Moving from the idyllic vineyards of Chateau Mauvesin to the city has been, in no uncertain terms, a shock to the system. Honestly though, that shock was nothing in comparison to my first morning in the office at Maison Beyerman (a wine merchant for whom I will be working over the next 3 months). I’m fairly certain my brain cells actually thought they were being assaulted…it turns out that an explanation of not just the functioning of the wine trade and market, but also Bordeaux’s own specific wine trade (because obviously it’s different from the rest of the world – the concept of the ‘simple life’ is evidently yet to reach the Western Coast of France) in rapid-fire French, is in fact quite a lot to take in.
For some reason, which isn’t exactly a mystery given the subject of this blog, when I confirmed my placement working for Beyerman way back when, my line of thinking went something like this: ‘wine, wine, wine, wine’. Not ‘merchant, merchant, merchant, merchant.’ Now, I realize that this may indeed have been a little naïve…I also realize that the former sentence is equally a ‘little’ bit of an understatement. But it’s in situations like these that you just put you’re head down and crack on…and then immediately go home to google ‘Trade Systems for Dummies’.
So now that I’ve (at least vaguely) got my head around it, let us tackle the subject of ‘La Place de Bordeaux’. For starters, it’s not a quaint little square complete with an 18th century church, though there are plenty of those knocking around here in Bordeaux. No, La Place is, rather than a physical location, more the system of trade that is unique to Bordeaux…the system I will now try to explain to you, so buckle up team, Leo’s got nothing on me (perhaps excluding the Lamborghini), let the Trade Tale begin…
To be able understand any story, first you need to understand the characters involved. In La Place, there are 3 (so theoretically it shouldn’t be too tricky): The chateaux (wine producers), the courtiers (brokers) and the negociants (merchants). This is one of the few instances in life where three is not a crowd, in fact, much like The Musketeers this triumvirate seem to have worked out exactly how to get a three-way relationship right (mind out of the gutter please – I see you).
So the chateaux are in effect the beginning of a supply chain. However, rather than selling directly to the merchants, they bring a middleman into the equation: the courtiers. It’s true that this does complicate the whole process…but it seems that, for once, the French logic is pretty rational. Not only does the courtier act as a guarantor, ensuring there is a good working relationship between the producer and the merchant, they also have an unbelievably intimate knowledge of the who’s, how’s and where’s of the wine. This market information means that they can keep things flowing through La Place because they know who wants what, who has what and what to do with the ‘what’…still with me? In other words, it’s a little Gossip Girl –esque: the courtiers know everyone’s business. However, rather than sending bitchy texts, this knowledge is actually essential to the functioning of the market as it enables them to ensure prices are fixed appropriately and that demand is sufficiently met (XOXO).
One of the more unique aspects of La Place is the Primeur system, also known as Futures. Don’t get too excited, there’s no Doc Brown on the scene, nor is there a time travelling car. There is, however, some of worlds best wine made by the biggest names in the business being sold at its cheapest point…which I would argue might is actually more exciting than a time-travelling geezer with a dodgy haircut, but I suppose that’s just me. Bordeaux Primeur is, simply, wine being sold while it’s still in barrels, before bottling.
The whole Primeur situ (quite rightly) has a lot of fuss surrounding it, particularly since timing and tact are essential. In the first week of April Bordeaux descends into a wine-induced frenzy (though not quite the same wine-induced frenzy I should think most of you are familiar with). At the beginning of the week our little triumvirate comes together to taste the most recent vintage (i.e. in April 2019 they’ll be tasting 2018) of all the Grand Cru Chateaux (in other words the ‘big dogs’). Admittedly ‘little’ could be slightly understated given that there are about 400 chateaux and 5,000 merchants, brokers, importers, experts and journalists in the mix. Come the end of the week, after they have all tasted till there little hearts’ are content and the scores and tasting notes come in from the scary critics and journalists, the ‘en primeur’ prices are released.
‘But why!?’ Yes, I can pretty much hear you think – scary right? Primeur means the chateaux are selling their precious grapey goodness at a lower price than if it were bottled, so it would be easy to assume that a) the chateaux loose out and b) all in all, it’s just a bit of a silly system. However, the logic works out: selling the wine before it has been bottled creates a cash flow for the chateaux, which means they can get cracking with work on the next vintage, which is obviously pretty essential.
As an overview, I think (/hope) that should cover it…I also don’t really want to send you all to sleep/scare you away forever, so I’ll leave it there. I might only have been in the office for 2 weeks, but I’ve already learnt a huge amount and am hugely excited for all that is to come over the next few months. It’s true that my current status is definitely minnow, but every piranha’s got to start somewhere…!
Until next time,
For the past two weeks I have been working in the winery at Chateau Mauvesin Barton, witnessing the next stage in a grape’s life. Here, they predominantly use machines for harvest – hence the above tragic tale. The grapes are shaken from the vines by a machine that isn’t dissimilar to a combine harvester, they are then transported by trailer to the winery where they are met by even more bits of snazzy kit. They are emptied from the trailer onto a grape escalator (terminology has never been my strong suit), then dropped on to a vibrating table that acts as a conveyor belt. Here a small team stands to fish out the undesirables: leaves, stalks, spiders and snails…newly homeless snails I might add. However, it seems that being homeless is the better of the two outcomes for these guys. I won’t go into the details of the other result but I’ll leave it at this: snail intestines are absolutely as disgusting as they sound.
To any vegetarians/vegans out there; I can confirm the wine making process is not exactly in keeping with your habits. So unless you’re one of the well-I-do-occasionally-eat-bacon types then you might need to reconsider your stance on wine I’m afraid. Or better yet, your stance on eating (just saying).
In terms of the various processes of vinification I witnessed, during the early stages while I was there, there were 3 predominant daily procedures:
Come the end of the day, the last trailer load usually coming in at around 5.30pm (on a good day), the cleaning operation then commences. I say ‘operation’ because frankly brain surgery would likely be both an easier and quicker procedure. Not joking. To put it in perspective, between 400-500 hectoliters of juice is produced each day. Generally speaking, between 130-160kg of grapes produces 1 hectolitre...seeing as I’ve entirely had enough of numbers I think it therefore suffices to say that it is an inordinate number of grapes. Now, grapes are a little like sand, they have a habit of getting in every nook, cranny and unbelievably irritating, far-fetched gap possible, so when that is paired with complex pieces of machinery worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, really it’s no wonder that ‘nettoyage’ (cleaning) is rarely completed in under 2 hours (I’m now also extremely adept with a hose-pipe).
My next adventure starts next week in the city center of Bordeaux itself, where I’ll be working in for a wine merchant. I think going from the ‘chais’ to an office will be quite the adjustment but I can’t wait to get stuck in, so let’s hope I’ll be able to form some comprehensive French sentences over the coming days!
Until next time,