Meeting the Vérité winemaker over a game of polo!

Wine

Wine and polo!

Jackson Family Wines

Founded in 1982, Jackson Family Wines is a collection of premium wineries owned privately by Barbara Banke and the Jackson family. Over many years, they have assembled a portfolio of esteemed vineyards and wineries along California's cool coastal ridges from Santa Barbara up through Monterey, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, as well as into Oregon's renowned Willamette Valley. Additionally, the company owns estates in St. Émilion, Tuscany, McLaren Vale and Chile. Each winery has its own winemaker, vineyards, varietal focus and unique style which showcase the particular terroir of its location. Above all, the Banke-Jackson family pride themselves on the quality of their wines, their stewardship of the land, their commitment to sustainable practices and their long-term distribution and wine community partnerships around the world.

Barbara Banke

Barbara Banke: image by Robin Goldsmith

Sonoma County

Sonoma County is a particularly diverse viticultural region. Due to the influence of the Pacific Ocean, the climate flows from west to east, rather than from north to south. This means that eastern inland appellations are warm and dry, ideal for Bordeaux varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The microclimates in each appellation are warm enough to fully ripen red Bordeaux varieties. The cooling breezes and moisture from the Pacific benefit the grapes, allowing them to retain the natural acidity needed to make high quality, age-worthy wines.

Wine

Brian Stein, Chairman of The Guards Polo Club, holding a bottle of Vérité wine

Vérité served in historic royal location

One of Jackson Family Wines' premium Sonoma wineries is the world-renowned Vérité, official red wine supplier for 2019 to Guards Polo Club in Windsor Great Park. Barbara Banke comments: "Vérité is one of the jewels of my family's portfolio and we are thrilled to be offering these wines at this historic and prestigious club for its members and distinguished guests."

Neil Hobday, Chief Executive of Guards Polo Club, is delighted about this exciting new partnership with Vérité. "Guards Polo Club prides itself on creating the benchmark of world-class polo and elegant hospitality that others strive to follow. An integrated partnership with a prestigious wine brand such as Vérité is perfect as it will enable us to deliver unrivalled opportunities for our esteemed patrons, players and members. Barbara Banke and her team at Jackson Family Wines represent the same core values as Guards Polo Club. We look forward to working closely with them on introducing Vérité to our own distinguished audience."

The winemaker

Vérité is the creation of international winemaker Pierre Seillan and visionary founder of Jackson Family Wines, Jess Jackson. On 23rd June, just before the Royal Windsor Cup Final 2019 at Guards Polo Club, Pierre spoke about his philosophy and the history of Vérité, before leading a tasting of some of his iconic wines.

Winetasting

Monique and Pierre Seillan

Seillan's early years

Pierre Seillan and his wife Monique look back at their life in wine with visible pride, passion and joy. "2018 was the 52nd year of my career making wine with the 22nd vintage of Vérité this year", he announces with unbridled, yet naturally unassuming enthusiasm. There's no hint of self-aggrandisement, just recognition of a life well spent with an enduring legacy for the Californian wine industry.

Pierre was born in Gascony in 1950 and raised not far from Saint-Émilion in a farming and winemaking family. He is the sixth generation and one of his ancestors, Jules Seillan, created the oenology map of Armagnac in the mid-1800s and was also among the first to understand the need to graft US rootstock to combat phylloxera. In addition to farming and viticulture, Pierre's father continued the tradition of his family uncle who owned a cork factory in Lavardac, close to La Musée du Liège, the cork museum. So Pierre's early life set the theme for his future career. "From around 1963/1964 and living in Gascony, I developed a passion for farming", he remembers very clearly. "I worked with my father and decided to stop school at age 16. I wanted to work on the farm with vineyards and with animals".

Importance of terroir

The lure of viticulture and crucially the impact of terroir set strong roots in the young Seillan during this period. Noting the "polyculture mosaic" of different forms of farming and viticulture and the fact that the Gascon people had made their own classification of terroir, this became for him "a sort of inspiration and aspiration", he recalls.

Having met Monique and frustrated by the lack of winemaking control with wine sold in bulk to négociants, he became an intern for a relation in the Médoc. He then had an opportunity to become one of the first exchange students between the US and France, so headed to California for an eight month internship. Based in the Temecula Valley in the southern part of the state, an area he saw as too hot for growing good quality grapes, this nevertheless proved a valuable life experience. "It's good to learn what not to do when you're in the wrong place, because you save time", Pierre explains with characteristic bonhomie. "That's why passing eight months in Temecula was positive at the end."

Managing terroir

"The roots need to be as deep as possible to capture the rare nutrients - the message of the soil."

