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Hard at it in the Médoc

I love to visit the vineyards at harvest time; it’s the culmination of a whole year’s work and seeing others break their backs either in searing heat or (in this case) between the showers reminds me that I don’t have to do it myself any more.

A Vineyard in Medoc

You might think “Seen one harvest, seen them all”, but I guess that depends how interested you are in where your wine comes from. Personally I find the whole thing absolutely fascinating, a new machine here, a different set-up there, and going round the châteaux seeing how it’s done helps me to understand each team’s approach, which over time gives you a deeper knowledge of what you’ll eventually be drinking. I know not everybody shares this view: one winemaker today reckoned I was nuts, that it’s the same everywhere, but I think he was pulling my leg, or perhaps he was just suffering from mid-harvest fatigue. Between the chais and the vineyard there can be some differences of opinion, too. While the owner is in the grape reception area, stressing over getting the fruit in as soon as possible before the next deluge damages the skins further, the young pickers out in the vines don’t quite feel the same pressure, stopping for a smoke and commenting, “It’s fine, we’re doing things at our speed, we’ll get it done.” Jokes apart, when they get the green light these teams can put in some impressive work, like at Château Palmer where this week they picked 10 hectares of Merlot on one day alone, and that on a Sunday. The green light is definitely on now, with a real fight against the rain and the rot. Individual properties will each have their story to tell, the choices they make now will influence their results, and the quality of their wine will be impossible to judge until the fermentations are finished, but in general there is a lot of shrugging out there and plenty of deep sighs.

Bumped into my old friend Chris this morning while I was at Palmer. No surprise to see him there, for as long as I’ve known him he’s worked for one of the négociants that owns the château. But not any more, apparently, as he’s just joined the Third Growth’s team as brand ambassador for the EMEA markets. Sounds very corporate, doesn’t it? But that’s the way things are going and this château has always been very strong on marketing and communications, which is partly why it’s now such a strong brand within the Cru Classé sector. I joked later with his boss that they’ve made a move towards selling direct, raising a topic popular (if that’s the right word) with Fine Wine distributors around the world: the idea that the big châteaux might capitalise on the close contact they’ve built up over recent years with importers and even consumers and one day boot the whole négoce system into touch, preferring to sell direct. The answer I got – and I expected, as I’ve had this conversation any number of times – was that direct sales are not going to happen, that they are winemakers and not salesmen, and that la place de Bordeaux offers so many advantages, not least a financial cushion from the market place in hard times, that the system will never change.

Chateau Palmer

Frankly, I buy that, although I have many colleagues in the UK and elsewhere who don’t. Business is all about profit, and a business with shareholders has an obligation to improve these wherever possible. So if you are certain of selling all you want to every year, and pretty much at the price you choose, as the top 30-40 Bordeaux producers do, then why allow a layer of middle men to live off your success and reputation when you could – should! – be banking their margin along with your own? If the cost of bringing the sales function in-house is less than the extra profit generated, then it should be a no-brainer.

Logic is great, n’est-ce pas, but it’s not a commodity that Bordeaux holds in very high esteem, and few here would let it colour their judgment. They prefer la passion, and this is what comes to the fore when you talk to any vigneron: passion for the vine, passion for the soil, passion for food, for good times, and for life in general. But will logic have to start playing more of a part for those properties with less deep pockets, those who have come to know their markets but for whom selling out every year is not a given? It would be a massive move against the inertia of the system, but if so, this could be the vintage that brings on that change.

It takes some time to get a feel for this bizarre symbiosis of the producers and the commercial system, and eventually you begin to understand why the great properties really don’t want to sell their wine themselves. Two hundred years ago the aristocrats didn’t want to dirty their hands with business, whereas now they have their hands full (and sometimes dirty) making the best wine they can so that they haven’t got time to sell it as well. They already make enough money to live very comfortably and, besides, if they gave themselves more to do, they wouldn’t get it all done in a 35-hour week!


Ben Kennedy
Tel: +33 (0) 5 56 57 18 65
Twitter: @thewinebuffer
Facebook: Rive Gauche Wines

Rive Gauche Wines is a Bordeaux négociant which offers a range of wines for everyday drinking as well as Crus Classés and other Fine Wines.  The company was established in 2011 by Ben Kennedy, formerly Bordeaux buyer for a leading St James’s merchant.  The wines on our list are hand-picked on the key criteria of quality and value-for-money, and include numerous undiscovered gems that are exclusive to Rive Gauche.

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