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The Négociants – Part 1

Whether for red or white wine, Burgundy is often referred to as a minefield – frankly if you don’t know the names of the producers or the regions then this could be a general rule for all wines and their associated countries. For Burgundy, the bewildering array of vineyard names on the labels certainly contribute to people’s problems but the real crux of the ‘minefield’ is down to the person who has put the wine into the bottle. Like it or not, not all of those people know how to make good (let alone great) wine. Some are interested in producing absolutely the finest wine possible but some are in it for the money !!

There are literally thousands of producers in the Côte d’Or and though there might be only be a few who produce a wine such as the red ‘Grand Cru’ – Griotte-Chambertin, you will find literally hundreds who have their name printed on a bottle of Beaune. Okay, Beaune has many vineyards with many owners so perhaps you shouldn’t be so surprised, but, for a moment let us come back to our example of the Griotte-Chambertin, just because only 8 people might own a piece of this vineyard doesn’t necessarily mean you will only find 8 examples, for instance :

  • You will of course find examples which the vineyard owner has produced
  • You might find examples where the vineyard owner makes the wine, but sells it before bottling. The new owner bottles the wine and sells it – this is our friend the Négociant.
  • The vineyard owners might prefer to sell the grapes direct and not make any wine – true farmers if you like. In this case the négociant has to make the wine too. These are usually referred to as the Négociant-Eleveurs as they also ‘bring-up’ the wine too

Or how about a combination of all 3? Now we could have many different versions and all subtly different. There is even the possibility that some vineyard owners who make wine (domaines) also buy in as a négociant but make only the slightest alteration to their label – you would be forgiven for not noticing.

Most people aim to make decent wine and we should not detract from their motives or efforts particularly given the high cost of land – starting as a négociant is often the only way to get into the business. Négociants can also, however, be the last resort of scoundrels. Even négociants sell to other négociants if they don’t like how their wines are turning out – you don’t want to be buying wine at this end of the chain!

The minefield referred to at the top of this page is when the differences in wine quality are not very subtle. This might not necessarily be due to bad winemaking or ‘over-cropping’ to maximise on revenue with resulting dilute wines, though this is certainly a possibility. Stylistic differences from different uses of oak during aging could be culprits. Imagine then if you can, the situation of the ‘Grand Cru’ of Clos de Vougeot that has over 80 owners – how do you know if you’re buying a good one ?

So is there a way out of this minefield? Actually yes, or a short-cut at least; Instead of doing the ‘hard work’ of reading every review and learning the names of the best producers from each region, you could simply choose to buy wine from a reliable Négociant who makes the particular style that you enjoy. If you choose a larger firm, you could theoretically have access to as many as 100 different wines. So what do we know about the Négociant firms?

THE NÉGOCIANTS

These are actually some of the oldest companies in the Côte d’Or, tracing their origins back as far as the 1700’s in some cases. The old established négociants are actually owners of vineyards themselves too, and some of the biggest at that. This enables them to augment their own vineyard production of, for instance, Beaune 1er Cru, Grèves, with grapes and wine produced by others, thus boosting production to 1,000 cases of wine instead of perhaps 100. For the larger ‘buying organisations’ such as supermarkets and chains of wine-stores the négociant is their only realistic supply option.
Historically there were other reasons for local growers to sell to négociants;

  • in years past, large wine presses could be afforded only by négociants and the church !
  • domaine bottling was also impossible prior to the introduction of cheap(er) mobile units
  • finally, who could they sell to? It was really only into the 1950’s before travelers or tourists would pass by their cellar doors with any regularity.

The BIVB (Bureau Interprofessional des Vins de Bourgogne) lists over 200 organisations who buy wine or grapes for their trade, though only just over 100 have any significant size. There are an ‘elite tier’ négociants who also own their own vineyards that ought to be well known to you; based in Beaune they are also among of the oldest companies in Burgundy, so in alphabetical order, here is a selection:

  • Bouchard Père et Fils
    Pure, fresh whites with subtle oaking. Reds with good fruit extract and tannic structure which should repay storage
  • Joseph Drouhin
    Similarly pure, fresh whites with subtle oaking. Reds with less obvious structure, but richer with lush, beautiful fruit
  • Louis Jadot
    A very big range. Usually excellent examples, but to my taste occasional wines can be quite oaky while young

Click on the name to get specific information and tasting notes.

Next issue: The négociants part 2 – do they need to have been in existence for 150 years to make good wine?

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?