Returning home to France, Pierre became Technical Director at Château de Targé in the Loire Valley. He spent three years learning about the terroir and specifically the influence of tuffeau, the indigenous and unique, soft limestone rock perfect for producing elegant Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. It was here that he also began to understand how to manage vineyards, particularly the relationship between canopy control and health of the root systems.

This realisation was to form a defining ethos of his career. Moving to Bordeaux for the next 20 years, Pierre made wine at eight châteaux for Raoul and Jean Quancard. Gaining greater understanding of the many terroir nuances across the region, he developed his micro-cru concept of building the architecture of his wines. Not allowed to blend across regions, apart from potentially creating table wines, he felt that it would be possible to "build an architecture on the wines that could be better than the top Grands Crus Classés."

Origins of Vérité

Meeting Barbara and Jess Jackson in the mid-1990s allowed Pierre to pursue his dream of making wines with "distinction, elegance and complexity", based on the different terroirs of California. His experiences in Temecula led him to choose Sonoma over Napa because of the region's diurnal range with cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean mitigating the heat of the summer sun. Vérité was born.

"If you ask me to make a copy of Bordeaux, I will refuse."

Pierre was clear from the start that he wanted to make wines his way, according to his micro-cru philosophy. "My vision began a long time ago when I was probably frustrated in Bordeaux. [There was] too much input of only oenology and not speaking about soil, terroir, micro-crus, message of the soil and the different energy you put in a different wine."

When Jess Jackson asked him if he could make a Merlot "as good as Pétrus", Pierre's candid response was revealing of his whole approach to winemaking. "As good, I don't know, but why not better? Anybody who wants to make a copy never learns anything!"

Micro-crus at Vérité

Vérité is the French word for 'truth' and echoes Jess Jackson's belief in reflecting the 'truth of the soil' in these wines. Founded in 1998 with first plantings the following year, Vérité combines the winemaking traditions of France with the large diurnal range, diverse microclimates, soils and hillside aspects of Sonoma County. Over 50 small, hand farmed, low-yielding vineyard blocks - the micro-crus - with many different soil types across the region allow a variety of expressions from each grape variety. The region also benefits from post-sunset humidity, which helps leaf respiration and photosynthesis.

Vineyard
Subregions
Pierre's micro-cru philosophy is based on four distinct appellations:-
Uniqueness of Vérité

The unique story of Vérité extends in more directions than immediately obvious. For example, right from the start 22 years ago, he developed a method of irrigation for the first five years of a vine's life. This delivers just the right amount of water needed directly to the roots using a stake and dripper line extending 30cm underground. "The deeper you are, the closer to the moisture you are and that's where the terroir is."

Vineyard

Pierre believes in building "the architecture of the roots underground" and in the need to adjust farming to produce lower yields. Once the root system is established, he favours dry farming when he can start to capture the "message of the soil", using organic fertiliser and no glyphosates. This ethos is inextricably linked to pruning and canopy management with a close eye kept on shoot sizes to observe the health of each individual vine. "You have to consider each wine like a [different] person. Il ne faut pas généraliser au pluriel!"

Coopering

The visionary Jess Jackson had become concerned with the inconsistent quality of the oak barrels he was buying in. Therefore, in a joint venture with the Boswell family of Missouri who made oak barrels for US whiskey, they purchased a small saw mill in the cool, shady forests of the Vosges mountains, converting it into one of the largest stave mills in France.

Pierre has fully embraced Jess' vision and has complete control over the sourcing, labelling and toasting of his 'cool climate' wood. Once a tree is cut, it's scanned and goes to the stave mill. During this process, Pierre's attention to detail is hugely influential. When a tree trunk is split, he explains, individual staves can show different colours from pink to brown, the latter pinpointing more astringent tannins. In order to accurately classify the exact type of grain, he uses an optical sorting machine. So, if he wants a very fine grain to impart tannins more slowly and elegantly, this can be precisely identified.

All the barrels he uses are manufactured in Bordeaux at a cooperage established by the Boswells. They are individually labelled with the name of the forest where the wood came from, the precise location within that forest and a code showing the grain type identified by the optical sorting machine. Additionally, Pierre has several toasts he prescribes, including his own custom toasts which are denoted on the barrels as PS plus a number.

Barrels
Micro-Cru philosophy extends to the barrels

He has taken the micro-cru concept and applied it to the wood, recognising the terroir effects on oak and the differences in grain, vanillin and tannin levels. "The idea of the trees continues all the way to the barrel", he describes. "When I want 25 barrels from Tronçais, I know exactly where the trees are coming from - if they're on top of a hill or on the slopes. I have total control of the wood as I do with the grapes."

For Pierre, each Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon in each individual barrel has its own 'energy' and understanding this is key to the final blends which change every vintage according to climatic variations. "I am not blending", he assuredly states. "I'm a vigneron and I don't use that word! I'm building an architecture on the wine. I raise the gravity centre, but I never want to forget elegance and finesse… You need to detect where is the gravity centre of your final blend to decide the style and to continue that style."

