Although it ranks as the most important region for fine wine in the world, Bordeaux can be dauntingly complex to outsiders, thanks to its unique and archaic system. Several authors have joined together to untangle the region.
The French region of Bordeaux has almost mystical significance in the world of wine, being the undisputed capital of fine wine making. Wine has been made there since the eighth century and it’s a tight-knit community, where outsiders can find it hard to get a toe hold. It’s also a place that does things its own way, which can make it complex to understand.
Most influential media
Robert Parker remains the most influential critic, but with his retirement in sight, Bordeaux’s trade expects the era of the mega critic to come to an end. This prediction, however, was totally undermined by the feeding frenzy that accompanied the release of Parker’s revised tasting marks for the 2009 vintage. It is also worth noting that ‘Parker Points’ awarded by the associates he employs to cover other regions for the Wine Advocate remain powerful. Neil Martin is beginning to build a bigger profile in his own right, just as James Suckling did within Wine Spectator. Suckling now works independently and publishes a subscriber-based website. But Jancis Robinson, with a weekly column in the Financial Times and a subscriber-based website holds a substantial lead. Wine Spectator and Decanter dominate among magazines. Wine Spectator’s circulation is by far the largest both in print and online with a readership of over 2.5m, but Decanter’s Internet site attracts 325,000 unique users per month, reaching 152 countries, with monthly growth increasing 60-100% year-on-year. Wine Spectator’s critic James Molesworth has gained respect for his obvious love of French wines, while Decanter’s critics such as Steven Spurrier and Stephen Brook appeal to those looking for a non-US approach to the region.
Jacques Dupont, Le Point magazine, is France’s most influential critic. In addition, to his bi-monthly column, his three annual special wine editions have a circulation of 500,000. Michel Bettane is another French critic, well-known for Bettane & Desseauve’s annual guide, Le Guide des Vins de France.
The widest general impact comes from the presence of a large, international news bureau run by by Agence France Presse (AFP). Key Bordeaux-based journalists are Laurent Abadie (AFP, Francophone), Suzanne Mustacich (AFP International/Wine Spectator), Jane Anson (Decanter), Rodolphe Wartel (director, Terre de Vins, www.frenchwinenews.com), and Cesar Compadre (Sudouest).
Place de Bordeaux
The majority of Bordeaux’s wine is sold on a historical trading platform called the Place de Bordeaux. There are three principal players: winegrowers, courtiers (brokers) and négociants (wine merchants), who take 2% on every transaction. Historically, the courtiers assured the quality and provenance of the wine, specialising in either bulk/generic AOC/petit chateau or classified growth (premium and super premium labels). One of their most lasting contributions is the 1855 Classification of the Medoc and Sauternes, for which they ranked the wines. Growers don’t normally sell grapes in Bordeaux, but they can, and those transactions would also normally pass through the courtier. Today, the best courtiers provide market analysis, current trading prices and depletion reports to winegrowers on a regular basis, particularly for those trading in premium wine. Discretion is their byword, and their market reports are rarely distributed publically.
Négociants are wine merchants, mainly wholesalers. There are more than 350 working the Place de Bordeaux. The classic business model is to hedge one’s bets, selling all three categories: bulk/brand wines, petits chateaux (modest estate wines) and classified growth/premium. Some specialise in only one category or market, own vineyards, or have exclusive supply contracts with winegrowers.
Influential courtiers and négociants
Numbers are not easy to come by from brokers, but the Lillet family are undoubtedly the most influential courtiers. Francois Lillet is considered the leader in the bulk wine and generic AOC sector. A handful of courtiers dominate the premium and super premium trade, but LGC stands out. Run by Francois Lillet’s son and daughter, Valentin and Aurelia, LGC represents the new breed of courtiers who provide timely market data, and are winning clients from established blue-chip firms. A key broker on the LGC team is Antoine Moga, who is credited with brilliant analysis and some influence when chateau directors set their en primeur prices.
Balaresque, directed by Emmanuel Marly, focuses on grand cru classé, but handles other wines as well. Tastet Lawton is the epitome of the blue-chip firm, now run by the eighth generation of the family, with Erik Samazeuilh a key player. Laurent Quancard is a powerful broker, and another influential firm, Blanchy Lestapis is highly respected, and run by Max de Lestapis.
Xavier Coumau, president of the Syndicate of Courtiers, is the key courtier on the regional level. Under Plan Bordeaux the lower portion of Bordeaux’s production is being eliminated, new categories are being created and the co-operatives are being restructured. As president of the courtier’s syndicate since 2010, Coumau, who trades in bulk and petit chateau wines and is from a long line of courtiers, is in the thick of this transformation.
