Back in Bordeaux: Château Rauzan-Ségla
Once an impressive Second Growth, then fallen on sour times, the Bordeaux property needed a dedicated winemaker—and found just the man.
Château Rauzan-Ségla used to be one of the best wines in all of Bordeaux. Then, because of very poor management and neglect, it fell into disrepair and the wine and its reputation suffered. Happily for wine lovers, what could still be a sad story isn’t. A different ownership and in particular an inspired winemaker have brought Château Rauzan-Ségla back to its rightful award-winning place in Bordeaux.
Michael Aaron, chairman emeritus of New York wine merchants Sherry-Lehmann, remembers just how bad things were at Château Rauzan-Ségla: “The place was an absolute disaster; the vineyards were in incredibly bad condition. They were making mediocre wines and the chateau was an absolute mess.” One might say it looked like a roadside whorehouse, he adds.
So what happened?
The Rise and Fall
Château Rauzan-Ségla was founded in 1661 by Pierre de Rauzan. One hundred years later it enjoyed such repute that Thomas Jefferson paid it a visit in 1787 on his tour of Bordeaux. He liked it so much that, when back in America, he ordered several cases of the wine. It was still considered a great wine in the 19th century when the French government classified all Bordeaux wines in 1855, designating them First Growths, Second Growths, etc., according to quality. Château Rauzan-Ségla was accorded the prestigious designation of a Second Growth in the French government decree.
However, it seems Bordeaux chateaux are destined, like any other institution, to experience good times and bad, and as there are 171 classed growths, it is inevitable that some of them are in decline at any one time.
For Rauzan, it was a case of a series of absentee owners culminating with George Walker, British ex-boxing champion and failed businessman of less-than-savoury reputation who apparently used Rauzan as a playpen—there was a gazebo with a circular plastic dome and mirrored walls attached to the chateau—and it’s safe to assume that the life of a winemaker was not a high priority during Walker’s visits to Bordeaux.
The Rehabilitation Begins
What was desperately needed was new ownership, which Château Rauzan-Ségla received in 1994 when bought by the Wertheimer brothers, owners of Chanel Inc. But there is no great wine without a great winemaker, which they urgently needed.
John Kolasa was born of a Scottish mother and Polish father and was brought up first in England and then, as a teenager, in France, where he fell in love with the place. He was living in Bordeaux working on the docks for a négociant (a specialty wine merchant) by his early 20s. But not for long. Through hard work and inherent integrity, by the early ’90s he had risen to the pinnacle of the Bordeaux wine world as commercial director at Château Latour, a legendary First Growth. Who better, thought the new owners?
“I eventually gave them my yes, but I took my time,” Kolasa says. “When you’ve worked very hard and you’ve got to the top in Bordeaux, it’s difficult to say, ‘I’ll step down’ because it wasn’t to go to another First Growth.” But the challenge, and the resources and backing offered by the Wertheimers, proved irresistible.
Kolasa’s first task was to clean up the vineyards. He replanted hectares of vines and put in new drains. With good drainage, the vines are forced to push down deeper roots and absorb more of the complex minerals that give great wine its personality.
Then there was the winery. All the vats were the same size. This didn’t allow him to vinify individual plots separately. “You were blending before you even made the wine,” he says, “so it’s very difficult to understand what’s happening in the vineyard. The only way to understand a vineyard is to split things up, do what the French call saucissonnage.” So he replaced most of the large fermenting tanks with smaller ones. These improved techniques and others like them were the key to the recovery.
The New Chateau
Renown has returned. Last November, Wine Spectator named the 2005 vintage as runner-up in its 2008 Wine of the Year competition, and Michael Broadbent, senior consultant, Christie’s International Wine Department, says, “[Château] Rauzan-Ségla certainly deserves far wider recognition.”
The most visible evidence of the transformation of Rauzan is the house itself, which, under the direction of New York architect Peter Marino, has been restored to an exquisite gem of French 19th-century elegance.
Sherry-Lehmann’s Aaron appreciates these accomplishments: “John Kolasa is one of the best managers in Bordeaux,” he says. “It’s a very exciting story—they have gone from making very mediocre wines to world-class wines. What they did was to take what was an ugly duckling and turn it into not just a swan but a majestic swan.”