2011. “I chose Sonoma over Napa for two reasons: The Sonoma topography is very complex, with a lot of soil diversity, which is my passion, and the proximity of the Pacific Ocean regulates the temperature between day and night and night and day.”
It was a fortuitous choice. Jackson and Seillan produced the first vintage of Vérité in 1998, and it’s gone on to become one of the most collectible and expensive Sonoma wines. The three blends are La Muse (primarily Merlot), La Joie (led by Cabernet Sauvignon) and Le Désir (Cabernet Franc); I tasted all three and took home a bottle of Le Désir, which I found to be an almost obscenely lush, brilliantly textured red that really lives up to its name.
Seillan and Jackson’s partnership grew from there, and they subsequently launched Anakota, a single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma; Arcanum in Tuscany; and Chateau Lassègue in Saint-Emilion, back in Bordeaux.
As if that legacy weren’t rich enough, Seillan is now revisiting the terroir of his youth, making his Bellevue wines with a mission to showcase his native soils. The grapes never touch oak; they’re fermented in stainless steel and concrete. Why? “Because I want the pure expression of my soil,” he says. Seillan goes on to rhapsodize about the various winds that affect the vines at Bellevue, then adds, “The potential of the Côtes de Gascogne will be recognized soon as the perfect terroir, with a lot of micro-crus because of the topography. People are speaking of Gascony like Tuscany.”
Earlier in our conversation, Seillan had seemed less enthused and more methodical when describing the winemaking process in California. He worries about the drought, about global warming. The soils are advantageous in Sonoma, at least, but the weather can play tricks. I ask him if winemaking in California is more challenging.
“It is,” he says. “For me, my enemy is the sun. In France, my enemy is rain. You can lose a crop if you have rain for five, six, seven days. In California, if you have a heat wave with wind coming from the east, you can lose [everything] overnight.”
One more question, I say: Do you consider yourself a winemaker or a farmer?
“I answer with ‘vigneron,’” he says, employing the French word for winemaker. “But I’m a servant of the soil.”