Pierre Castel, president and founder of Groupe Castel, whose annual turnover is €12.6bn ($15.5bn), of which €1.4bn is from wine, is the most influential negociant, dominating the French supermarket trade. They own wine retailer Nicolas. Founded in 1949, Castel is the largest wine producer in Europe and third in the world. In 2011, Castel acquired a 50% stake in Château Beychevelle, Château Beaumont and prestigious négociant Barrière Frères, which marks an initial move towards quality production, and makes them partners in these businesses with Suntory. Castel’s main Bordeaux brands are Baron de Lestac, Males and Blaissac and they also have Roche Mazet, Vieux Papes and Les Ormes de Cambras. Pierre Castel, 83, still runs the empire, with no designated successor.
Pierre-Antoine Casteja, Joanne, is the most influential grand cru classé négociant. Casteja specialises in classified growth and 94% of his business is exports. Joanne is owned by Casteja and his three siblings. Following Diageo Chateau & Estate’s defection from the Bordeaux market in the US, Joanne created a new company, Joanne US, run by Dan Snook. Last year, Joanne US and the company’s New York distribution operation generated €29.5m.
CVBG and Ginestet are two of the most successful négociants following the classic model of working with all three categories of wine. Thienot Champagne has a majority stake in CVBG, which is run by Mathieu Chardronnier. They do €141m in turnover, own 365 hectares of vines and ubiquitous brand Dourthe N°1, and sell more than 70 chateaux labels on an exclusive basis. Maison Ginestet is owned by the Taillan group, which is controlled by Denis Merlaut. Ginestet has €75m in turnover, €45m from grand cru classé and 60% of its business is export. Maison Sichel, with €33.3m in turnover, 77% export, remains an entirely family-run business, helmed by president Allan Sichel and his four brothers. Allan Sichel is active within the CIVB and part of the committee dealing with development trade with China. Yvon Mau, owned by Freixenet, has a heavy footprint in Bordeaux with €103m in turnover and 195 employees. Run by CEO Philippe Laqueche, Yvon Mau owns brand wine Premius and Cellier Yvecourt, sells eight chateaux wines on an exclusive basis, distributes Gallo and Freixenet cavas in France, and has growing presence in grand cru classé. Liu Haibo, chairman, Diva Bordeaux is a négociant to watch. Partners Pierre Beuchet and Jean-Pierre Rousseau sold a 70% stake in their €33m business to Shanghai Sugar Cigarette and Wine (SSCW), a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned group Bright Food
The French supermarkets are credited with saving the 2011 en primeur campaign from complete disaster, so their importance in Bordeaux cannot be underestimated, even if certain châteaux spurn them. French supermarkets have hit the jackpot with the popular Foire aux Vins, in-store wine fairs held each autumn. During the fair, the average per bottle price is €8.00, double the average per bottle price the rest of the year. In 2011, Leclerc was the number one outlet with €85m, followed by Carrefour at €61m, Auchan at €59m, Intermarché at €51m, and Système U €41m. The Foire aux Vins generate 20% of Leclerc’s wine sales, and Bordeaux represents more than 50% of those sales. Of the 1,500 wines tasted at Leclerc, only 150 make the cut. Tesco, the third largest retailer in the world after Walmart and Carrefour, dominates the UK off-trade wine sales, and works closely with Yvon Mau in Bordeaux. Big-Box retailer Costco, one of the biggest wine retailers in the world with over $1bn in annual wine sales and margins of 15%, carries few labels but competing retailers have to match their price or lose out. Annette Alvarez-Peters is the Bordeaux buyer.
Didier Coustou, based at the Leclerc he owns in Saint-Magne-de-Castillon, 50 minutes from Bordeaux city centre, is one of the most powerful wine buyers in France. Coustou, a 30-year veteran at Leclerc, heads their Western division wine-buying arm, which makes him responsible for Bordeaux, Loire Valley, Southwest, and foreign wines. He spent €30m on the Bordeaux 2010 vintage en primeur. Olivier Petoux, Bordeaux grand cru wine buyer, Carrefour, is based in Paris; Bordeaux bulk wine buyer Laurent Julien operates out of Carrefour’s Bordeaux subsidiary Prodis.
No other brand has the star power of Château Lafite Rothschild, particularly in Bordeaux’s fastest-growing market, China. The trio of Eric de Rothschild, CEO Christophe Salin and technical director Charles Chevalier guide the estate. Driven by Chinese demand, analysts
at London’s Liv-Ex reported that Lafite’s premium over the other First Growths (based on average price of last ten vintages) started at 5% in 2005 and skyrocketed to 130% in November 2010.
