He appears nonchalant at first glance, a man well aware of his own worth, whose self-esteem doesn’t really need the elevation of working for a luxury brand like Chanel. Nicolas Audebert meets me during Hong Kong’s Vinexpo week, clad in a light brown jacket and blue jeans, and he speaks English in complete sentences accented with a lighter lilt that perhaps betrays his Provencal roots.
Domiciled now in Bordeaux, Audebert began his career in Champagne – with Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and finally Krug (where he was responsible for making my own favourite of its wines, Clos du Mesnil) – before spending 10 years in Argentina with Terrazas de los Andes and then Cheval des Andes, its joint venture with Château Cheval Blanc.
And then he decided it was time to return home. “My kids only know that place but I wanted them to see where their father came from,” he tells me, though the move back from Mendoza came with a unique twist – namely, his new job as general manager or gérant (to use the more quaint French) of the two wine estates owned by the Wertheimer family, the quietly patrician owners of Chanel who procured Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux (in 1994) and Château Canon in Saint-Émilion (in 1996). His official appointment in August 2015 came two months before the completion of an extensively renovated Château Canon, equipped now with guest rooms and even a private chef. In October 2015, the Wertheimers also bought the St Supéry estate in Napa Valley, which Audebert does not oversee (though he does visit to taste with his Californian counterparts).
Château Canon hails from an estate of 21.5 hectares under vine, currently planted at 70 percent Merlot and 30 percent Cabernet Franc, with an average production of 7,000 cases a year. Château Rauzan-Ségla offers slightly more, some 8,000 cases a year, with 51 hectares under vine, planted at 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 37.5 percent Merlot, 1.5 percent Petit Verdot and 1 percent Cabernet Franc. Both estates were accorded rave reviews for the new 2015 vintage, Château Canon scoring 98 points from The Wine Advocate, its reviewer Neal Martin gushing:“Nicolas Audebert, together with a benevolent growing season, has elevated Canon to a level that few would have predicted.” And, almost predictably, our interview flowed as smooth as his wines and as seamless as Chanel couture, in (so to speak) fine fashion.
Back in December 2014, I met your predecessor John Kolasa at a tasting he hosted and I remember particularly liking the Château Rauzan-Ségla 2006 and the Château Canon 2009. What do you prefer, from your two châteaux?
It depends on the vintage. For, say, 2009, I prefer Rauzan. Canon 2009 is fantastic but from my point of view it’s a little bit too much extremely fresh, fine and sharp, but the 2009 loses a bit of the spirit of Canon. It is more 2009 than it is Canon, if you know what I mean. It has too much maturity coming from the year. Rauzan 2009 has a better palate balance and it’s still Rauzan.
Why did John Kolasa leave, do you know?
He retired. He was 67 and decided it was time. It’s a lot of work, two estates with two different styles, far away from one another with different terroir, different winemaking. But we still talk and I still call him up if I have questions. In May 2014, I came back from Argentina and spent a year with John. I was working with him, and we had the chance to exchange a lot of ideas before he left in December 2014 and I took over.
At that tasting, John self-effacingly told me he was “merely a custodian of the heritage of the estate” and “I’m just passing by.” What’s your view about that?
In the same way as John, I would say I am here to express the terroir. John was doing that before and there were others before him, so I am one in the line. The quality is coming from the vineyards and the reputation, the history, is coming from the place and the terroir, but you need someone to drive it. You can have the fastest racehorse, the best horse ever, but if you don’t have a good jockey, you will never win. It’s what we try to do but I don’t want to have my style in front of it.
There are some famous winemakers you probably know, without naming any names, who are too famous – you open the bottle of wine without knowing where it comes from or which type of soil, whatever, but you know the winemaker. They give too much of their own taste, and that’s not my style. I want to express Canon and I want to express Rauzan, and my job is to do that but as two different styles, two properties at the same level of quality.
You’ve described your work in terms of “two great chateaux and their constant pursuit of precision.” What does precision mean to you?
It means that the small things can make a big difference. The details at the end are what’s important and my job is about getting all those details right. How can we do more? How can we go further?
For example, at Rauzan we did soil and subsoil analyses on all parts of the property. We have fourwheelers driving through every line of the vineyard, sending information about the soil back so we can get an idea of the structure of the soil. We map the soils and subsoils to get all the relevant details. We then know how and where to pick what grapes to go into what tanks. We choose certain grapes to go together with other grapes because we know they grew on similar types of soils.
There’s a lot of precision involved. Even with the vinification, we’re going in with much more precision now. For Canon, I do around 35 or 40 tanks and Rauzan I do 65 or 70 tanks of stainless steel fermentation, for more separation. To use an art analogy, there’s more colour on the palette.
I’m intrigued by the owners of a company such as Chanel investing in another area of high-end luxury. Why do they?
Because they love it, it’s as simple as that. They want to share like they share their jewellery, fashion and perfume. They are all based on the same things – excellence, craftsmanship, savoir faire – but I would also say that it could be Chanel or someone else, it doesn’t matter. They pay me to do the job and it’s my job to try to do my best because to have the chance to work for them means doing luxury things in a luxury way. Chanel has a very luxury vision of things and there is no exception when it comes to us.
Meaning wine is a luxury product even though it’s a different kind of business?
It is, and we should treat it as such. It’s a business for us like it is for Château Latour, owned by François Pinault, and a business for Château Cheval Blanc, owned by Bernard Arnault. But we’re different in a different way.
I’ve exchanged thoughts with Olivier Polge, the house perfumer at Chanel, on his job and my job. We have two different styles, but at the end of the day we’re doing exactly the same thing. We have the same way of seeing things. We have a vision of what we want and how we can turn that into our products, how to blend things and balance the components.
It’s about aroma, we play on the flavours of the wines, compare them, discuss the creativity involved. In the end, it’s all about vision.
So what’s your own vision?
One of pleasure. Everything has to be about pleasure. If you do something with pleasure, it will be better. I’m producing wine that’s for pleasure. You never drink wine alone on a bad day. You always drink wine with people to celebrate things. I produce something that will be part of the emotions of people who can enjoy the pleasure of celebration. It’s a product of pleasure done by people who love it, because you can’t do this job if you’re not passionate, and so you do it with pleasure, every day. I love what I do. I think it’s the best job ever, making wine. We are about agriculture but we turn that into emotion and into luxury. It’s fantastic.
I disagree with you on one point, though. I do sometimes drink wine alone on a bad day.
You’re right [laughs]. Of course, we’ve all done that!