If you’ve ever wanted to know how Bordeaux’s wine trading marketplace – La Place – works, then the best way is obviously to have it explained to you by a top German-born sommelier. Jan Konetzki shuffles us onto the history bus for a tour of a wine world institution.
Explain La Place to me in two sentences
La Place de Bordeaux is a Medieval distribution network used to distribute the wines of Bordeaux globally. Wines are sold from the châteaux to Bordeaux negociants (via a courtier) before being sold on to individual wine merchants around the world and then on to the consumer.
Chateaux I understand – but tell me more about negociants and courtiers
The negociant system has been around in Bordeaux since the early 1600’s and is one of the major reasons Bordeaux became the world’s most important and collectible wine region. And mostly we’ve got the Dutch to thank for it.
As well as draining the swamps (Haut-Medoc, was a swamp in case you did not know), they were some of the first negociants – merchants who may have grown some wine of their own, but mostly bought it, labelled it, shipped it and promoted it inside France and abroad. They were also responsible for producing custom blends ordered by clients.
The modern-day negociant system can be compared to a pre-arranged group of wholesalers who get rewarded by being able to buy (and sell on) a percentage of a château’s harvest every year. Interestingly, the negociants all pay the same price on the same day at close to the same time. They are supposed to sell the wines for the same price, with the same mark-up, though in practice the laws of the market exert a strong influence and this doesn’t always happen.
So if château owners grow the grapes and make the wine, and negotiants sell it, what do courtiers do?
This is a historic trading system that originated in the Middle Ages, and it was set up to prevent France’s elite from having to do anything so uncouth as having to work for a living. These aristocratic owners of wine châteaux did not want to deal directly with the merchant classes. They thought it was common to engage in such commercial activity themselves.
And that’s where the courtiers came in. They acted as go-betweens for the châteaux and the negotiants. Think of them as Personal Assistants or Messengers – though a very well paid one.
Courtiers typically charge 2% on any deal that they broker and it is one of the most difficult jobs to get into in Bordeaux. You need to pass a series of exams and blind tasting tests, coupled with a minimum of five years of training before you can become a licensed courtier. Kind of like learning to train to be a black cab driver.
I get that it made sense hundreds of years ago. But why is it still the established route to market today?
This is a good question. After all, the world of communications and selling has changed out of sight, while the aristocratic owners are now often replaced by banks, insurance companies or wealthy individuals. Yet the system is still going strong.
Most questionable, for Place-sceptics, is the continued existence of the courtier, since business and communication are now immediate and there is no more royal-class.
Yet fans of the system say they still have a role. The courtier, after all, is a useful buffer between buyer and seller (a bit like an estate agent) and can keep the sometimes heated conversation cool. It’s a big advantage if you are trying to make a deal.
Negociants, meanwhile, have literally created the demand for Bordeaux, its châteaux and appellations since as early as the 1620’s, and they still have great connections and power in the world of wine.
It’s the reason why even wineries from outside Bordeaux (like Super-Tuscans, and estates from Napa Valley and Argentina) are now signing up to the system, in order to find distribution.
The Place might be an old system, but there still seems to be plenty of life left in it.