La Place de Bordeaux: margins and middlemen

What exactly is the Place de Bordeaux? As the world’s greatest wine region gears up for the annual jamboree that is the En Primeur barrel tastings, in this extract from Academie du Vin Library’s On Bordeaux, Margaret Rand looks at the shadowy world of the Bordeaux fine wine marketplace and asks, ‘Why do the châteaux do it?’

Words by Margaret Rand

Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux

There is a collection of wine labels in Bordeaux’s Musée des Chartrons that takes one right back to the glory days of the négoce. These were the days when they called the shots, and when they printed their names on the labels larger than the names of the châteaux.‘ C Lehmann & Co, Cos d’Estournel’, the labels say, or ‘Château Larose, B Rouleneau Aîné, Bordeaux’. These were wines that they had blended in their own cellars, with whatever additions they deemed necessary to bring them into line with the tastes of their customers. Then, as now, the châteaux sold their wine to the négoce, and the négoce disposed of it as they could. But that is about the only similarity that remains. The workings of La Place, as Bordeaux’s internal market is called, have changed and are changing again; and whether we’re seeing another evolution, or a gradual fraying at the edges, is very difficult to tell.

Its name, La Place, is the only concrete thing about it. In no sense is it a place. Instead it is a market conducted in offices, in cars, on telephones, on emails and on iPhones and BlackBerries; it’s nebulous, ‘individually weak but collectively strong’, as Jean-François Mau of Yvon Mau puts it. Its players are châteaux, brokers, négociants and the people who buy from them. Négociants like Sichel, CVBG, Yvon Mau and Mahler-Besse are on La Place; they buy from the châteaux via courtiers (brokers) and sell to the likes of Lay & Wheeler or Berry Bros, who are not on La Place, and who in turn sell to you and me.

The workings of La Place, as Bordeaux’s internal market is called, have changed and are changing again

That’s the classic model at its simplest. A few weeks ago the wine trade gathered in Bordeaux for the En Primeur tastings, and flocks of wine merchants – Corney & Barrow, Justerini & Brooks, Farr Vintners – raced from tasting to tasting, assessing the vintage, trying to get a feel of what prices might be. But they cannot buy direct from the châteaux, not even for ready money. Instead they must deal with négociants. Each négociant has an allocation of the grandest wines, and if it wants to buy more it will either have to wheedle the château or buy from another négociant – undoubtedly at a higher price.

It’s easy to portray La Place as self-serving, existing only to create margins for a group of people who could easily be dispensed with. ‘Why do the châteaux do it?’ we cry. ‘Why do they allow all these middlemen to take huge profits, when they could be selling direct and getting the profit themselves?’ Well, they do it partly because it spreads the risks, and partly because it’s an extremely cheap way of getting a lot of wine on the market very fast.