Bordeaux. There is not a reputable wine list on the planet that doesn’t feature one of the many legendary wines from this epicenter of viticulture and holy grail of collectable houses. We were honored to be invited to the fabled En Primeur Week by famed wine négociant Haut-Médoc Selection (HMS) Bordeaux to see how the 2018 vintage is stacking up and given a 360 review of how this culture of greatness emerged, is produced, operates and represented.
The Bordeaux wine system is very different from most and remains unique. Négociants have become the unofficial banks for the château owners because the top chateaux only sell their wine to the négociants. Bordeaux is the only wine producing area without any need for direct customer interaction with the chateau and the owners. One week a year, known as En Primeur, the world travels to Bordeaux to purchase last year’s vintages by the barrel just months after harvest and well before bottling. This business practice of châteaux selling to négociants has been around since the 1600’s and was originally started by the Dutch. We had the pleasure of asking one of the most prominent Bordeaux négociants and true Bordeaux native, Mr. Philippe Tapie, some questions about his experience and insight on the history of Bordeaux, En Primeur, being the son of a château family, the culture of where we are today on a modern market and how he single-handedly brought the négociant profession into a new and progressive era.
Let’s start at the beginning, how exactly did you you get involved in the négociant business?
“My family comes from Algeria, well, they are French people who moved to Algeria and back. My grandfather was a real pioneer who saw the situation in Algeria for what it was very early on and sold everything ten years before the war broke out. Back in France he decided to invest in a château Bordelais and enter the wine business. The château at that point was completely in shambles – when it rained outside it rained in the dining room too basically – but he knew the area was going to be something and he was absolutely right. My family is still involved in the Classified Growth, but I wanted something else. So, I moved to the spirits side of the business and I found it was really simple for me. Everything was so straightforward and I really enjoyed the fact that I could apply everything I had learned in business school about marketing and sales to this business. I ended up moving to New York and stayed there until my father got sick and I knew it was time to come back to France. The wine business is in my blood and when it’s in your blood year after year you can feel it growing. However, I still didn’t want to be involved in the production side, I wanted to become the first generation involved in the merchant side. This was easier for me to do because I have the origin, I’m not sure I would’ve succeeded if I didn’t have my family background. Bordeaux is a village, the Classified Growth 1855 is its own village within the village, and the higher you go on the classification the smaller the village gets. So I was lucky to have great credibility through my family and to have access to all the villages. When I created the company in 2002 I wanted it to be different and special, the last thing Bordeaux needed was another wine négociant, so I took all I had learned from my years in the spirits industry and applied this approach to the whole school of Bordeaux. Before, if you tried talking about marketing Bordeaux it was considered an insult, but slowly I started to convince people and I applied this new level of exclusive service to the industry. It worked so well that we immediately attracted the attention of the First Growth chateaus, which is unheard of. When you have that in this industry, you’re set.”
And how did this beautiful building we’re in come about?
“It’s a funny story actually, when I created the company we were looking for a classic location to headquarter our office in. We were renting for a while and just waiting to find the perfect location. For many years I’ve known the building we’re in right now – this building and the twin building next door are very famous in Bordeaux as they are the only buildings left that were built in the 17th century. Historically the Chartrons area of Bordeaux, where we are located, is the main area of the wine industry and I knew the people who bought this building in 1989, they were members of my family. So, we almost literally had a foot in the door of this building already. When ten years after starting my wine merchant company I felt it was time to invest in some real estate to establish my office, one of my customers asked me: ‘Why are you looking for something you already have? You have a stake in one of the most beautiful buildings of Bordeaux which is located right in the wine heart of the world.’ I thought he was crazy at first, but after thinking about it for a few days I knew he was right. This was the place I was supposed to be in. In 2011 we bought the building and in 2012 we officially located our company here.”
You must have a very impressive wine collection yourself. I’m sure the majority of it is Bordeaux, but do you have New World wines in your cellar?
“You will laugh, but I drink wine every day. And in my private cellar, yes, I have some different region wines, but just for passion and for the pleasure of drinking them with family and friends. I’m not a collector, for me wine is not a commodity and my company is not an actor in the stock market. Honestly, I don’t even have a huge knowledge of the foreign wine countries. Of course I know the famous bottles of Italian wine and I love some California wines too, but I don’t know them like I know Bordeaux.”
