Bordeaux was the first wine region that I visited. That was in the 1970’s and I was just getting into wine. I drank red Bordeaux at home and prices were such that one could get a famous name from the 1855 Classification for not too much more than a basic wine.
A Bordeaux winery is known as a chateau, which is French for castle, although few are and are mostly large houses. The Chateau is surrounded by its vineyards and doesn’t buy in any grapes. In the 1970’s most chateaux made just one wine, a blend of the best grapes. Those not selected would be sold to a co-operative or merchant to make a branded wine.
I remember my surprise years later visiting a new world winery tasting room and being offered a whole range of wines to taste.
I recently returned from Bordeaux with my friend Lisa, from Boston, Massachusetts. Now it was her turn to be surprised. Some wineries now have a second label used for grapes from their young vines, but most have just the one wine.
And although you can, if you’re lucky, taste that wine but rarely can you buy any wine at a famous Bordeaux winery. That is because the top Bordeaux wineries do not retail wine but operate in a system called negoce. They sell their entire production to an agent who sells parcels to middle men known as négociants. They in turn market wine to merchants around the world. The merchants add their margin and announce the wine for sale ‘en primeur’ This buying of wine futures is the only way a consumer can ensure getting the wine they want.
Every year in April, around six months after harvest, buyers and critics visit Bordeaux to taste young wines from barrels. Their reaction, plus the winemaker’s opinion lead to Chateau placing a price on their wine. Usually they will release it in two or more tranches, so the first ‘release’ price is eagerly waited. Chateaux are watching each other, a First Growth will not want to price their wine below a Second Growth or another First Growth and all wait hoping someone else will break cover.
Bear in mind that the wine is in barrel, it is not finished, the final blending has to be made and the wine is a year or more away from being bottled.
When a top Chateau announces its price that will affect the price of other wines throughout the region.
So when we visited a winery, even if we could afford to, we couldn’t buy any wine. It had all been sold, even though we could see the barrels full of maturing wine all of was sold and individuals around the world had already paid for it.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle and Apple iPad.
Disclosure: Peter F May travelled to Bordeaux at his own expense and paid full price for all his accommodation, meals, tastings and wines.