There is a saying you often hear in France: “Ca se fait pas” – literally “that does not do itself or, in English, “that isn’t the done thing”.

One of the things that isn’t done in France is purchasing Bordeaux directly from a top chateau. Would-be buyers have to place their orders through a négociant – merchant – who, in turn, will have made their purchase through a courtier – broker.

There are, it seems, a few exceptions to this rule. Chinese buyers who resent having to include middle-men in their transactions have reportedly managed to sidestep it (sometimes with the help of “tame” negociants who have been persuaded to take less than their usual margin).

More recently, however, at least one 2nd growth has, it seems, decided to break the convention completely.

Chateau Lascombes, a second growth Margaux, has sent out the following letter to a number of French people inviting them to place orders for some of its 2012 wine. 

The letter contains a description of the background to the vintage, references to quotes by French critics – and the suggestion that “this great wine asks nothing more than to mature in your cellar”. The price the great wine is asking is almost identical the the one quoted for Millésima on Wine-Searcher, and there’s no suggestion that stocks are limited, but perhaps some people will be tempted by the appeal of buying directly from the chateau.

For my part, I have a few questions:

  • Is this a one-off operation by Chateau Lascombes?
  • Or could I look forward to ordering my 2013 from them during the April en primeur tastings?
  • Are any other estates making similar offers?
  • Is this crack in the wall of the way things are done in Bordeaux going to have wider implications?

  1. Very interesting Robert, but have you spoken to Dominique Befve at the Chateau? Rather than trying to raise suspicions and undermine the great work of the negociants, why not just ask him if he is selling direct? Average production at Lascombes is very large. Maybe he just needs to sell some wine in a tricky vintage.

  2. Robert,

    This is definitely a harbinger of things to come, and companies like mine are helping to facilitate. At VinConnect, we enable customers in the US to buy wine directly from top European estates. We have 29 wineries from Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, Tuscany, the Piedmont, Germany and Spain, though none yet from Bordeaux due to the deeply entrenched interests there that you mentioned. More direct customer relationships are certainly the way of the future for so many reasons — I'd be happy to chat with you more about it should you so desire as we think these are fascinating times in the wine business…

  3. I'm sorry Hamish, I'm NOT trying to “raise suspicions” or “undermine the negociants”. I'm reporting facts. The letter and the forms are pretty self explanatory: Lascombes HAS made this offer. Bordeaux IS awash with 2011 and 2012 for which there is little demand. 2013 is, at best, “good”: hardly a reason for buying it en primeur. The rumblings about not producing 2013 – and selling the wine under second labels – are real.

    Bordeaux is not an unchangeable piece of granite. Until the 1960s, chateaux happily allowed others to bottle their wines. That's no longer the case. The modern en primeur system did not exist in the 1950s. There is no reason why Bordeaux should not evolve further. And plenty of reasons why the current model may not survive.

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