La Place de Bordeaux goes global – but what does it mean for collectors?

Bordeaux's ancient marketplace is now truly global, with a raft of new releases this month from every corner of the fine wine world - but what does it mean for those who actually buy the wines?

Words by Adam Lechmere

promontory 2012 wine bottles
The big league: the Harlan family’s Promontory

What is La Place de Bordeaux?

La Place de Bordeaux is one of the world’s oldest marketplaces, its origins stretching back 800 years. Put simply, La Place is a collection of around 300 négociants – wine distributors – which sells two-thirds of all wine produced in Bordeaux, to merchants in some 170 countries. Négociants (the biggest – Joanne, CVBG, Duclos, Grands Chais de France, Castel, Baron Philippe de Rothschild – are multinational operations) work within a complex ecosystem, liaising with châteaux via somewhat shadowy brokers – the courtiers. To give an idea of just how old La Place is, the first attempt to license courtiers was made by Louis IX in 1243, rulings which were codified 100 years later by Philippe IV. They haven’t changed much since.

Why is it in the news?

Because it’s changing. And just like the British Royal Family, the system may be ancient, but it is endlessly adaptable. For the best part of a millennium the négociants sold only wine made in Bordeaux, until in 1998 the first “foreign” (i.e. non-Bordeaux) wine hit La Place. This was the 1996 vintage of Viña Almaviva, the joint venture between Château Mouton-Rothschild and Chile’s Concha y Toro; that was followed by another Mouton collaboration, Napa’s Opus One, in 2004. Italy’s Masseto and Solaia were listed in 2008 and 2009, Château de Beaucastel’s Hommage à Jacques Perrin was the first non-Bordeaux French wine a couple of years later, then over the last decade we’ve seen Clos Apalta, Catena Zapata, Cheval des Andes from South America, Verité, Inglenook, Joseph Phelps from California; then Luce, Caiarossa, Bibi Graetz and Vin de Constance.

Last week came more New World icons: John Riddoch from Wynns Coonawarra, and fellow Aussie classics Jim Barry The Armagh and the cultish Cloudburst, plus California’s Beaulieu Vineyard’s Georges de Latour, and on 10 September Uruguay’s Bodega Garzón will release three vintages from its top wine, Balasto.

As well as non-Bordeaux wines, La Place is also selling mature vintages of icon Bordeaux: we’ve just seen a re-release of Latour 2009 for example, Palmer 2010, older vintages of Léoville Las Cases, Château d’Yquem 2018…

With these, and the 50 or so non-Bordeaux wines, the year’s new releases at the beginning of September have become a fixture in the global wine calendar. Bordeaux has never looked more global.

Peter Barry of Jim Barry Wines with The Armagh

What qualifies a wine for inclusion in La Place?

The criteria are nebulous. Mathieu Chadronnier, CEO of CVBG, one of the four biggest négociants, says it’s a matter of “history and pedigree”. Beaulieu Vineyard, for example, is drenched in both. There are few wineries that have played such a vital role in the history of Napa winemaking, not least in employing the legendary André Tchelistcheff; his Georges de Latour Private Reserve, which he created in 1938, was world-renowned by the 1960s. Other wines, like the Harlan family’s new label Promontory, might have scant history, but its pedigree is assured.

Do you have to have a French connection to join La Place?

No, but it can help. Bordeaux runs through the DNA of many of the wines, from Cheval des Andes (Cheval Blanc) to Dominique Portet (he’s the son of André Portet, the former régisseur of Lafite-Rothschild), to Jackson Family Wines’ Verité (winemaker Pierre Seillan also runs Château Lassegue in St Emilion), to Inglenook, whose wine director Philippe Bascaules is managing director of Château Margaux; BV is part of Treasury Wine Estates which recently bought Cambon la Pelouse. The French connection also explains the slightly odd addition of L’Aventure in Paso Robles, which is highly-rated but you might think has neither history nor pedigree until you realise it’s owned by Stephan Asseo, who used to own three right-bank properties including St Emilion Grand Cru La Fleur Cardinal. But – to go back to Chadronnier’s dictum – as long as a wine has history and pedigree, La Place will be interested. Of the non-Bordeaux wines currently listed, there are as many with no French connection at all.

