Bordeaux Wine Guide: The Business of Bordeaux
Although wine geeks like us spend the majority of our time obsessing over grape variety, terroir and the latest new-age winemaking philosophy, anybody directly involved in the wine trade will soon learn that there is much more to wine than merely understanding how it is made. Once in the bottle (and sometimes, especially in Bordeaux, before it has even seen a bottle), the wine has to be sold, passing from winemaker to the end consumer. In the 21st century it is not inconceivable that the chain of supply might feature only three individuals: the producer, a middleman who acts as buyer, shipper and retailer (a European supermarket might work in this manner) and the eventual consumer, who coughs up the money that makes it all worthwhile.
In Bordeaux, however, such a simple three-person system is very unlikely. Bordeaux has evolved a rigid supply chain for the sale of wine, one which has its origins in the Bordeaux of two centuries ago. So let us look back two hundred years, to a time when the marshy Médoc had not long been opened up by the visiting Dutch engineers. Every gravel croupe began to sprout vines as the local nobility, and subsequently the merchants and lawyers who aspired to such titles, purchased land along the length of the Gironde, and set about instructing its planting. All the ingredients for viticultural, vinous and financial success were present; on one side there were good quality vineyards combined with an appropriate level of investment from the rich proprietors, and on the other a willing, solvent body of consumers eager to buy and knock back the wines. But how were these châteaux to be run? How were the wines to be sold? The solutions to these innocuous questions, put in place by the 18th-century château-proprietors, were the beginnings of the business of Bordeaux as we know it today.
The wealthy blue-blooded proprietors of the grand estates that sprang up at this time – you only have to look at the likes of Château Margaux (above) to understand the wealth and status tied up in Bordeaux during the 18th and 19th centuries – had, perhaps unsurprisingly, no desire to get their own hands dirty. These were not the peasant vignerons that existed elsewhere in France. Nor were they the 18th-century equivalents of the today’s organic and biodynamically enthused viticulteurs, eager to reconnect with nature, and feel the soil between their fingertips. Their estates in Bordeaux were about something else; status, wealth and grandeur. The fact that the estate made a little sous on the side selling the harvest – wine, wheat or otherwise – was probably not a major topic of dinner party conversation.