The Place de Bordeaux may seem an old-fashioned and slightly arcane way to sell wine, but it is in fact a pretty effective means of distributing the world's finest wines to a global market of fine wine merchants and the collectors who buy from them, taking into account the myriad relationships involved. Some of the content below was included in our post earlier this year on 'How to buy En Primeur'. Here we look more at the detail of 'La Place', including their now-annual autumn campaigns.
Despite the misleading name, the 'Place' is not a physical place (the picture of the 'Place de la Bourse' in the centre of the city is often used to represent the commercial heart of Bordeaux, but has nothing to do with the 'Place' looked at here). Historically, the great-named châteaux in Bordeaux were owned by aristocrats who would not be seen to sully their hands with commerce by selling the wines themselves. Over centuries, a system developed for selling the wines, known as the ‘Place de Bordeaux’, a notional marketplace, which still operates today.
This is a tripartite system made up of the châteaux, agents or ‘courtiers’ who negotiated with them, and ‘négociants’ who buy and store the wines, for onward sale, a system that has developed over many centuries. In the Angevin period, Bordeaux 'claret' was exempted from taxes in England. Twice a year, before Christmas and at Easter, a fleet of up to 200 ships would set sail from England to "go fetch wine" in exchange for fabrics, foods, and metals.1
This came to an end after the Hundred Years War and the Battle of Castillon in 1453, ceasing trade with 'foreigners'. Later, in the reign of Louis XI, a distinct area outside of the city was granted trading rights with foreigners; the Chartrons district, named after the Carthusian Abbey that once stood in this area 2. From the late Fifteenth to the Nineteenth century, trade centred on the Quai des Chartrons, whose fleet of ships was licensed to ship the wines.
The Quai des Chartrons before the First World War, showing tonneau ready for shipment
During the Eighteenth century, Bordeaux's wealth reached its peak, with numerous great estates owned by the French aristocracy, requiring middlemen, in the form of courtiers and negociants, to sell their wines. The tripartite system still exists today, although many châteaux owners are now also négoce owners, and vice-versa.
The stockholdings of the top 110 négociants are enormous, with impressive, high-tech storage facilities dotted across the region. In total, including smaller companies and one-man bands, there are around 300 negociants. There are a further 78 registered 'courtiers'. 'Courtier' translates as 'broker' but also as 'notary', reflecting the fact that they are trained to a high level in both sensory evaluation of Bordeaux and in wine legislation, are certified by the authorities to sign off on various transactions. Traditionally, courtiers act as intermediaries between the châteaux and the negociants, advising the châteaux on the market, helping them to set their prices, and taking a 2% commission on sales in the process.
Maison Sichel's offices on the Quai des Bacalans, a classic example of a traditional negociants offices
This notional (or, in modern terms, 'virtual') marketplace is completed by the ten thousand-odd wine importers from around the world who buy from it. It's important to remember that these merchants must be prepared to ship the wine from the cellars of the negociants, as the latter do not deal directly with consumers.
Until 1972, it was common for crus classés châteaux to sell their wines in barrel to the negociant, who then bottled them, sometimes making their own winemaking adjustments, leading to variation between different bottlings, but the advent of new laws on château-bottling put an end to this. As with many modern businesses, over the last decade, the châteaux have become more aware of connecting directly with their consumers, but the mechanics of dealing directly with wine merchants around the world is still left to the négociants, who jointly turnover nearly two billion euros of Bordeaux each year.
Ballande et Meneret's modern warehouse in Libourne, surrounded by a moat that doubles as a security feature and assists with cooling. Most negociants now have modern storage facilities like this.
In the run-up to the 2022 Bordeaux En Primeur campaign, there was lots of talk about whether price increases would be driven by the impact of rising interest rates on the negociants, who have enormous amounts of capital tied up in stock holdings. Negociants are often obliged to buy from the châteaux each year in order to maintain their allocations in the best vintages, leading to huge back-catalogues of unsold wine in their cellars. Fortunately, most such businesses are extremely well-financed!
Commonly a château will deal with around four negociants, but sometimes this number can be far higher. During en primeur, when a new wine is released at 8am (9am UK time), we often have to barter over allocations of the most sought-after stock from several negociants before we can offer it to our customers.
Today, the key times of year for the Bordeaux Place are in the spring, when the new vintage is offered, and September, when the 'Autumn Place', or 'Hors Bordeaux' ('Outside Bordeaux) offers feature wines from around the world. This new focus began with Almaviva and other top Chilean wines some years ago. In recent years, other famous estates have moved their distribution to the Place; names like Masseto, Allegrini, Parusso, Opus One, Inglenook and Klein Constantia. This sign of faith in the ability of the Place to reach fine wine lovers around the world suggests the system is in good health and set to continue for years to come.