Black holes in the Bordeaux sky
Part 1: The endless race between the wine merchant and wine estate
When a wine investor or collector wants to complement his or her cellar with a bottle of the most recent vintage of Château Pétrus, there is only one alternative: estate-made and estate-bottled Château Pétrus. If you want to purchase a Château Pétrus that is beginning to mature enough to drink, say a 1959 vintage, the situation gets more complicated. There are Pétrus wines in the market that do not carry the familiar and reliable label and whose contents have not been blended, let alone bottled, at the Pétrus estate. The labels of these strange-looking Pétruses carry names such as Van der Meulen, Lafitte or Hannappier in large lettering. The same labels also tell that the wine has been blended and bottled in places like Belgium, the Netherlands or Sweden. The prices of these wines vary widely. This strange phenomenon is not typical only for Pétrus, because there are also British Lafites, Dutch Cheval Blancs, German Moutons and Belgian Latours. Should you then dare to buy a “Belgian Pétrus”? Yes, because it may be even better and less expensive than the original French one!
Up until the late 1960s, many Grand Cru estates used to sell all or part of their harvest in barrels to wholesale wine merchants who then bottled the wines. They also stuck labels on the bottles carrying their own information. This practice dates back to the 18th century, and as late as the 19th century, estate bottling was such a rare occurrence that the merchant’s name was often mentioned first on the labels of even the best-known estates, and the estate name in small letters afterwards.
It was not until the early 20th century that the largest and most prestigious estates started to bottle their wines at the estate. After the First World War, wine production was still a very unscientific activity; wine trade was dominated by large wholesalers instead of the estates, which made the ownership of a top-class estate in Bordeaux rather unprofitable. The most noted promoter of estate bottling was Baron Philippe de Rothschild. When he boldly bottled his entire 1924 vintage of Mouton-Rothschild himself, it was an unprecedented act. To underscore his position, the baron used works of the Cubist poster artist Carlu on his labels, which was called “Bolshevist activity” by Maurice Healy. Encouraged by de Rothschildt’s example, Château Latour, Lafite, Haut-Brion and Château d’Yquem started to bottle their own wines. Many top estates such as Château Petrus and Château Margaux, however, let the wholesalers bottle their wines until the late 60s.
Rich merchants, poor estates
The quality of wholesaler-bottled wine might vary a lot in comparison with estate-bottled wines, depending on who actually bottled it. The truth is that this system allowed unscrupulous merchants to increase their profits through blending unauthentic, cheaper wine in the bottles. On the other hand, several estates are guilty of this as well. Fortunately, you meet such bottles in the wine market very rarely. The other side of the coin is that there was a large group of wine merchants whose bottles were not only as good as estate bottlings, but often even better.
There are understandable reasons for this. The largest wholesalers with the best reputation tasted the wines barrel by barrel at the estate and then bought the best barrels. If necessary, they also blended the contents to guarantee even quality. Wholesale merchants had always made more money from the wines than the growers, which allowed them to invest more in first-class cellars. Significant operators in the market, the wholesalers also had excellent contacts with bottle and cork manufacturers who offered them their best products to guarantee the quality and preservation of the wines.
The wholesalers also bottled the wines at the optimal moment, whereas estates often bottled when other work at the estate gave them time for it. For example, the Château Latour 1961 bottling took a whole year at the estate.
The New Roles
When estate bottling was made legally mandatory for Grand Cru Classe wines in 1969, two centuries of wholesaler domination seemed to have come to an end.
The first half of the 1970s was a nightmare for wine wholesalers. They had made unsuccessful purchases and overloaded their warehouses with poor-quality 1972 and 1973 wines for which they could not find buyers. At the same time, the credibility of the merchants suffered because of a great wine scandal. Cruse, one of the largest and most reputed wholesalers, had bottled and marketed large quantities of AC Bordeaux classified red wine with the Cruse label. Which proved to be quite ordinary unclassified table wine. When Cruse’s forgery was revealed, the scandal erupted and the credibility of wholesalers was destroyed. The wholesalers also quickly lost their grip on the Bordeaux estates. The pricing, as well as the bottling, became the realm of the estates.
Not even the good-quality year of 1975 changed the situation, because it was commercially poor and the wholesalers were very cautious with their purchases. Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Lafite made a bold decision and bypassed the wholesalers altogether. They sold part of their wines in batches direct to collectors and investors through Christie’s auction house in London. This was considered a daring move and the final blow to wholesalers. There was no return to the previous situation, even if the wholesalers still sell three-quarters of Bordeaux wines. Many wholesalers -négociants- folded because of financial difficulties in 1974 and 1975.
The best and the most reliable
The largest and most traditional wholesalers were naturally the most reliable ones, as a good reputation was a matter of honour and the cornerstone of a successful business. The best-known are A&R Barriere, Van der Meulen, Barton&Guestier, De Luze&Fils, Sichel, Berry Brothers, Avery’s, Cuvelier&Fils, Hannappier, Calvet, Lafitte, Grafe-Lecocq, Charles Bardin and Sander’s, to name just a few.
Because wholesaler bottlings are often up to 20-40% cheaper than estate bottlings in the secondarymarket, they are good value for money. It is worth remembering, however, to make sure that all the external factors that affect the quality of the wine are in order. The price should also be in the correct proportion to estate-bottled wines. One should always pay attention to the the origin of the wine, because there are lots of counterfeit wines. Only few wholesalers used corks and capsules with vintage and estate information on the wine, in addition to their own data. That is why so-called easy counterfeits, bottles with changed labels, are being offered far too often.
As a rule, excellent wines
We have bought hundreds of wholesaler-bottled wines over the years, mostly to be enjoyed at dinners and tastings. Our best memories are from Van Der Meulen Château d´Yquem 1921, De Luze&Fils Château Lafite 1811 and 1900, Sichel&Fils Château Calon-Segur 1928, Van Der Meulen Château Pétrus 1947, Berry&Bros Château Palmer 1961, Sichel& Co. Château Cheval Blanc 1953, Barton&Guestier Château Margaux 1959, Lafitte&Co. Château Pétrus 1959 and Van Der Meulen Romanée-Conti 1923 and 1929. Unfortunately, we have also encountered major disappointments and hundrets of forgeries.
We do not recommend wholesaler-bottled wines as investments except in special cases, because one can never be quite sure about their origin or their authenticity. Uncertainty usually elicits healthy mistrust in wine investors as realising these wines may take a long time. On the other hand, the best wines from the best wholesalers can easily be recommended for enjoyment, because nine out of ten will reward the buyer, and not only through price.