If you had to pick one California wine that you think is really top quality, which one would it be?
“I would not be objective, I’d say Opus 1 [laughs]. I’m a fan of Dominus too, it’s really great wine by the Moueix family who do a tremendous job because they are real wine lovers. I also love Chardonnay from California because I love white wine. It’s fruity, which is totally opposite and different from a classic Burgundy for example. White burgundy is more fresh and precise. But I also love the very fruity wines. So, I appreciate that, but the point is that I’m lucky enough to get what I love in my cellar and in my day-to-day business. When you’re a wine merchant you are lucky because you just hop on the road to taste and share the best wines with customers. So, I drink great wine all day, and I’m not dead [laughs]. I guess there’s something to say for that. In all seriousness though, it’s a very nice job because you have fun every day, and that’s the most important.”
How old were you when you had your first sip of Bordeaux?
“I think my first memory of a glass of red wine is from when I was thirteen years old and my father took me to taste the wine right after it was put in the barrels. I didn’t drink the wine, I just tasted it. I remember he was teaching me how to smell, how to have the wine touch your mouth and how to spit, not drink. We had to do that with each barrel on the property.”
Do you feel like it was a rite of passage that your father took you around like that?
“It’s a sense of family, absolutely. My own children are thirteen years old now, they haven’t drank an actual glass of wine of course, but they know how to hold the glass. And each time I open a bottle I let them smell it and say what is okay, what is not okay. They never drank a full glass, but it’s already done, they’re in the atmosphere and they will grow to be involved in the business. I don’t want to force them and they will have to do what they want to do first – if it’s a reasonable, of course – but my story is a nice story to remind them of how life can go, because as I said before, up until I was eighteen or twenty years old I never wanted to work in the wine business. But look at me now.”
Do you remember when you had that first glass of wine that made you go ‘wow’?
“Well, it’s a difficult question to answer because I personally think you will never one hundred percent understand what you enjoy. I hate to say ‘well, this wine is like this, and this wine is like that’, no, I don’t care about that. The point is that you like or you don’t like it. That’s the only question you have to concern yourself with. Do we all have the same taste? Of course not. A good wine for you is not necessarily a good wine for me and vice versa.”
Who would you say is the most preeminent critic of Bordeaux nowadays who is shaping what people purchase?
“I think the most prominent critic was Robert Parker, no doubt, but with him being gone I think it’s finished, nobody will replace him. I had huge respect for him, he was a very professional and objective guy and Bordeaux has a lot to thank to him. But I was never comfortable with the idea that people were buying wines based on one man’s personal taste. The reference was one person’s opinion, everybody moved to get the same wine that Mr. Robert Parker loved because he decided it was worth a hundred points. I was shocked to see that some wine makers would actually change their sign just to move in the Parker style direction. I don’t blame Parker, I actually believe that during his career he managed to stay very objective, but like I said, the problem is that it was always Mr. Parker’s taste. Now we have to face the future where there is no Parker anymore, and mainly in the US market this caused the consumer to be lost for a while. It was almost as if people had lost their Bible. For us it was a very important moment in time because it provided us the opportunity to give advice again. It was a real chance to reinvent a new style of professional advice in a modern day and age which is based on what you like and not on someone else’s systematic opinions.”
Within Bordeaux the culture of each region differs quite a bit, doesn’t it?
“We have a lot to do with the variety of wine we have in Bordeaux. It’s a real funny thing to see the difference and the compatibility between the Left Bank and the Right Bank. The Right Bank is sort of a garden with a Burgundy approach; a small production area which could be very different from one meter to the next and which is very rich in sense. On the Left Bank you have Médoc which is more big machines and big properties, but it’s also a rich challenge to produce a very tremendous wine in big quantities. They get a little bit furious when I say this, but for the Right Bank it’s easier to make great wine when you make a hundred percent Selection. You don’t have a lot of chance to miss something. For the Médoc, when you want to make quality in volumes and you’re not using the technique of the Selection it’s totally different. It means more complicated production for high level quality wine in big quantities.”
Do you have a favorite wine yourself?
