- Some of France’s major quality estate wineries also produce inexpensive regional wines.
- The producers see these wines not only as revenue sources but also as entry-level bottles.
- In some instances, some of the grapes used are declassified from their estate vineyards.
- The idea is to produce a wine that is consistent in price and quality from vintage to vintage and which reflects the region.
- Increasingly, these wines are being joined in the American market by dependable regional cooperatives.
- Because of recent low-volume vintages, the demand for these regional wines is now exceeding supply.
What if American wine lovers could walk into their wine shops and exit with a bottle of Lafite-produced red Bordeaux for only $17?
Or with an M. Chapoutier Rhône rouge for $15?
Or a Joseph Drouhin Bourgogne blanc for $17?
Actuality, they can, and are doing precisely that. By the same measure, wine lovers are finding these wines, and similar ones, on restaurant menus for under $50 a bottle, even considering the exorbitant markups that are standard in American restaurants.
Négociant wines: affordable regional wines from France
Even though consumers, as well as many in the wine trade, have complained in recent years about the continuing high prices of wines coming from France’s greatest wine regions, many of the same winegrowers who are commanding hundreds of dollars for a Côte d’Or Burgundy, a Bordeaux from Pauillac or a Rhône Hermitage are also producing very affordable regional wines from grapes either picked in their own vineyards or, more-often, purchased from reliable grape growers.
These regional wines are known as 'négociant wines' (and in earlier times as 'shippers wines') because merchants negotiate to purchase the grapes and then vinify and blend them to best reflect the styles of their regions. While no one claims these wines are as delicious or as complex as their high-bred siblings, most are similar in taste because both are produced by the same winegrowers from the same grape varieties growing in the same regions. The most-expensive of these regional wines come from the smaller, best-regarded areas, such as St-Émilion or Hermitage, while less-expensive wines generally come from broader regions, such as Burgundy or the southern Rhône.
How it started
Of course, these château-based negociants are different in origin to those historically located along the quai in Bordeaux as they forward-integrated from being just producers of estate-based, classified wines to adding regional wines to their repertoires. The granddaddy of these was Château Mouton Rothschild which declassified its - less than excellent - 1930 vintage and sold it as Mouton-Cadet, and then continued to use that brand for wine sourced from growers in nearby appellations and then elsewhere in Bordeaux. Today, 12m bottles of Mouton Cadet are produced every year, but there is still a Reserve Pauillac - from the same appellation as Mouton Rothschild, if not the same vineyards.
“Our ‘Légendes’ brand was created in the 1990s, and I have been producing them since 2004,” says Diane Flamand, enologist for Domaines Barons de Rothschild - DBR - created by the other branch of the family, based at Château Lafite-Rothschild. “We today produce seven AOCs from Bordeaux – Bordeaux white and red, Médoc, Pauillac, which are the four historic ones since 1995, St.-Émilion since 2012 and St.-Estèphe and Sauternes since 2020.” While the Légende Bordeaux goes for $17, the St-Émilion is priced at $39 and, according to Wine Searcher, the Pauillac averages $50.
Similarly, Burgundy producer Louis Latour owns 27 hectares (68 acres) of grand cru Burgundy, producing from them such domaine wines as Corton-Charlemagne and Chambertin, but it also markets eight regional négociant blends. The prices of the former are several hundred dollars, while the Bourgogne Pinot Noir and Chardonnay cost $20-30.
And in the Rhône Valley, an E. Guigal proprietary Côte-Rôtie has a price tag of over $400, while its Côtes du Rhône red is $15 – and few would argue the former tastes 25 times better than the latter.
In the marketplace, it’s often not a matter of either/or.
But, in the marketplace, it’s often not a matter of either/or – instead one brand may have a “halo effect” on its stable mate. “For example, as Burgundy prices have risen, people are buying wine from the same producer that they want to drink now as well as wine from the producer they want to cellar,” says Vanessa Conlin, MW, a buyer for the online wine retailer, WineAccess.com.
A fast-growing market, but one with supply problems
“In Bordeaux we have about 300 négociants, and about half of them are winemakers with both négociant and wine merchant activity,” says Cecile Ha, head of PR for the Bordeaux Wine Trade Council. Burgundy has almost that many négociants, while the Rhône has somewhat fewer. In both cases, many négociants also have their own estate wines. Of course, these estate or domaine wines command much-higher prices and a larger percentage of total revenue, but regional blends make up a significant amount of total sales volume, plus the blends maintain steadier prices and sometimes even steadier demand.
“Depending on the vintage, our domaine wines may make up 55% of sales, and our regional wines 45% - but in other vintages the reverse is true,” says Laurent Drouhin who heads U.S. marketing for the Beaune-based family wine business, Joseph Drouhin. “When the vintage has been generous, then the négociant wines are of less overall importance.”
Yet recently that has not been the case, as vintages have been less than plentiful.
“White regional wines from France are on fire in the U.S. – but no one has enough of them,” says Kurt Eckert, national manager of Louis Jadot wines for Kobrand, the producer’s U.S. importer. “Now reds are coming back, as retail stores are getting back to normal volumes.”
At the same time, Eckert cautions, “This is against a backdrop of small vintages and supply and shipping problems. No one wants a stock-out, so we have had to go on allocation for some wines.”
“Our sales of regional wines have globally increased in the last few years, as these wines are often the first step into Burgundy for most consumers,” says Louis Latour commercial director Bruno Pépin. “This trend has been confirmed in both the U.S. and the UK. We have seen a slowdown since the beginning of 2022 following the price increases for most of these regional wines – except for Bourgogne Gamay which remains an excellent option in the current environment.”
