Frank’s Tip – Negociants

Negociants

Pronounce: nay-goh-SYAHN. French for “merchant” or “dealer,” used in the wine world to refer to a person or firm that sells and ships wine as a wholesaler. The extent of the role played by this intermediary has expanded over time. Traditionally, negociants bought, matured, sometimes blended, and then bottled and shipped wine. Over time, the role expanded to include purchasing grapes and making wine. Some labels may contain the phrase negociant-eleveur, indicating that the merchant also played a more role in producing the grapes.

The concept is an interesting one indeed, as it is quite nebulous and broad. Negociants are traders who purchase and sell finished goods but also produce wine from purchased grapes or bulk wine then make and bottle the wine as their own.

Bordeaux is very well known for this practice as they have established negociant “houses” who own very little if any land, yet produce prodigious amounts of Crus Classes. So why did this system start?

Not everyone is interested or able to complete the value chain from growing grapes to bottling wines. Indeed, most growers weren’t wealthy gentry with the capital to establish a cellar.   For many farmers, this is still a major hurdle to production. For many small landowners in great terroirs consolidating with other growers makes sense (do not confuse this co-op’s!!).

In Burgundy for example, it is not uncommon for producers to “barter” with each other. For example: I own and make a fair amount of Puligny-Montrachet, you make some Batard Montrachet; so I will give you 3 tons of Puligny grapes for 1 ton of Batard.

Indeed, Burgundy also is not immune to this system and some of the greatest producers, including Bouchard are active negociants.

Some of the better-known French negociants are Barton & Guestier, Calvet, Cordier, Drouhin, Faiveley, Louis Jadot, Moueix, and Sichel. On our shores it is very hard to say who was the first to be a recognized negociant. The old KWV system was not negociant as it wasn’t based on a “willing buyer- willing seller” relationship, it was more “we are the only buyer… suck it up”.

Before settling on Oude Nectar and then Helshoogte, Neil Ellis was probably one on the first to take this idea to its full evolution as his entire production and range was based on buying grapes from various growers.

The advantages are obvious:

  • no overheads to buy, establish or manage vineyards
  • not being limited to one site or region
  • being able to “circumvent” tricky vintages if a specific region or block had a malady of sorts
  • being able to add or jettison blocks or cultivars that no longer fit your style or commercial interest

There are of course certain cons:

  • you are at the mercy of the owner / farmer / contract team; yes you have the right to voice your opinion or concerns, but ultimately its still another man’s farm
  • you can “loose” blocks that form a integral part of your wines, due to contract issues, buyers willing to pay more or strong arm growers into signing exclusivity agreements (I for one have lost a great little block due to the aforementioned)
  • the grapes are more expensive, as you are paying a grower a premium

We believe it is probably fair to say that the majority of modern SA producers are active in the negociant business in some form; including golden child Eben Sadie; once and for all putting an end argument that one can’t be serious about quality if one doesn’t own the vineyard.

The two wines we are presenting this month are both made by “negociants” of sorts in that neither Andy nor Miles owns the vineyards from which they source their grapes. Both of them deal with 5 or 6 producers to make their wines and borrow or the space to make and age them once made. And what a result!

We hope you will enjoy these two wines and look forward to hearing your feedback.

The Tank & Barrel Team