In the UK and French markets the term “négociant” is extremely common and is loosely defined as “ a wine merchant who assembles the produce of smaller growers and winemakers and sells the results under its own name”.
Here in South Africa the concept has taken somewhat longer to evolve, and for various reasons, not least the fiercely independent mindset of most wine farmers. But now the market has changed, with producers and consumers realising more and more that you might not always have the best in your backyard and to get the best you might just have to shop around.
My home town Darling has at least half a dozen top producers who either have vineyards in the area or who are buying grapes from local growers, and who realise that they can maximise quality with their versatility of choice. Only the other day an extremely prominent wine producer in the Paarl region wryly remarked to me “ why on earth would I want to grow Sauvignon Blanc on my own lands when I can get so much better in Darling.
And so to bring this all back home: – I have been very fortunate in my last 30 or so years in the wine industry to work with some very good properties and very knowledgeable people. This has put me in a situation where I am able to source, on an ongoing basis, the style of wine I want, from the type of winery and winemaker with whom I would like to work, and where we can genuinely add value to each other.
Simply put – while winemaking is undoubtedly an art, finding good wines is a skill ! My family challenge has been to find good wines and bring them to you!
For more detail – read the insert on the term négociant …
Négociants buy everything from grapes to grape must to wines in various states of completion. In the case of grapes or must, the négociant performs virtually all the winemaking. If it buys already fermented wine in barrels or ‘en-vrac’ – basically in bulk containers, it may age the wine further, blend in other wines or simply bottle and sell it as is. The result is sold under the name of the négociant, not the name of the original grape or wine producer.
Some négociants have a recognizable house style. For example, Georges Duboeuf was notorious for using yeast that produced a pronounced banana aroma.
Négociants were the dominant force in the wine trade until the last 25 years for various reasons: Historically the owners of vineyards and producers of wine had no direct access to buyers.It was too expensive for growers to purchase the wine presses and bottling lines necessary to produce a finished wine. Owning only a small portion of a particular high-quality single vineyard (lieu-dit) meant that a grower often had insufficient wine from a parcel to vinify on its own.
Under French inheritance laws, vineyard holdings were often split until offspring owned no more than a single row of grapes, not enough to fill a barrel. Since prices for a premier cru are typically higher than for wines from a larger area like a village or region, the grower could make more money selling off the production as the premier cru rather than blending it into a less specific appellation.
Many négociants are also vineyard owners in their own right. In Burgundy for instance, négociants as Bouchard, Pere et Fils and Faiveley are among the largest owners of vineyards. Well-known examples in Burgundy are Louis Jadot and Vincent Girardin, in Beaujolais Georges Duboeuf and Guigal and Jaboulet in the Rhône.