How Bordeaux’s Courtiers and Negociants will shape 2014 En Primeur

Last week I attended the first official tasting of the 2014 vintage, held exclusively for the Bordeaux Trade. It’s a kind of a tradition, organized by the Union des Grands Crus always held ahead of the Primeurs Week. Most of the Grands Crus were present and, more importantly, most of the owners were there! All of the negociants and the courtiers came to taste the wines to get the first broad view of the quality of the vintage as determined by the Bordeaux Establishment. For the local protagonists, it is a good opportunity to show your competitors you’re still alive and wealthy and to hear what’s really happening on the markets.Of course, the main agenda is to taste the wines. And I will report in my blogs next week about the wines themselves, as I have yet to taste all of them I feel it would be premature to comment on them now. Plus I think it would be helpful to explain more about the system.

Last Wednesday, the courtiers played the main role. But why? What are they really doing in this business? Do we actually need them? As you already probably know, the Bordeaux system is based on 3 actors: the estate (“château” in French!), the courtier and the negociant. All of the wines from Bordeaux, from the basic bulk of red wine up to Château Petrus is sold through this system. Only the Bordeaux-based negociants can buy those wines directly in Bordeaux at the châteaux and the chateaux’ interests are represented by the courtiers. There are roughly 100 courtiers offices in Bordeaux. Ten of them influence the Grands Crus business and these courtiers are at the very heart of the system. In essence the courtiers are at the origins of supply. They secure the allocations from the châteaux, and then determine strict supply to a number of negociants, according to each château’s strategy. No bottle of Grands Crus will leave a château cellar without having been allocated to a negociant by a courtier. The good courtier owns the supply and price information. That is the real key to the business: to know who’s doing what and where at what price! The courtiers know everything you need to know and everything you shouldn’t know! They make the market liquid and efficient. Also, they make all the transactions legal. But of course, some of them are known because of their ability to analyze the trends, to investigate on certain price evolutions.

The prices are established by demand and it is the role of the courtiers to then make them available to the market via the negociants. The system is still operated as it has been for centuries and some commentators argue that the courtiers need to become more efficient, that only a few of them have the proper IT systems to organize and analyze the whole market. I have worked in the fine wine business in Bordeaux for 15 years now, and throughout this period I have heard comments that the courtiers will eventually disappear. Personally, I am sure they won’t, especially if they find new solutions and provide new information and services. They are definitely useful, if you know how to use them of course! I will personally take care of some of them because they will find for me the wines I’m looking for at fair prices. Starting next week, Messieurs Courtiers, you are my best friends!

Stay tuned for the detailed views on the vintage from the Primeurs 2014 next week. Our tasting program includes Châteaux Haut Brion, Smith Haut Lafitte, Pape-Clément, Léoville Poyferré, Pontet-Canet, Cheval Blanc, Troplong-Mondot and d’Yquem and many more…a hard job, but for you – I will do it.

Renaud Ruer