For decades, wine negociants have had a nasty reputation in the wine world, yet this reputation is undeserved. Jancis Robinson explains, “The old cliché that merchants, negociants in French, are all baddies and growers are all goodies is now well and truly out of date.” Negociants are merchants who buy grapes, juice, or finished wine from growers, then bottle and sell them on the market wholesale. They used to get less respect in the wine world because they didn’t grow the grapes themselves; critics believed they were lazy merchants who used farmers’ hard work for their own gain.
Today, this idea couldn’t be further from the truth, since negociants like Louis Jadot are known for selling some of the finest wines on the market. The goal of a good negociant is to take on the expenses of bottling so that farmers can focus on doing what they do best: growing grapes. You need to learn the difference between high-quality and low-quality negociants in order to find collectible wine at a good price.
What Is a Wine Negociant, and What Do They Do?
When you ask the question “What is a wine negociant?” you’ll always get a vague answer. That’s because the definition varies depending on the merchant. In general, you’ll encounter three types of wine negociants: those who buy pre-made wine and bottle it, those who make some improvements on the wine before bottling it, and those who take whole grapes or unfermented juice to make the wine virtually from scratch. This last type of negociant is called a “negociant-éleveur,” and they are the negociants with the most prestigious reputations.
Wine Lovers Page explains that even these three definitions get more complicated when you apply them to real-life merchants, saying, “I’ve found, though, that the distinction is fuzzy in practice, and the terms [negociant and negociant-éleveur] are pretty much synonymous.” In other words, most refer to Louis Jadot as simply a “negociant,” though the estate is technically a “negociant-éleveur.” Louis Jadot controls 105 hectares of vines in the finest terroirs, and as a result, they produce some of the most collectible wines in France. You should always research how the negociant handles the wine, rather than relying on labels like “negociant-éleveur,” if you want to buy quality wine.
How Negociants Help Your Collection
When wine merchant Bill St. John first started his career in the wine industry, he worked with a negociant named John Avery. He says Avery would round up quality grapes from estates around Burgundy, bottle the wine, and give each blend a special name. St. John would ask Avery which wine was worth trying, and Avery would go into great detail about the grape’s origins, the terroir, and the farmer’s techniques. Avery once tried to sell St. John on his special Cardinal Richelieu vintage, telling him, “Cardinal Richelieu is declassified Gevrey-Chambertin; he is, Bill.” St. John had no way of proving Avery’s claim, but he admitted that the wine had the high quality he would expect from a much more expensive bottle of classified Gevrey-Chambertin.
Negociants like Avery have the freedom to hand-pick the best grapes grown in a particular region, and because the grapes or juice are often sold unprocessed, negociants can buy all of the ingredients for a fine vintage at a low cost. This helps your own wine collection in two ways. First, you can buy high-quality wine from negociants who invest in the best grapes. Second, this wine is usually cheaper, rarer, and more unusual than mainstream wines because negociants work with small, family-run estates that can’t afford to bottle and distribute their own wine alone. When you befriend a negociant, you get a first peek into new vintage releases, and you often get a discount on wine. This is why a negociant is one of the top five people every collector should know.
Tips on Finding the Best Wine Negociant
Before you decide to buy wine from a negociant, look at where the wine was sourced. Sometimes, you’ll find $10 bottles that claim to be Burgundy, but were in fact grown in Rhone. It’s not always immediately clear where the grapes were grown when you buy negociant wine. For instance, a farmer might have grown and crushed the grapes in Rhone, then a negociant took the juice to Burgundy to ferment. The result will be a wine that says it’s from Burgundy, but tastes more like Rhone. Terroir is important for quality wine, so you should always rely on where the grapes were picked, not where they were processed.
Next, consider the taste of the wine before you buy a full case. Writer Thom Elkjer says, “The fundamental rule in negociant wine is that whatever it costs, it should taste like it costs more.” Always sample the wines yourself to ensure that the taste is up to snuff. If you want the rarest, most collectible wines, you’ll want to work with negociants who partner with high-end estates. Major estates in California and France own dozens of vineyards, but they can only produce so much wine every year from each plot. Negociants often buy up excess grapes from these estates, bottle them, and sell them for far less than they would cost with the winery’s original logo on the bottle, meaning that if you make wise connections, you could end up getting a bottle of what is essentially $500 cult Cabernet Sauvignon for as little as $50.
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