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What Is a Wine Négociant? Négociant Wine Merchants

March 19, 2021
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Scott
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Négociant means trader in French. A wine négociant is a wine trader, then. Also known as a wine merchant. They buy grapes, grape juice, or fermented wine from growers and vineyards. Then they bottle them, label them, and sell them. 

They’ve historically had a less-than-stellar reputation. 

Why?

The wine industry deeply respects growers. Wine négociants sometimes look like they’re making money off the hard work of farmers. But that opinion is no longer en vogue. And as the wine industry growth rate rises, so does the importance of négociants.

What wine négociants really do is assume the expenses of bottling, packaging, marketing, and transacting. That way winemakers can focus on winemaking.

Types of Negociant Wine Merchant

There are two ways wine négociants go about their business. 

Standard Wine Negociants

The most well-trod wine négociant strategy is buying complete wine in bulk then bottling it and selling it wholesale. This leaves the harvesting, crushing, pressing, fermentation, and clarification all to the grower, vineyard, or winemaker. The role of négociant in this setup is packaging, marketing, and sales.

Négociant-Éleveur

Éleveur means breeder in French. A négociant-éleveur, then, means a wine merchant and developer. These are the negociants that acquire grapes or unfermented wine juice and do their winemaking effectively from scratch. They can pull any number of levers like the amount of wine tannins or wine alcohol content. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most difficult and prestigious négociant.

There is also a middle ground between standard negociant and négociant-éleveur. You can think of it as a négociant-éleveur-lite. They take fermented or clarified wine and make small improvements to it. That also invites the risk that they degrade the wine, too (see wine oxidation and bottle shock in wine). They do more than the standard négociant, but less than a full-fledged négociant-éleveur.

That middle ground is why the actual meaning between négociant and négociant-éleveur is now a bit blurry. Many négociants claim éleveur status by making only the slightest changes to what is essentially already finished wine. So, at this point, they’re fairly synonymous.

To ensure you’re dealing with a quality wine négociant, your best bet is to do your research and not rely on labels. Look into exactly what they do to their wine and how.

Well-Known International Wine Négociants (10)

The presence of wine négociants first started in Burgundy, so it’s no surprise that some of the best known Burgundy producers are mostly négociants: Maison Louis Jadot, Maison Joseph Drouhin, and Bouchard Père & Fils.

Maison Louis Jadot

Maison Louis Jadot was founded in 1859 with the purchase of the Beaune vineyard by the Jadot family. In addition to the 670 acres of Burgundy vineyards they operate, they also buy grapes from other growers. This makes them a prime example of a négociant-éleveur.

Maison Joseph Drouhin

Joseph Druin established himself as a reliable négociant at the age of 22 around Burgundy. While the family-owned Drouhin owns almost 200 acres of vineyards, they still acquire grapes from other growers to fold into their winemaking processes. Another great example of a négociant-éleveur.

Bouchard Père & Fils

Bouchard Père & Fils buys the majority of their grapes from other growers. They then take care of the rest of the winemaking process. They do own over 300 acres of vineyard, however. Again, a négociant-éleveur.

The New Wine Négociant

The craft-consciousness of modern consumers is changing the way négociants do business. Today’s newer négociants are working with select vineyards or star winemakers to create custom-crushed, custom-fermented wines. This approach leans into the négociant’s strength: if more than one organization has a hand in the winemaking process, make it a collaboration with as much name recognition and hype as possible.

A great example of this is the 2002 Jean-Claude Boisset Chambolle-Musigny. Boisset hired renowned winemaker Gregory Patriat to collaborate on a new négociant-éleveur approach that results in a widely-admired wine with anise and berry notes.

Benefits of Négociants for Your Wine Cellar

A good négociant is typically able to sell rarer, higher-quality wines at a lower price than vineyards or winemakers sell directly. That’s because they work with smaller, family-owned and -operated vineyards that don’t otherwise have the resources to bottle and sell wine at a reasonable price.

Additionally, négociants can give collectors good deals on wines from large estates, too. Often huge vineyards grow too many grapes. They tend toward growing more to make sure they don’t run out (almost like safety stock). That means they’ve got leftover grapes that négociants can pick up on the cheap. That turns into affordable, high-quality wine.

That’s why cozying up to reputable négociants is a well-worn tactic in the wine collecting world. Other well-worn tactics include using a wine cellar app, getting the right wine storage furniture, and paying attention to wine cellar lighting.

Pitfalls of Négociants

If you’re not familiar with how to read a wine label, you can end up with a confusing wine when buying a bottle from a négociant.

Here’s why:

Let’s say you purchase a $15 bottle that says “Burgundy” on the label. When you open it and taste it, you know it’s not a Burgundy (those sommelier classes are paying off). It tastes more like a Alsatian pinot noir (wow, you must have passed a sommelier exam or read the best wine books or something). 

That’s because the négociant, based in Burgundy, acquired pinot noir grapes from Alsace. The rest of the winemaking may have happened in Burgundy, but the wine itself has a distinct Alsatian terroir. That’s how you can end up with a wine name that says Burgundy that doesn’t taste like the Burgundies you’re familiar with.

If you’re very particular about your wines and you’re shopping for négociant wines, always make sure you know the growing region before purchase.

Like all things, there are good versions and bad. Some wine négociants are just out to make a buck. The quality of the wine and the support for the vineyard are distant priorities compared to profit. But there are great wine négociants out there that ethically source and acquire high-quality grapes and/or wine that you otherwise couldn’t get at a reasonable price.

Another tip for private wine collectors is using bar inventory software like BinWise Pro. Top collectors across the country level our commercial-grade perpetual inventory system—but scaled to meet their private needs. It’s one of the best things you can do for your wine storage. And we’re excited to show you how.

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