Posted on | February 25, 2016
Written by | Roger Morris
Applying savoir-faire to regional French wines enables ‘middlemen’ to bring value to the U.S.market.
There was a time in the 1960s and ’70s when French wine merchants— négociants—had great influence as to which wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley were being consumed in America.
Not only were they middlemen for expensive wines produced by châteaux and estates, the bigger négociants also produced under their own labels most of the affordable French wines purchased in restaurants, country clubs and retail shops. These négociant, or shippers’, wines were blends of grapes sourced from many farmers within a region—Bordeaux, Côtes-de-Rhône, Bourgogne—or sub-region—Pauillac, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Mâcon—which was prominently displayed on their labels.
Although these wines continued to have a presence, several developments reduced their ubiquity as the U.S. wine market grew steadily in the 1980s and ’90s—notably scandals about mislabeling of wines, the growing American preference for estate-grown wines and wines labeled by variety.
In the early era of negociants, names such as Faiveley, Bouchard, Louis Jadot and others established themselves as reliable shippers of solid French wines at relatively modest prices and in good supply. This century, as the wine industry has grown large and complex, there is even more juice floating around, and the practice of sourcing, blending and bottling wine has spread well beyond France (Cameron Hughes and 90+ Cellars, for instance). It is quite common nowadays to find négociant, or multi-source, wines alongside estate wines under the same label.
Blended regional wines are well-suited to American tastes.
“Regional blends have the great advantage for the consumer of consistency in quality and taste year after year,” says Roland Quancard of Cheval Quancard, a Bordeaux-based négociant. “For the American wine merchant, there is the attraction of guaranteed volume. If the demand is there, we can always source more wine, which we can’t do with our château wines.”
Dennis Kreps of the family-owned Quintessential importers—which recently took over the gigantic Georges Duboeuf portfolio—says, “The attraction is two-fold. Stateside consumers are increasingly interested in where a wine is from. Also, blended wines remain the best bargain—great style and great prices.” Kreps believes that the well-reported shift of consumer interest to blended wines, whether from different varieties or from different growers within a region, has
Romain Teyteau, North American Exports Director of Georges Duboeuf, which is strong in Burgundy and Beaujolais, agrees. “Look at Macon-Villages, for example—great Chardonnays for $10 to $15 retail, with overall exports up double-digits in 2015. And Beaujolais also has an incredible potential because of its ever-improving quality.”
Burgundy, Rhône and Languedoc getting hotter.
David Hinkle, Chief French Officer for Skurnik Wines, which imports Paul Jaboulet Aine, says, “There’s been a resurgence of interest in regional wines from northern Rhône, especially in Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph. And the industry is more interested in Provence these days.”
Rhône négociants such as M. Chapoutier have expanded south and west into Languedocin search of regional blends. The large French wine firm, Castel Frères now owns the historic Barton & Guestier line and is emphasizing wines from the Rhône and the South of France for American markets.
While pointing out négociants own 10% of Grand and Premier Cru vineyards, Denis Duveau, Vice Director of the Syndicat des Négociants, says, “There is not enough wine to supply the demand and sell Burgundyaround the word. That’s why négociants buy most of the Burgundy regional [unblended] wines. Making more simple ‘Bourgogne’ is a way to satisfy more customers.”
On the downside, Bordeaux is seeking better traction.
Although the Mouton-Cadet and Domaines Barons de Rothchild (Lafite) franchises continue to be well-represented, regional Bordeaux blends have struggled.
Other négociant brands that have held ground include Sirius and Dourthe. This may be the one area of France where Americans tend to feel more comfortable with single-estate wine.
“I’ve never seen the ‘point’ of generic regional Bordeaux, other than perhaps for restaurants or big chain grocery stores,” says Mark Wessels, manager of MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C. Wessels points out that, unlike Burgundy and Rhône. “There are hundreds of petits châteaux in Bordeaux available in the five euro range.”
Boston-based Latitude Beverage Co. is a self-labeled “modern day négociant,” best known by their 90+ Cellars label which comprises more than 30 distinct wines, ranging from $9-$25 SRP, from all over the world. The firm went from zero to 300,000 cases in annual sales in six years. Brett Vankoski, Vice President and Co-Founder, sees a set of factors making négociant wine a good fit for today’s wine market:
■ Better quality winemaking around the world offers négociants “access to greater quantities of better wine than ever before.”
■ Thanks to flexibility in sourcing, “we are not limited to one geographic region—if quality or quantity isn’t where it needs to be for that region, we are able to focus on another.”
■ Free from large upfront investment in land, vines, etc., “we can adapt quickly to the changing preferences of wine drinkers.”