La Place de Bordeaux – or how Bordeaux works.

 If you are not familiar with Bordeaux you could be forgiven for thinking that ‘La Place de Bordeaux’ describes one of the beautiful 18th century squares – there are plenty to choose from. In fact this is the description the trade uses for the system of selling Bordeaux through merchants and brokers (or courtiers) that has its origins in the Middle Ages. A request from a wine school student about how it all works made me think that others may require a little enlightenment too so here goes.

 La Place de Bordeaux?

La Place de Bordeaux?

There are currently 7 900 growers, 300 Negociants and 95 Brokers in Bordeaux. The wine merchants sell 70% of Bordeaux wine, by volume, into over 160 countries. Some negociants tend to be specialised in a specific sector, whether it is a geographical region or a market segment such as supermarkets, restaurants, etc. 8 of these 300 companies have a turnover of over €50 million and represent 57% of the total business. These larger companies tend to be ‘negociant-eleveurs’ a title that explains that they do not simply buy and sell wines but take an active role in blending and ageing them too.

 Why would a chateau choose to sell via a negociant, giving up a profit margin rather than selling directly? The obvious advantage is that it allows their wines to be presented all over the world through a range of different channels. Unlike some new world producers, a Bordeaux chateau normally only produces 3 or 4 wines. Selling these wines directly entails international travel, language and administrative skills and personnel. The average size of a Bordeaux property is 14ha, producing somewhere in the region of 80 000 bottles, this may sound a lot but can rarely generate enough volume or income to merit an international sales force.  Selling to negociants is a lot simpler and should allow the international reach to maintain a presence in the major markets. The margins are lower certainly, but so is the cost to sell. It is more cost effective for a negociant with a portfolio of hundreds of wines, chosen from the 60 different Bordeaux appellations, styles and price points, to travel the world selling and promoting them all than it is for a property with only 3 or 4 products.

Also in choosing a range of negociants to work with the Chateau can give exclusivity to  different negociants for specific markets to ensure a complete distribution for their products.

This choice however is not available to all. Recognised brand name chateaux are assured a place at the table. However with almost 10 000 chateau there is a lot of competition to get to market, especially in the mid to lower range where one property can seen to be easily substituted by another. It is no longer sufficient to make a great wine, although that is obviously a good starting point. Even if the negociant plays a key role in selling and promoting the wine, the Chateau and wine maker have an important role to play in promoting their wines to create and reinforce their reputation. Tastings, wine dinners and receiving clients and consumers at the Chateau (wine tourism) are all part of this.

However the down side of selling through ‘La Place’ includes a lack of knowledge by the vineyard as to where their wines can be found in the market place and who exactly the final customer is. The free flow of information between the negociant and the Chateau depends upon the level of confidence between the two players. Also distributors in final markets are less likely to back a chateau with marketing spend if they do not have an exclusivity agreement for the label. An exclusivity that is difficult to reinforce if the wine is selling over several different negociants on ‘La Place’.

What about the courtiers – what is their role? The brokers, or courtiers, act as intermediaries between the Chateau and the negociants. They never take title to the wines (i.e. own them) but take a 2% margin on each transaction. The courtiers again have a historic role; it was upon information from the courtiers that the 1855 classification was created. They play a vital role of market information and are the key to keeping the wines of Bordeaux flowing. They have an intimate knowledge of who has what wine and where. Wine in a specific vintage from a specific property may be no longer available at the Chateau but safely tucked away in a negociant’s cellar. The broker will know where it is and at what price and will be able to communicate between negociants who may not otherwise be speaking to each other! Sucessful properties offer an allocation to Bordeaux negociants through the courtiers. However, if in certain vintages the negociant declines the offer, they may find their allocation diminished in future vintages. The courtiers have a role of feedback from the negociants to the producers explaining what is selling where and why and asking for larger allocations or explaining why allocations will not be taken up.

 Since only 50% of Bordeaux wine is Chateau bottled, the role of the broker is even more important in the bulk sector of the market. Wines sold in bulk are often destined for blending and ageing by the negociants. They may have production contracts directly with Chateau that allow them to participate in the key wine growing and wine making decisions – picking dates de-vatting, etc. But for many they will be looking for wines that fit a specific style and price point either as a finished wine or as part of a house blend and will rely on the brokers to find these. Just as negociants may be specialised in a market sector or wine style, so may a broker.

Primeurs or Bordeaux futures. The classified growths (and equivalent) represent approximately 5% of volume of Bordeaux production but 20% of its value – figures that vary slightly from year to year.

