Traditionally, négociants were merchants who didn’t own or farm vineyards. They bought wines from small farmers and then blended, matured and sold them under their own names.
Until the 1970s, this was the principal business model of Burgundy, and it often represented the only route to market for peasant growers. Bigger growers had bottled and sold their own wines for a while.
In the 1980s, more small growers began to bottle and sell wines under their own labels. A few decades later, that practice had changed their fortune and created a flowering of quality and stylistic diversity.
As these estate-bottled wines became available, most of the hype was about them. It still is. For some reason, bigger négociants seemed less exciting.
Some négociants had a bad name because they traded only on Burgundy’s name and didn’t uphold its quality. Those languished, while others went for uncompromising quality. The best have a great track record and impressive vineyard holdings across the region. They’re known as négociants-éleveurs, or merchant-growers, who make wines from their own vineyards and purchased grapes.
Today, the wines from these merchant-growers can represent excellent value, especially now that bottles from the most sought-after small estates have become eye-wateringly expensive and sold on allocation only.
Burgundy has 3,577 estates that bottle their own wine. These are spread across 84 different appellations and 74,260 acres of vineyard, all of which really can be confusing. A good place to start is to get to know four historic négociants and why they’re important to the region’s past and present.
Consistency Is Key for Louis Latour
The Latour family has owned vineyards in the region since 1731 and founded this house in 1797. It also continues its legacy as a cooperage. The family continued to acquire vineyards and, by 1860, exported Burgundian wines as far afield as the U.S., Argentina and England.
Buoyed by that success, Latour became a négociant business in 1867.
It’s run today by Louis-Fabrice Latour, who represents the family’s 11th generation at the helm. He says that Louis Latour owns 119 acres of vineyards across 24 appellations of the Côte d’Or, and it buys grapes from 2,470 acres in 130 different appellations. All this adds up to an annual production of five million bottles.
Notably, the firm owns more than 62 acres of grand cru vineyards.
“The challenge is to keep consistency in both style and the quality across the range,” he says. “Contrary to what people may think, it is a challenge to make a very good Bourgogne Pinot Noir assembling different wines from different growers.”
That the firm makes wines across Burgundy, also from lesser-known appellations, and markets them through the Latour brand also presents value for growers.
“The Latour name is on the label whatever the vintage or appellation, and we have to preserve it through quality,” says Latour. “Our clients will be more likely to buy an appellation they are not familiar with because they know Louis Latour, they know our style.”
Maison Louis Jadot’s Hands-On Approach
Pierre-Henri Gagey, president of Maison Louis Jadot in Beaune, says that the house was “created in 1859 with a small and insufficient vineyard estate from the start, thus forcing Monsieur Jadot to buy grapes from other owners in order to produce a sufficient quantity and market them.”
It has been a négociant-éleveur ever since, and it’s had a good presence stateside since the 1940s via a partnership with the Kopf family, founders of the Kobrand Corporation. Today, it owns 346 acres of vineyards across 80 appellations, and it has six wineries from Chablis down to the Mâconnais.
“The chance that we have with a significant size is to be able to offer our clients regional appellations as well as village wines in sufficient quantities while being able to market them everywhere,” says Gagey. “Of course, our challenge is to ensure authenticity with a precise character and a high quality for all these wines produced in larger volumes. This obliges us to be very careful, to have a team that goes into the vineyards, works with the winemakers who supply us with their grapes and of course, to vinify to the maximum to respect the identity of each of the wines we produce.”
To that end, Jadot has its own vine nursery and doesn’t use herbicides in the vineyards. There’s only one way to really showcase these careful steps.
“We try to avoid at all costs producing wines that have a house style, because we think that Burgundy is great when each terroir can express itself,” says Gagey.
Fast Changes at Maison Albert Bichot
Maison Albert Bichot, founded in 1831, is the only négociant-éleveur with an organic certification, bestowed in 2014.
The business owns 395 acres across 51 appellations and buys grapes from another 865 acres, which amounts to production of three million bottles per year. Albéric Bichot, whose grandfather first exported to the U.S., represents the sixth generation to run this family-owned business. He says that the house used to buy wines, rather than grapes.
“Things have really changed since the early 2000s,” he says. “We decided to move to a winemaking-négociant model to have better control of supplies and better ability in terms of style.”
Under the family umbrella, the wines are named after individual estates across the region.
“Domaine Long-Depaquit in Chablis, Domaine du Clos Frantin in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Domaine du Pavillon in Pommard and Cuvérie Colbert in Beaune [which is the only one just under the Bichot name],” he says. “We have a dedicated winemaker and team in each winery.”
Bichot has a fitting formula to describe the house’s signature style.
“Origin plus freshness plus drinkability plus elegant structure plus energy equals Albert Bichot,” he says. “It is a great richness to be able to vinify such a diversity of appellations all over Burgundy and to discover new secrets of specific terroirs year after year. In vinification, thanks to our faithful grape suppliers, we learn a lot from them, too.”
‘No Rule’ for Bouchard Père & Fils
Gilles de Larouzière, chairman of Maisons & Domaines Henriot, says that this conglomerate “brings together four houses that are emblematic of their regions.” They are Bouchard Père & Fils, founded in the Côte d’Or in 1731, William Fèvre in Chablis, Champagne Henriot and Beaux Frères in Oregon.
“Each embodies the values and culture transmitted in the family,” he says. “Bouchard Père & Fils takes care of 321 acres of precious vines planted on 100 different climats, or plots, across 142 parcels. Of course, you need a great deal of knowledge and experience to take care of such a puzzle.”
Bouchard has owned vineyards since 1775. Two-thirds of its holdings are premiers and grands crus, which is rather unusual. It buys grapes from another 321 acres and produce 2.3 million bottles a year.
“We are driven by terroirs more than by a house style,” says de Larouzière. “Each climat is unique. Each wine is an individual, almost a living creature, with its own identity, character and behavior. Listening and observing take priority over action. The oenologist is a cellar master, not a winemaker.”
He quotes cellar master Frédéric Weber, who says “the rule is that there is no rule.”
De Larouzière emphasizes the perspective created by “roots that delve deep into the past and a plan which looks far into the future. The character of a custodian is needed, rather than that of an owner.”
To that end, the vineyards are in conversion to organic viticulture.
“By 2024, the 321 acres of the domaine will be certified organic.”