Interview with John Kolasa, Winemaker at Chateau Rauzan-Ségla, Margaux, France
by Jeff Harding
In 2011, Chateau Rauzan-Ségla celebrated its 350th anniversary and bottled its 2009 vintage, lauded as the best in decades, not just at Rauzan but in all of Bordeaux. Taking advantage of in-house connections (they were acquired by Chanel in 1994) to celebrate the anniversary and the ’09 vintage, the label is illustrated by fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. Although a second growth estate by the 1855 classification, Rauzan-Ségla is often considered a “Super Second,” among the elites of the Deuxièmes Crus of Bordeaux.
Scottish-born John Kolasa came onboard as managing director at Chateau Rauzan-Ségla (from Chateau Latour) after its purchase by Chanel, and has been the driving force behind its return to its historic place as one of the best wines in Margaux. He is also the managing director at Chateau Canon.
Jeff Harding: I understand you supervised a huge investment in refurbishing the property, and you reduced your production by half to increase the quality of the wine. How else does it affect the winemaker when a big company like Chanel purchases the chateau?
John Kolasa: It’s very reassuring, actually. One would think that it could put a lot of pressure on you, but the way the [Wertheimer] family sees things is very simple, and it’s the best way to look at wine. They respect the history of the chateau and they respect the quality of the wine. Knowing that Bordeaux has to make wines that will age to a certain extent, all they said was: “Don’t worry about figures. Just do what you think is best for Rauzan-Ségla, and bring out the best wines.”
JH: When did you start Rauzan’s second label, Ségla?
JK: Ségla existed before we got there but on a much smaller scale, more symbolic than anything else, because the people before us tried to sell the property twice. I think it was part of the display that they wanted at the time but it wasn’t taken very seriously.
JH: But it seems that second labels are becoming more popular and well known as a good value.
JK: My history is with one of the best second wines that exist today, Les Forts de Latour at Chateau Latour. As far as I’m concerned, people need to have a good experience [with Ségla] because it’s a way of helping to educate and introduce people to fine wine. We’ve got to make good Ségla, and people have got to have a great experience. From a quality point of view, I have the same philosophy that we follow for the Ségla. People recognize the name, obviously, the bottle looks like Rauzan-Ségla, and our name is on the bottle as well.
JH: I find people remember the wine; they come back and want it again. If it were me, I’d want to save up and then splurge on a bottle of Rauzan-Ségla, after trying the second label.
JK: It’s the most flattering thing what you’ve just said. It’s not all about being too pompous and fussy about things, to talk about points and stars and technical details. Wine is about drinking and pleasure and having a good time. There’s no better flattery to any wine maker than the guy who says, “Can I have some more?”
For example, you have all these garage wines, these California culty wines. I’ve been to many tastings and dinners, and people bring all these bottles but nobody empties them. And that’s not a good sign. They are competition wines and nothing else. They’re not really wines made for drinking, which it’s a great shame. But I think times are changing.
JH: Where does the Ségla name come from?
JK: It’s a family name. The property was divided before the French Revolution. The property was split into two, as there were two families: one became Chateau Rauzan-Gassies and one became Rauzan-Ségla. But we had the same grandfather, Pierre de Rauzan, who created the property by starting to buy plots of land in 1650. He was one of the pioneers who brought the vines into the Medoc. He was such a pioneer that he managed to become fermier of Chateaux Margaux and Latour at the time. He was a very important figure in the history of Bordeaux and in the implantation of vineyards in the Medoc.
JH: I sometimes find a note of eucalyptus in Bordeaux wines. Where does that come from?
JK: Eucalyptus doesn’t grow in Bordeaux at all. When people talk about eucalyptus in wine, it’s more a menthol freshness that you sometimes find in blends with a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon or vines that grow next to pine forests. When you go to the Graves area and look at, say, Lafite, Carbonnieux, and Domaine de Chevalier, there’s a sort of a pine wood influence. It’s not in the soil, because the trees are a long way from vines, but it’s probably more in the atmosphere, from the pine trees that are all the way around [the properties].
