Local Wine Co's Blog

Negociant vs Estate Wines by cdbakunas
March 29, 2011, 12:21 pm
Filed under: Food and Drink, Word on the Street | Tags: , , ,

I was recently working in Minnesota and had a very intense and interesting conversation about negociant wines vs. estate wines. Negociant as defined by Jancis Robinson is a “term for a merchant who buys in grapes, must, or wine…and bottles under their own label.” Jancis Robinson goes on to explain that negociants, in particular in Burgundy, like Verget, Laurent, Chartron and Trebuchet or Olivier Leflaive now “successfully present their work as high art, with concomitant prices.” There is another layer to the negociant merchant class and that is the negociant eleveur. This is the negociant that oversees the production of their wines from earth to bottle, not merely a trader of bulk wine.

Estate wines are all those that are farmed and produced by a single estate. The grey area in between is what fascinates me the most. Not every winery or winemaker has the money to purchase large tracts of land and in order to be a sustainable estate winery you need to be able to grow enough fruit to pay for production, land cost, capital infrastructure, sales and marketing. As you can imagine the tipping point is well beyond some 50 acres of vines with a winery. So what do smaller and upstart wineries do?

They purchase fruit by farmer contracts and either have had the cash or investors to create their own winery and make the wines, or rent space in a larger winery where they can crush and vinify their fruit. As I look back in European history and the advent of the merchant class that handled production, blending, aging, marketing and sales of all things wine due to the land owners disdain of soiling their hands, it seems that negociants weren’t too different then they are today. After a generation or two the negociants would have enough capital to invest in their own land and their own wineries, thus spawning a new competitive producer in the region that had originally borne them as negociants.

As an estate winery your lively hood is directly dependent on your harvest. Yes, you can operate with stricter controls and higher quality, if you know what you are doing. But you are seriously at risk of aberrant weather, cyclical buying trends and the vicissitudes of the economy in general. Negociants, by nature, have a more flexible business model that allows them to move geographically, stay away from natural fluctuations in weather that inadvertently produce inferior crops and can change business direction as trends and the economy fluctuate. A lot is to be said for both ways of making wine.

At the end of the day the negociant vs. the estate bottled wine is a relatively moot point. Both can be done amazingly well and both can represent the highest quality of terrior and style that any region can produce. It really is about vision and execution. The greatest estate on the planet without vision and leadership can churn out mediocre product year after year. It is the dedicated artisans on both sides of the field that raise the bar and set standards for others to shoot towards.

Swim deep and drink large.


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