On the Trail

Les Maisons de Chanel

David Driscoll

When the word leaked out last year that two major critics had rated Château Canon's 2015 vintage a perfect 100 point score, murmurs of shock and awe began to resonate throughout the industry. Typically that kind of hype on Bordeaux's Right Bank was reserved for the grand properties like Petrus, Cheval Blanc, and Ausone—wines that sell for many hundreds if not thousands of dollars a bottle. Yet, somehow a little property in St. Emilion that typically sells for around a hundred bucks or less (a price that most collectors wouldn't bat an eye at in the realm of today's trophy bottles) managed to steal the show. We stopped by the estate right after the scores had been released and there was definitely a buzz in the air. Our team was chomping at the bit to get a taste of the new release. Sure enough, we were all taken aback by the quality, but for the team at Canon the achievement was no real surprise; this exciting development was no fluke accident. Since the fashion house Chanel first purchased the château back in the mid-nineties, along with Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux, there has been serious investment in the both the vineyard and the winery. The property's twenty year road to success began under the stewardship of a man named John Kolasa, who came over from Château Latour in 1994 to manage Rauzan-Ségla and who eventually took over duties at Canon in 1996 as well. What was his secret to success, you ask? It's simple: he wasn't in a hurry. 

There's little argument in today's wine industry that the best wines come from great terroir. Unfortunately, not every great vineyard in this world is planted to its fullest potential or farmed in accordance with its character. Rather than attempt an easy fix—a knee-jerk reaction to the results-driven expectations of our modern age—Kolasa took a slow pace and decided to use the investment money from Chanel to re-establish the foundation of any great wine: it's vineyards. "I tried to valorize the job of the vigneron," he said in a 2012 interview. Year by year, vintage by vintage, that focus on viticulture became palpable in the wine itself, one slow step at a time—not just at Château Canon, mind you, but at Rauzan-Segla as well. The properties expanded, replanted, and revitalized their vineyards, even adding new plots dedicated exclusively to organic farming. It wasn't without irony that a man employed by the world's most iconic fashion brand was bringing glamor back to a hard day's work in the field, yet the value of quality and timelessness was not lost on Chanel's own illustrious figurehead Karl Lagerfeld, who personally came out to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Rauzan-Segla and pay tribute Kolasa's accomplishments. In 2014, after twenty years working for the company, John Kolasa retired and made way for Nicolas Audebert, a precocious winemaker who had previously worked at Krug and Cheval des Andes and specialized in vineyard management. "He comes with a strong technical background in agronomy and engineering, which is what is needed today. The next twenty years in classified Bordeaux is going to be all about improvements in the vineyards, how to read the soil and give it what it needs," Kolasa told Decanter of Audebert in January of 2015. It would only take the young winemaker one full vintage to prove his worth.

Audebert's debut vintage netted Château Canon its first real masterpiece and he credits the relationship with Chanel for aiding his efforts. "We share the same philosophy, the same values, the same obsession for quality," he told Le Pan Magazine this past December, echoing many of the same sentiments shared by his predecessor; "Chanel is not a house that wants to make something fast for tomorrow; they take the time to do things, so they understand that we do that. To create great wines takes money and time. Chanel No. 5 and some handbag designs have remained the same for many years, they don't change with trends. We are like that; we produce wine as it was done fifty or even one hundred years ago." While it didn't get nearly the attention that Canon did, his 2015 Rauzan-Segla was no slouch either and our entire team agreed it was one of the top wines from Margaux that vintage (and we all thought Margaux showed best of the various Bordeaux communes). Netting a monster 98 point score from the Wine Advocate, the publication called it "a benchmark wine for the estate" and, to be honest, I thought it was better than the Canon. In conversations, however, Audebert revealed that he's still learning what makes each property tick and how best to service the many vines at his behest. If that's true, then the foundational work of Kolasa will continue to be refined by Audebert, slowly and methodically improved upon with a firm commitment to quality

It took Chanel two decades to get both Canon and Rauzan-Segla to this point, but nearly a century after Coco first opened her boutique on the Rue Cambon, they've clearly learned that great things take time. That time for greatness from both these properties is thankfully just getting started and for finicky Bordeaux drinkers there's never been a better time to buy in. Don't just limit yourself to the Audebert's 2015 releases, however. Go back and taste the evolution of Kosala's work with top values like the 2006 or 2012 Canon that both offer supreme concentration of fruit, and the 2001 Rauzan-Segla, which to me showcases the soft and velvety texture that makes the Margaux property one of the great second growths within reach. 

Of course, if you really want a history lesson you can check out the 2005 Rauzan-Segla that received a second heaping of praise twelve years after the vintage from a tasting group of the world's top critics. Sometimes the best things take time in the bottle as well. 

-David Driscoll