JH: What blend of grapes do you use in the ’09, and does it change from year to year?
JK: The ‘09 is 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 40 percent Merlot, but it is changing.
In general, what’s happening in Bordeaux, especially in the Medoc, is that there’s more and more Cabernet Sauvignon. Why? Because Merlot in the Medoc is planted on gravel with clay underneath, and you need time to get the vine itself to grow the root system deep enough to get to the clay and maintain its freshness, because that’s what Merlot needs. It needs a certain power and strength from the clay.
But for Cabernet Sauvignon it’s gravel and gravel and gravel. Nothing but gravel. So a lot of people are finding that their Merlot suffering a great deal in the Medoc because of global warming. This is not necessarily higher temperature [in Bordeaux]. If you look at the temperature over the last 20 years there is very little increase in temperature. The major change as far as global warming is the lack of water. Drought. So the root system itself has to go deeper and deeper and Cabernet is tough enough to be able to do that and adapt, it just goes deeper and deeper every time.
But the Merlot doesn’t have that opportunity. So people are tending to plant less Merlot, and certainly put less Merlot into their blends. Because a vine that suffers during the growing season—June, July, and August—doesn’t feed its little ones as it should. If a plant is suffering, it will make reserves for itself, it will react in a different way, and that means that you are collecting grapes that don’t have that fullness, or lusciousness, on the inside. They haven’t been fed; they don’t have the complexity. So when you make the tanks of Merlot and you taste those tanks versus the Cabernet and Petit Verdot, you find wines that tend to dilute. On the Right Bank, they’re not suffering in the same way because the clay is more prominent and the Merlot is surviving much better.
We’ve had a bit of rain this winter but certainly not enough. It could rain for six months nonstop before we could recuperate the water tables that we had 20 years ago. But if it continues this way it means there’s going to be a lot more Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, and no Cabernet Franc in the Medoc. Certainly not. So there are trials being held to introduce new grape varieties in Bordeaux. They’ve been trying to plant some Syrah and things like that. It’s global change. The scientists and researchers, everybody is thinking about trying out different things at the moment.
JH: So I just tasted the 2009 vintage. What am I supposed to look for in tasting a young Bordeaux, to know how it’s going age or if it’s going be a great wine in 10, 20, or 30 years?
JK: If people are looking at you and you seem in good health, and you look lively and fresh, well it’s bit like that looking at a wine to see what’s inside. At the end of the day, you’re looking for a certain balance of things. A wine’s got to have a certain brilliance and depth about it. And then the taste must be balanced from beginning to end, with no flaws in the middle palate. Look for a good first taste, with all the fruit and lusciousness, no hole in the middle, then that lingering taste which shouldn’t be vegetal, or hard, or dry or anything like that. It just lingers on the palate, which is good for food because it’s made to go with food. It has to have a certain amount of freshness. We like to think that we make wines with a certain freshness.
One of the mistakes I think vintners make in Bordeaux—and other places as well, even in white wine—is over-ripening their grapes. The grapes then tend to flaw and become flabby after five or six years, which is a great shame because the wines lose that freshness, density, and vivacity. I want the vivacity of wine: the backbone of the wine is acidity. Tannins and acidity.
JH: I see that you use egg whites for your fining. Why is that, and why isn’t the practice more common?
JK:Because it’s a lot of work! We use fresh, natural egg whites that come in packets of 20 eggs, and we usually use the equivalent of about four to five eggs per barrel. It’s done by hand. Eggs are put into barrels, mixed up and left there for six or seven weeks. Then we have to come back and draw out the wine with candlelight to make sure it’s perfect. It’s a long process and in today’s world (especially in France’s 35-hour work week), it’s a costly process. So a lot of people are trying to find ways of cutting costs [and use other methods], but we make wine that’s going to be kept 20 to 50 years or more. We want to stay as natural as possible, and respect the product as naturally as possible, so we do it. We do it the old way, but we do it. And we know we’re not bringing any outside elements to the wine itself. It stays natural, and the egg white is also good for the wine because it cleans it out as well, and brings it together. It knits things together in your wine.