Wine
The wines

Each vintage, the winery releases three Bordeaux-inspired blends, La Muse, La Joie and Le Désir. While all three wines show great balance and texture when young, they have the weight and foundation to age for many years. They are aged in new French oak, but the wood is used for its softening influence, not for flavour. "Oak in wine should be like a ghost. You sense its presence, but you don't actually perceive it", says Pierre.

Pierre regards 2015 as among the best three vintages he's made in the last 21 years, showing richness, complexity, elegance, minerality and good acidity. A warm, sunny summer followed a wet winter and cold spring. The early harvest then yielded low quantities of high quality, small, juicy berries with wines showing great intensity and ageing potential.

Three vintages were tasted during the day - 2015, 2013 and 2008, which gave an insight into the evolution of these wines and the directions in which they are still going.

La Muse

La Muse is considered a "Right Bank" or Pomerol style wine showing elegance and finesse, made from a Merlot dominated blend (minimum 88%). The 2017 is 100% Merlot.

La Muse displays plenty of fresh, red and black fruit notes when young, with bright acidity and youthful, but not aggressive tannins plus a hint of the sweeter, more developed spice to come from ageing in bottle. The older vintages show greater aromatics and spice, softer, more mature and supple fruit notes with tertiary flavours and hints of truffle starting to come through. The alcohol warmth, which is more evident on the 2015, becomes better integrated (albeit with very slightly lower ABV) in the older vintages.

La Joie

La Joie can be seen as a "Left Bank" or Pauillac wine, demonstrating richness and power from predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon.

La Joie is fresh, fruity, clean and tight when young with blackcurrants, cherries and hints of plums plus green herbs making their presence felt. Fine-grained, elegant but grippy tannins are evident in the very youthful 2015, but it's clear that all the components are there for a great wine. A feeling of silky smooth chocolate and milky coffee develops in the older vintages with rounder fruit, cassis, graphite and hints of smoke. Even at 11 years old, the 2008 is still a baby with many years of life ahead.

Le Désir

Le Désir is chiefly made from Cabernet Franc and illustrates the opulence and grace reminiscent of the best wines from Saint-Émilion.

Le Désir offers a shimmering veil of seduction that takes you on a journey of discovery and leaves you wanting more. The younger vintages show floral notes, fresh red and black fruit with hints of violets, thyme and some developing savoury complexity. While a touch stalky in its youth, the greener notes never feel aggressive or astringent. As the wine ages, notes of cocoa powder, chocolate and liquorice play joyfully with spice, hints of tobacco and dried herbs, while the fine, delicate tannins feel particularly subtle and beautifully integrated in the 2008. The alcohol level in the three vintages never feels prominent, even at 14.4% ABV in the 2015 and 2013 (the 2008 is 14%).

All these wines are young and Pierre reckons the 2015s can age for 40 years, while the 2008s another 20 or 30 years.

Winetasting
A Positive Future

Pierre believes in allowing the soil every opportunity to express its diversity in the grapes - 'le droit du sol' or 'right of the soil'. He is clear that Vérité is in the best location to continue making his style of wine. "I am so pleased to be in Sonoma to make the wine I can dream [about] with the presence of Mother Nature and so much diversity. I'm sure the future is fantastic for Sonoma County. It's one of the best places in the world for elegance, finesses and complexity."

Pierre's philosophy defines his wines and he has worked hard to establish his style. He and Monique talk with pride of how their children have decided to become involved in the business, along with the second generation of the Jackson Family. This was something they didn't know when starting their Sonoma adventure and will surely help continue the visionary winemaking ethos of Pierre Seillan and Jess Jackson.

Pierre is hopeful that his approach may inspire others in California to improve quality and produce wines with greater subtlety and less heavy mouthfeel. "Not everyone can afford the Vérité style, but it can influence the style of many winemakers with lower alcohol, shorter barrel ageing and more finesse."

Conclusion

If ever there were a need to dispel the idea of over-extracted, oaky Californian wines, then Vérité is the proof! These are elegant, stylish, age-worthy, terroir-expressive Sonoma wines with gorgeously integrated spice and tannins. They rely on the winemaking skill and passion of a man who knows exactly what he is doing and why. Although producing top quality wine is a multi-faceted process, one fact is indisputable. Great wine relies on the quality of those troublesome little berries. "I am not an oenologue, but a vigneron", he says. "When you're a vigneron, you need to produce the best grapes. Don't take the best grapes in your vineyard, but make the best grapes. This is what I'm doing everywhere."

… and who could argue with that?

A different version of this article was originally published in IWC Canopy

Images provided by Luxx PR, unless otherwise stated.

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