Georges de Latour: "drenched in history and pedigree"
Cloudburst: "La Place supports us"

Why did Australia come so late to the party?

The fact that Bordeaux has only just decided to start noticing Australian wines (the class of 2020’s John Riddoch, The Armagh and Cloudburst are the first representatives of Australian wine in La Place) is intriguing. Emma Thienpont, co-partner with Tom Portet (grandson of André) in Australian First Growths, an agency dedicated to “Leading Australian Wines through La Place de Bordeaux”, says there are many reasons. Geography and time-zones are important, she says, as is the fact that Australia has no tradition in France. Most importantly, Australia’s entry into La Place demonstrates its “coming of age”. Most of us left behind the notion of Australian wine as nothing more than “sunshine in a bottle” about two decades ago: the Bordeaux Place might be adaptable but it’s also slow moving.

What advantage does the system have for wine producers?

Quite simply, access to international markets (what Chadronnier describes as “seamless accessibility”). The big négociants have hundreds of sales staff all over the world who are trained in the arcane skills of selling very expensive wines, and La Place’s experience of selling into Asia – particularly China – is of immense value. Greg Joos De Ter Beerst, head of luxury for Treasury Wine Estates, owner of Wynns, BV, Penfolds and other major wines, appreciates the way Georges de Latour can now take its place alongside the first growths (they change the packaging for La Place: American collectors get their six bottles in a cardboard box – if you buy it through Bordeaux you get it in a wooden case). For Hans Astrom, vice-chair and partner at Klein Constancia, the system revitalised the famous (“but dusty”) Vin de Constance. “We’re now in the big league: Latour, Masseto, Yquem, Harlan – and our own little baby.”

It elevates us to the conversation around fine wine

It sounds a bit like an enormous, virtual global fine wine club.

Indeed. Chadronnier puts it this way: ““Fine wine is a single, cross-regional category that addresses the same consumer. The end consumer for Mouton-Rothschild and Opus One is the same person, and they are going to purchase the wines in the same shop or the same restaurant.” For Will Berliner of  Cloudburst, La Place “supports us in just the right way – it elevates us to the conversation around fine wine.”

Class of 2020: Bodega Garzón, Uruguay

What does this mean for the merchants who used to sell these wines exclusively?

That’s a different story. “What do Bordeaux négociants know about Italy, or Australia?” is one common complaint. One prominent London merchant said, “You might have spent years building up a relationship with a winery and to suddenly find you have lost that agency to La Place can be very annoying. The négociants are selling wines they don’t really know anything about. It can be very arm’s length.” Patrick O’Connor of London and Hong Kong merchant Fine+Rare said La Place “works really well for a handful of wines that are popular throughout the year,” but, he added, “we’ve seen sales volumes fall for some brands that have recently moved to distribution through La Place; those whose brands were built by agents and importers going door to door, placing the wines with merchants like Fine+Rare, retailers and premium on-trade, year in year out.”

Does it mean higher prices for collectors?

“Absolutely not,” says Joos De Ter Beerst at TWE. “We are adamant that consumers will not be penalised on price.” On the contrary, he says, “because we have so much more control over distribution around the world it means less discrepancy on price.” But some wine merchants disagree. “You are just hanging on the coat-tails of the famous wines, and you’re selling at arm’s length – of course prices are going to go up, especially for the less-well-known wines,” said the anonymous London merchant.

Penfolds: "Négociants want to have the conversation"

Still, everyone seems to want to be a part of La Place

Yes, more and more producers are joining every year. But for many, it’s still an experiment. “This is very much a toe in the water,” says Joos De Ter Beerst. Australia’s greatest wines – notably Penfolds Grange and its siblings – are TWE’s jewels in the crown. “The négociants want to have the conversation about Grange but we have to understand the model better. We decided we would start with Georges de Latour and John Riddoch and trial it. We couldn’t take the risk with Penfolds.”