Best French Wines – Domaines or Negociants – Part One …will be for some of DA BG’s faithful a (short) trip down “wine education lane.” While others (that would be the “glass with every meal except breakfast” crowd) the following will be the news of many yesterday’s past.
Alllllllrighty then – let’s dive in! French Wines come from two sources. Domaines – that is, established, regular, ain’t goin’ anywhere, fixed establishments with their own grapes. And “Negociants.” They being those who buy what they deem to be the best French Wine Grapes, then blend and sell them.
As you would well imagine dear reader, there is more than a little snobbery with regard to the wines of Negociants. But is it valid?(the larger question, bien sur – is snobbery ever valid? – for another time, and truthfully, another writer!)
But staying “on topic” and filling our information glass to the brim on this subject is my fellow award winning scribbler and wino-holic from TheWall Street Journal – Ms Lettie Teague….
The French word négociant means a dealer or merchant of wine. A négociant typically purchases grapes, wine or must (fermented or unfermented juice) and puts his own label on the final product. Unlike with a wine made at a domaine (a winery that makes and bottles its own wines), the components and the creation of the wine can be a bit of mystery, not just to a buyer but sometimes even to the négociant himself.
Of dubious quality and questionable provenance, négociant wines were often quite cheap but rarely good deals—at least until recently. Today’s top négociants—whose spiritual home may be in Burgundy but who work all over the world—are producing higher-quality wines and are often engaged with the winemaking and the viticulture.
Jean-Charles Boisset, whose family owns one of the biggest négociant companies in Burgundy, said that back in the 1960s, his parents “just bought the wine and put their name on the label” but that he works directly with the growers themselves. In fact, Mr. Boisset—who calls himself a “viniculturalist” and not a négociant—posited on a recent phone call that “the négociant has taken over the role of the grower.”
Mr. Boisset owns 19 wineries in France and America and produces both domaine and négociant wines, as do quite a few of his peers, including established Burgundy producers like Maison Olivier Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet and newer players like Nicolas Potel in Beaune. Mr. Potel founded Maison Roche de Bellene in 2008 after being forced out of his family company, Maison Nicolas Potel, a négociant firm.
Mr. Potel owns almost 60 acres of vineyards in Burgundy, and brothers Olivier and Patrick Leflaive own parcels in both premier cru and grand cru vineyards that were recently returned to their family after the lease with their cousins at Domaine Leflaive ended, but they are all well versed in the prejudice against négociant wines. Patrick Leflaive has addressed it directly by setting up blind tastings for sommeliers that included both his négociant- and domaine-bottled wines. “Most of the time, they considered the négociant wine the better wine,” he reported with satisfaction over a recent lunch in New York.
Sommeliers have been some of the most vociferous critics of négociant wines, according to Michael Madrigale, head sommelier of Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud in New York. Some of his fellow professionals won’t even put négociant wines on their lists, said Mr. Madrigale, who disagrees with this “knee-jerk” estimation.
Although Mr. Madrigale is admittedly a big(ger) fan of domaine-bottled wines, he has been impressed by some of the good values from Burgundy négociants like Robert Drouhin, Deux Montille, and from Hecht & Bannier, a négociant company based in the Roussillon region of France. “I didn’t even know Hecht & Bannier was a négociant company,” confessed Mr. Madrigale. “I was just impressed with the wines—I thought they really spoke of a place.”
I hadn’t known that Hecht & Bannier was a négociant either when I first tasted its wines a few years ago. Like Mr. Madrigale, I’d been impressed by their depth of flavor, concentration and finesse. But I didn’t understand why Grégory Hecht and François Bannier didn’t own their own vineyards—after all, land is a lot cheaper in Roussillon than it is in Burgundy, where a vineyard acre might cost millions of euros. (By contrast, an acre of old-vine Grenache in Roussillon costs as little as €10,000, or $12,700.)
Why not own vineyards? I asked Mr. Hecht, who replied that there was no reason to buy land when there wasn’t much competition for top-quality grapes. The firm could get all the fruit that it needed from all the best places in the region: “Imagine you can bottle a Pauillac which would be a blend of Mouton, Latour and Lafite,” he wrote in an email. “This is the freedom we have chosen.”
Read more HERE.
PART TWO – Next Time.
THROW ME A BONE HERE, PEOPLE!
What are ya thinkin’?