Wines harvested and fermented at the chateau in the autumn are tasted by the trade in the following spring at the UGC (Union des Grand Crus) trade tastings while the wines are still in barrel. They will not be bottled for at least another year to 18 months. At these tastings, the individual Chateaux wines and the vintage as a whole are assessed by the local and international trade and press. Following the feedback the Chateau, in conjunction with the negociants and brokers, fix a price for the wines that will then be offered via the brokers to the negociants. The negociants will then add their margin and offer the wines to their clients as futures. The wines will only become ‘physical’ i.e. be bottled and delivered 18 months down the road.

Traditionally payment for these wines is split, one-third at reservation, one third after about 6 months and the final third before delivery when the wines are bottled and delivered, usually in the late summer or autumn 2 years after harvest.

The system of ‘en primeur’ or futures purchase does not work for all Chateaux, nor in all vintages and the percentage of wines offered ‘en primeur’ varies from year to year. It is deemed to be of greatest interest for the top properties for which there is a high demand and also in top vintages for the same reason. Merchants, both in Bordeaux and overseas, will only put money up front if they feel that the product will be in short supply or if they feel there is a possibility of price appreciation.

The advantage of the primeur system is of course cash flow. Being able to sell your crop in June before physical delivery in over a years time is more advantageous than waiting until the following summer, even if the price may be a little lower.  This system has historical origins. Up until the 1970’s it was common practice for all Chateaux to deliver their wines in barrels to the negociants in the early spring following the harvest and to receive payment then in time to finance the next harvest. The negociant would then undertake the ageing, blending and bottling.

This system changed relatively recently. The first producer to systematically undertake chateau bottling was Philippe de Rothschild at Chateau Mouton Rothschild starting with the 1924 vintage, introducing at the same time an artist’s interpretation for the label. The label was deemed ahead of its time whereas Chateau bottling continues to this day.Baron Philippe reintroduced the notion of an artist-designed label in 1945, to commemorate the Allied victory. This continues to this day with the latest 2011 version of which was designed by Guy de Rougemont, just released.

The label for the Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2011
The label for the Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2011

 The wine scandal of the 1970’s, when some wines where found to be adulterated by a few negociants, precipitated the adoption of chateau bottling  by most of the top properties soon afterwards and, as I mentioned earlier, 50% of Bordeaux wine is currently chateau bottled. However aging the wines on site meant that the Chateaux needed more labour and storage facilities, (The Great Barrel Hall’ at Mouton was built in 1926 to house the wines kept back until bottling), but also had an 18-month cash flow delay. This was compensated for by the introduction of the primeur campaign.

In more difficult vintages some top growths systematically sell their production en primeur very quickly with all the allocations being take up, whereas others may struggle. This may be a reflection on the quality, or perceived quality, and value for money of the product but it is also a reflection of the brand image of the chateau. Even if using negociants, it still falls to the Chateau to create and promote their brand via the press and trade to maintain a high profile with trade and consumers. The negociants will be more interested in taking up their allocations if the brand image is strong and they can reply on the pull of the market place. The role of the chateau therefore in taking part in various inward missions, wine tastings and dinners is important to maintain this image – quality being equal. Just taking the money at primeur and handing over the wine is not enough.

Château Latour stepped out of the en Primeur campaign with the 2012 vintage, which raised a few eyebrows and questions about the perennity of the system. To be clear, Latour has announced that they will be selling their wines once they become physical and when they consider them ready for drinking but they will continue to sell through the ‘Place de Bordeaux’. We said the major advantage of primeur sales for a chateau is cash flow at the expense of margin. For Mr Pinaud, owner of Latour, whose background is the luxury goods industry, controlling his margin may be a higher priority than cash flow. Other properties may be on standby to see how this experiment goes. Probably only  5/6 other top chateaux may be in a position to follow his lead so overall the knock on effect is likely to be very limited – except for the press coverage of course. Some negociants declined the latest physical 1995 offer of Latour – we shall see.

Will Place de Bordeaux system continue? I think so yes. Given the number, diversity and the small average size of Bordeaux chateaux (14ha), the complexity of the legislation surrounding wine imports, duties, etc., into the world’s markets, this sales system allows chateau to concentrate their efforts on a quality product and it’s promotion and delegate the sales administration to the negociants. Again a division of labour especially important for smaller family run properties. Its also allows a greater international reach which has to be a good thing. Some smaller chateaux feel that they are not a priority for the negociants (see my earlier comments about competition amongst smaller properties)  and do sell directly and many do a good job building a direct relationship with their customers, a very time consuming job. This is becoming easier with a younger generation of winemakers with better marketing and language skills.

But the traditional role of the Bordeaux Negociant as the route to market for the majority of  Bordeaux production remains essential.

This blogpost is an excerpt from my book Bordeaux Bootcamp available on Amazon, Kindle and Gumroad. 

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