“If you ask me if I prefer a blonde woman over a brunette I couldn’t give you an answer. I’m married to a brunette but I could never say that brown is better than blonde. Same goes for wine. There is no universal taste, but of course when you call your company Haut-Médoc Selection it’s not really objective. I’m obviously more Left Bank than I am Right, but I recognize that there are famous and tremendous wines on the Right. I’m more of a Cabernet than a Merlot guy, this is my taste, but can I say that the wine made by Merlot is worse than than Cabernet? Absolutely not.”
Considering your legacy here and the fact that you have access to so many châteaux and wines, do you feel that gastronomy is just as important for the every day consumer as wine?
“It’s all about the synergy between food and wine. What today’s consumer is looking for is the highest quality and best quality versus price ratio. It’s the same for the food and the same for the wine, it’s exactly the same approach. I’m talking about our core business here of course, the Classified Growths, which really only represent three percent of the global Bordeaux wine market. The Classified Growth and the 1855 Classification is only three percent of the market but it’s one hundred percent of the image. It’s exactly the same if you’re talking about the food industry and three-star chefs. How many are there? Not that many, but they represent eighty percent of the global image. That doesn’t mean that the chefs who don’t have stars aren’t good at their jobs, it’s just different. You have great wines that are not Classified Growths, there are fourteen thousand brands in Bordeaux so of course they exist, but it’s different.”
About the Classification 1855, where does it come from?
“This classification makes the real difference between the Left Bank and the Right Bank. The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 results from the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris, the ministry of Agriculture decided in 1853 under Napoleon III that they wanted a classification system for France’s best Bordeaux wines so that everyone who came to the 1855 exposition knew who was the first, the second, the third, etcetera. Brokers from the wine industry ranked the wines according to a château’s reputation and trading price, which at that time was directly related to quality. After that the system never changed. And honestly, if you think about the fact that in 1855 they already understood so well what happened with the climate and the soil, you can only have the utmost respect. Until this day the system still makes a hundred percent sense, the classification is amazing because it’s true. For a time where there was no internet and no technology, they had such an understanding of the soul of the earth, it all makes sense. The Right Bank isn’t able to make such a differentiation due to nature. That’s the reason why they decided to change the system and to reconsider the classification each ten years, because it’s not as straightforward where everyone can agree. But on the Left Side: respect. It’s the base of our organization here in Bordeaux. It is one of our secrets. I will not give you all the secrets, but this is one of them [laughs].”
So, this En Primeur week, all of the production for 2018 will be spoken for at the end of this week?
“This week is the official presentation. The world is here for one week and it really showcases the power of the system, everyone is here to meet the new baby, to greet the new king. Wine professionals from all over the world come to taste and take notes, they want to get their own idea of the potential of the 2018 vintage. Then everybody goes back home and waits for the official release of the opening price. Before, nobody moved until the Parker score came out at the end of April. But now there is no more score to await, so instead the châteaux are more and more informed by the négociants. They get a very precise idea of what their price should be and release when they are ready to. They call the courtier, the courtier calls us and voila, we’re in business. We go to our clients per location and offer: ‘Château Mouton Rothschild decided to release at such and such price. This is your price. You want in?’ We get into strategies and policies, and then wait for their decisions. But just to give you an idea, normally for Classified Growths the maximum sale time is twenty-four hours. Twenty-four hours and everything is sold and the châteaux close again. I will tell you though, it’s not easy to taste En Primeur, it’s very special. You’re in the middle of the construction of the wine and it’s really hard to anticipate what’s going to happen in the next phase. Even me, who is supposed to be a professional, I’m not always comfortable predicting because it’s such a precise job, even the smallest detail can make a difference. It’s complicated. But it’s magic because it’s not a theoretical process, it’s Mother Nature.”
If not Bordeaux where else?
“Where else in the world? Bordeaux [laughs]. It’s such a unique place. It’s not the most beautiful place in the world, but it’s simply unique. Just like the building we’re in. There is only one in all the city and it’s not the most beautiful one, but it’s unique. There is only one Bordeaux. And it’s a magical place.”
We want to thank Monsieur Tapie for his generous time and for the absolute privilege of having us this En Primeur Week.
If you’re interested in receiving the finest Bordeaux vintages on your yacht, please don’t hesitate to contact us for more information: email@example.com
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