Négociants: The Hidden Talent Behind Many Wines

Trading grapes.

The popular image of a winery is a building located among acres of grape-producing vines.  Most small wineries do indeed work like this, and they’re often called estate wineries because they use only grapes from their own nearby vineyards.

Many wineries, in addition to using their own, buy grapes from other growers on long-term contracts. Sometimes they just don’t have enough land to grow the grapes needed for the volume of wine they want to make. Sometimes they source grapes from other vineyards that are known for their quality. Sometimes buying grapes is a hedge: in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, where vines have to be buried during winter, some producers buy grapes from the warmer Niagara region each year in case their own crop falters.

Then there are négociants, wine producers who might or might not have vines of their own, but who buy grapes, juice, or finished wine and sell it under their own labels. Not only does this way of making wine have a long history, but some of today’s well-known wines are made by négociants. They include some of the big names in Burgundy, such as Bouchard Père & Fils, Faiveley, Joseph Drouhin, and Louis Jadot.

Some, such as Faiveley, make most of their wine from their own vineyards, but others make most from grapes they purchase.  In recent years a lot of small négociants, some with no vineyards of their own, have entered the picture.

Négociants abound in Burgundy because many people own individual vineyards—some proprietors have as little as a row or two of vines in each of several different appellations. Their vines make too little wine to be worth bottling, so they sell their grapes to négociants who blend different lots together. These are not ragtag blends of any wines. A négociant selects wines as carefully as any winemaker would.

Some négociant wines from Burgundy are generic burgundies (Appellation Contrôlée Bourgogne) that are sourced from several districts while others are from prestigious Burgundy appellations such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Volnay, and Meursault, and labelled as such. In those cases all the grapes must be grown in the appellation the wine is labelled as—an improvement on the bad old days, before appellation wine laws, when wines from several appellations could be blended together and then labelled with the most prestigious appellation among them.

In recent years a lot of small négociants, some with no vineyards of their own, have entered the picture.

The négociant system is used in many parts of the world, and in 2013 two Toronto-based négociants established their own international business. Nicholas Pearce, a wine agent, and Will Predhomme, a sommelier and wine consultant, have a portfolio of wines from Oregon and South Africa labelled Pearce Predhomme, and from Ontario, labelled 3XP.

Pearce Predhomme wines are made mainly for restaurants and are designed for the Canadian market. Will Predhomme says the winemakers they partner with know the style they are looking for: low alcohol and bright acidity along with correct flavour for the varieties, and good texture and structure.

In some years Predhomme and Pearce have gone to Oregon and South Africa to blend their wines, while in others samples have been shipped to Toronto and the blending decisions made there while the winemakers participated by Skype. Long-distance blending might not be part of the négociant tradition, but it shows what is now possible.

Will Predhomme says he “loves getting to the point where the components come together.” They’ve come together in Pearce Predhomme wines such as a pinot gris and a pinot noir from Oregon, a chenin blanc and a cinsault-syrah blend from South Africa, and a chardonnay from Niagara Peninsula.

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