JH: What do you think about the term “Super Second?” Is it insulting or is it a good thing?
JK: Logically it was invented in the race for points and stars, with the en primeur system we have today. Normally it should denote a certain price bracket for the wines. We might be seen as a Super Second, but certainly not in price. If you take the other real Super Seconds like Chateau L'Angélus, Chateau Cos d'Estournel, Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, they are Super Seconds but they’re are over 100 Euros a bottle, whereas we are far from that in price. But it’s very good if people see us as a Super Second in quality, that’s all we’re looking for. We still want to give our buyers a good deal. When you buy a [Bordeaux] wine you’re not [necessarily] going to drink it straight away. Your son might drink it, or your grandson might drink it, you never know. So to start off expensive and not give any latitude to the collector’s psychology, because that’s what it’s all about really, it’s cherishing something for a long time and keeping it. If people start off too high [in price], they’re losing all the charm of buying en primeur, which is a great system for selling wine. If you imagine that everything is sold and paid for before it leaves the chateau, it’s a fantastic way of bringing in money on a regular basis, without the risk.
But people have gone too far. “Super Second!” It’s part of an era in Bordeaux, the last 10 or 15 years. People are lazy unfortunately, lazier and lazier. Things have to be simplified, so they need points, they need stars, they need a reference. Is it a classified fourth, fifth, or second? “Oh, it’s a Super Second, that’s even easier! I’ll go for that!” We continue to try and promote the culture of Bordeaux, the culture of wine, and get people to talk about the wine itself, to get them saying, “I like this!” We come back to the glass again. “Can I have some more please? I like this.” Nobody should be ashamed of saying, “I like this and I want some more.” It’s only wine.
JH: Are you selling much to the BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India, China] countries, and how is that influencing your work?
JK: Well, it just gives us more work, because we have to go to more places to promote the wines. China has bought a lot of Bordeaux in the last few months. That will calm down now because we’ve been filling a pipeline from Bordeaux for the past three years. That pipeline is full at the other end, and now we’ve got to get people drinking it. Wine is not like Coca Cola, or cars even, because you can buy a car, it’s delivered, you get in to it, and you use it. The shipping and drinking of wine is the changing of habits. It’s part of a culture and they don’t have that culture yet. But China has the interest.
[The wine culture of] Brazil is relatively young and growing, but slowly; they have a huge tax problem there and the prices go up [making Bordeaux wine unaffordable]. India is just not there. There is a 400 percent tax in India. The few Indians who have the [wine-drinking] culture that was left by the British are people in business. They travel, they probably buy wine in Europe when they come, but within India itself it’s not there.
JH: Have you heard of the Japanese manga comic book The Drops Of God? I’ve heard that it’s having a huge influence in the wine markets of Asia.
JK: I know about it, but haven’t read it. I know that’s it triggered a lot of interest, especially in Japan. It’s not negative. It might be the sort of thing you would think was degrading to Bordeaux, but I don’t see it that way. The more we talk about Bordeaux and the more we talk about wine the better, because wine is good for your health and your spirit. That’s what the Chinese have learned. That’s why wine [culture] has developed in China. The Chinese government has a big problem with alcoholism. I mean people have meals with Cognac in China. Can you imagine? They fall sleep after the meal and they can’t leave [the restaurant] for an hour [or more, because] they’ve fallen asleep. They lay on the floor and sleep. So the Chinese government itself is trying to do all they can to get people to drink wine instead of spirits. And the vineyards planted in China are as big as all of Bordeaux, it’s just not all in production yet. So there’s going to be a new culture, a new philosophy coming out in China as well. They are a very proud, nationalistic people so they’ll probably want to drink Chinese wine before other wines. And it might hurt Bordeaux sales, but they are a long way from competing with us [in quality]. We shall see.