Stephan Delaux, deputy mayor, president of the Bordeaux Tourist office and president of Bordeaux Grands Evenements. When Delaux joined Juppé in the 1995 as Deputy Mayor, he saw enormous potential in using the historical city as a hub for wine tourism, connecting visitors to the wine regions and developing Bordeaux’s brand – to everyone’s benefit. It took a lot of arm twisting and enlisting the help of early wine tourism entrepreneurs like Jean-Michel Cazes to convince chateaux to open their doors, but Delaux now oversees the most successful wine tourism offer in France. The city’s wine festival Bordeaux Fête le Vin, organised by Bordeaux Grands Evenements, hosted 500,000 people this past June, and the festival is now exported to Quebec, Hong Kong and China. Sophie Gaillard, Delaux’s manager in charge of developing wine tourism since 2004, is another key player. Alan Juppé is Bordeaux’s high-profile mayor, first elected in 1995. Under President Sarkozy, he was Minister of Foreign Affairs, and has served in several other ministerial posts, including Prime Minister, Budget, Ecology, Defence and Veterans Affairs. His international profile and support for Bordeaux wines has made him one of the region’s most influential ambassadors. He has transformed a sooty, sleepy, conservative town into a lively, dynamic provincial capital with one of the best records for creating jobs. A significant axis of his economic plan is wine, and he’s a major backer of cultural, economic and environmental investments that directly and indirectly affect the wine trade.
The Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB) represents Bordeaux’s winegrowers and negociants. The affable but firm Georges Haushalter, president of the CIVB, has provided the cool head needed to navigate a period of economic crisis and reform in Bordeaux, under Plan Demain. Haushalter is also the general manager of négociant Compagnie Medocaine, owned by AXA Millesimes, specialising in classified growth.
As the president of the Syndicate for Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superior, Bernard Farges represented the winegrowers hit hardest by the economic crisis and volatile bulk wine market, and has been in the thick of Bordeaux’s restructuring under Plan Demain. But last November he took on an even bigger role on the national level as President of the CNAOC, the National Confederation of AOC Wine and Eaux-de-Vie Producers, during a period of critical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for the European Union.
Other dynamic associations include Conseil des Vins du Médoc (President Philippe Dambrine, Chateau Cantemerle); Cercle de Rive Droite (President Alain Raynaud, Château du Parc); Conseil des Vins de Saint Emilion (President Jean-Francois Quenin, Château de Pressac); and perhaps the most innovative and energetic, Sweet Bordeaux (President Philippe Dejean, Château Rabaud- Promis).
Viticulture and Oenology
The most influential consulting winemaker within Bordeaux would be Eric Boissenot, who followed in his father’s footsteps and works out of their laboratory in Lamarque. He consults for roughly 150 Left Bank estates, making 300 to 400 wines per year. He blends more classified growths than any other consultant, including four of the five First Growths, and has one of the most influential palates in Bordeaux. The most influential oenologist would be Sauternes native Denis Dubourdieu, a researcher, professor, consultant and chateau owner, and director of the ISVV. The opinionated, occasionally irascible professor is never short on pithy comments, and continues to be one the university’s most popular lecturers. The leading white wine expert, he also has a reputation for elegant red wines with refreshing acidity and counts Cheval Blanc amongst his clients. But perhaps his greatest legacy to the wine world is the €29m think tank and research center: L’Institut des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin (ISVV). The ISVV – or wine and vine institute – unites under one spacious roof all wine-related studies and various branches of Bordeaux University.
Bordeaux’s most influential international winemaker is, of course, Michel Rolland, flying winemaker, owner of Rolland Collection wine estates and an oenology laboratory in Pomerol, Rolland remains the most influential, if controversial, consultant working out of Bordeaux, but his influence is more global than local. He brings an invaluable international perspective to his clients in Bordeaux. The lab in Pomerol that he and his ex-wife Dany started just out of university is still one of the most influential on the Right Bank, and was a launch pad for his career as a consultant. Another very important flying winemaker is Stephane Derenoncourt; the self-taught winemaker learned how to make wine by eking out a living as a vineyard worker. Today, he’s part of the establishment, with a team of consultants working to cover his ever-growing international roster of clients who like his Burgundian approach to terroir.
Most influential person
It would be difficult to find another person who influences so many different aspects of the Bordeaux wine trade than Sylvie Cazes, managing director of Louis Roederer’s Bordeaux estates including second growth Château Pichon Lalande and president of Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC). The UGC is the most influential public relations organisation in Bordeaux, hosting the single most successful event: the en primeur tastings, as well as an international roadshow of trade tastings. Cazes is also deputy city council member for developing tourism and the wine trade; president of Centre Cultural et Touristique du Vin; shareholder in the Cazes family estates, including Chateau Lynch Bages; owner of Michelin-star restaurant Le Chapon Fin and luxury tourism agency Bordeaux Saveurs; and long-time board member of the Conseil des Grands Crus Classés in 1855. While her dynamic management style gives a boost to many organisations, her key projects are Pichon Lalande and the Centre Cultural et Touristique du Vin.