Flamand says, “The U.S. market is the most dynamic market since the end of the Covid crisis, and Bordeaux wines are coming back strongly there – plus 24% by volume in 2021. Our range is perfectly adapted to the demand for Bordeaux. The U.S. is our first market for Légende R white,” she says, “and recent evolution of the consumption [has been] towards premium wines, or those more than $9.”
The rise, fall and rise again of a market segment
Up until the second half of the 20th century, most Bordeaux chateau wines, were produced by the chateaux but aged and bottled by négociants, a pattern that continued in Burgundy and the Rhône well into the last quarter of the century. While estate-bottling is now ubiquitous in Bordeaux and common among ambitious Rhône and Burgundy domaines, at the more modest level, there is still a readiness to sell to the négociants rather than handle their own distribution. One big change, however, has been the growing desire by the nnégociants to buy grapes rather than finished wine, whose quality often varied from one producer to the next. The négociants happily buy large quantities of wine, though, from cooperatives whose vinification they trust. Whatever the sourcing, the négociants still take responsibility for blending, bottling and sales.
As Jancis Robinson observes in her Oxford Companion to Wine, “Making a perfectly balanced blend from a number of imperfect parts is a potentially noble calling, but one that once provided so many opportunities for adulteration and fraud that it brought the entire profession into question, if not ill repute, at least until the late 1980s. Nowadays, with the bureaucracy involved in that Appellation Controlee system [AOC], cheating requires real ingenuity.”
“Making a perfectly balanced blend from a number of imperfect parts is a potentially noble calling, but one that once provided so many opportunities for adulteration and fraud that it brought the entire profession into question..."
The last such major scandal was in 1973, when the once-powerful Cruse négociant firm was convicted of using lesser-quality wine from the South of France and selling it blended as Bordeaux. That incident, along with the rise in popularity in the U.S. of wine ratings and estate- or vineyard-specific wines, dampened the popularity that French regional wines commanded in country clubs and fine restaurants across the U.S. Wine retailers cut back their blended regional offerings as well.
Today, observes Master Sommelier and Full Circle Wine Solutions co-founder Evan Goldstein, “It has become more frequent and expected to find quality wines carrying regional labels or even ‘proprietary brands,’ such as La Vielle Ferme from Famille Perrin and Château Beaucastel, or, at the top end, Légende from Lafite Rothschild, proving that quality and a strong market position are not mutually exclusive for regional French bottlings." Today, these companies face growing competition from cooperatives like Cellier des Dauphins in the Rhône, la Chablisienne in Burgundy and Marrenon in Luberon all of which are creating brands of their own.
How the job gets done
Consistency, uniformity and predictability are three quantities that today typify French regional wines, all qualities prized by retail shop owners, restaurant beverage managers and – indeed – wine consumers. In restaurants, they are often featured both by the glass and by the bottle.
“We have French regional wines on both our by-the-glass and by-the-bottle programs,” says Robert Kidd, head sommelier at Le Cavalier restaurant in the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware. “During the week, we sell more by the glass, but on the weekends, when there are more large events, we sell more by the bottle.”
“My purpose is to produce the same quality and style vintage after vintage, whatever the quality of the vintage,” Flamand says. “And I try to respect, as much as possible, the classic, traditional blend of each appellation – more Cabernet Sauvignon on the Left Bank, more Merlot on the Right Bank.”
Perhaps Flamand’s best – and most expensive – regional blend, the Légende Pauillac, comes from up to 50% of grapes from the company’s two famous vineyards located there – Château Lafite itself and Château Duhart-Milon Rothschild. This process of downgrading the grapes from being vinified as expensive, classified growths wines – known as “declassification” – is common among château- and domain-owning négociants across France. For this reason, bargain-hunting buyers flock to regional wines when a vintage is both superior and bountiful, thus raising the level of estate grapes in the blend.
“It is very rare to face shortages in Bordeaux [because] the vineyard is so large,” Flamand says. “It happened once, in St-Émilion. I couldn’t produce a St-Émilion 2017 because of the severe frost that destroyed 80% of the crop. We directly switched to vintage 2018.”
In Burgundy, where AOC vineyard plots are much smaller than in Bordeaux and in the Rhône, there nevertheless are incentives to produce regional wines even from the recently approved and pricy Côte d’Or appellation. “If there are leftover grapes, it is easier to bring them together rather than have very small amount from each designation,” says Jadot’s Eckert.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride these last three years.”
Regional blending: look into the future
The wine industry and, with it, the French regional wine segment, seems to have already adapted to the post-Covid environment. There has been a return to almost normal restaurant business, as well as the rise of online, direct-to-consumer wine platforms that blossomed during pandemic lockdowns. Yet the wine business seems to continue to struggle with what Flamand calls the need “to build loyalty among the younger generations.” To do so, she says that beginning with the 2020 vintage, the Légende line will have less oak maturation and more fruit, which, “for me, [means] more Merlot, notably for the Bordeaux red.”
“In Burgundy, we need to get back to healthy volumes,” Eckert says, “but, in the meantime, regional wines can relieve prices, something needed for young Burgundy drinkers. I’m particularly bullish on the Jadot Côte d’Or Rouge – it punches above its weight.”
And, as Drouhin points out, “everything in France is still a logistics nightmare – even getting labels for the bottles and other dry goods.”
Eckert echoes, “It’s been a roller coaster ride these last three years,” but he nevertheless is optimistic: “Sales in general have never been better – and 2021 is off the charts.”