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Wine Masterminds: Négociants

It's possible to make wine without owning a vineyard, building a winery or, sometimes, even hiring any staff. This is the role of the négociant.

From the French word for merchant, négociants first started in Burgundy, purchasing grapes or finished wine from the region's myriad small estates, then blending, bottling and selling the wine under the négociant's name. Some of the best, and best-known, Burgundy producers are primarily négociants—including Jadot, Drouhin, and Bouchard Père & Fils.

Rise of the New Négociant

Over the years a lot of forgettable wine has come from huge négociant companies, both in Burgundy and around the world, but lately that's been changing. Ambitious, nontraditional producers are entering the business, bending the historical sense of the term négociant by working hands-on with small groups of growers, for instance, or by hiring star winemakers to custom-crush special cuvées. At the same time, some well-known names are reinventing themselves, focusing on quality rather than quantity.

2004 A to Z Wineworks Oregon Pinot Gris ($14) A supergroup of Oregon wine personalities, A to Z owners Sam Tannahill (ex-Archery Summit), Cheryl Francis (ex-Chehalem), Bill Hatcher (ex-Domaine Drouhin) and Deb Hatcher seek out small lots of finished wine and blend them to make great, affordable cuvées. Their '04 Pinot Gris is alive with bright acidity and succulent fruit.

2004 Monarchia Olivier ($12) Monarchia, founded in 2000, has three faces—as a producer, a négociant and a marketer for top small estates throughout Hungary—and offers a broad portfolio that includes this wine from Nyakas Winery. Made from 100 percent Irsai Olivér, a local white grape, this '04 combines the heady scent of Muscat with the lean minerality of Muscadet.

2005 Two Hands Brilliant Disguise Moscato ($15) The "two hands" here at one of Australia's newest négociant projects are Michael Twelftree and Richard Mintz, who acquire top-quality fruit from regions such as the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale for wines like this effervescent Moscato. Gorgeously scented—think tangerine and orange-blossom—and delicately sweet, it's made with grapes from 80- to 100-year-old vines.

2004 3 Rings Barossa Valley Shiraz ($20) Australian cult winemaker Chris Ringland, grape-grower David Hickinbotham and American importer (and F&W contributing editor) Dan Philips are the talents behind the new négociant project 3 Rings. They scoured Australia's Barossa Valley for the right vineyards to produce this intensely aromatic Shiraz loaded with black raspberry flavor.

2002 Cameron Hughes Lot 7 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) Cameron Hughes escaped from a job managing the distribution of million-case-production bargain wines—"It was like selling dog food," he recalls—to establish his own San Francisco–based company, which buys surplus lots of high-quality wine from top California estates to create bottlings like this juicy, curranty Cabernet.

2001 Oriel Alma de Llicorella ($35) Josep Maria Fuentes of Spain's Priorato region is just one of the star winemakers enlisted by Oriel owner John Hunt to produce designer cuvées from vineyards in Europe, Australia and America. The ripe '01 Alma de Llicorella— a blend of Garnacha, Cariñena, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah from Priorato vineyards—shows black plum fruit and minerally tannins.

2001 Paisajes VII ($32) Barcelona's top wine merchant Quim Vila works with Rioja producer Miguel Ángel de Gregorio of Finca Allende to create an evolving selection of single-vineyard Riojas. The Paisajes VII, from the great 2001 vintage, is made with 100 percent Garnacha grapes from a tiny, ancient vineyard near the village of Aguilar. It's dark and powerful, lifted by hints of mint.

2003 Deux Montille Rully Blanc 1er Cru Rabourcée ($35) Brother and sister Etienne and Alix de Montille (children of Burgundy legend Hubert de Montille) focus primarily on white wines, signing long-term contracts with growers to assure themselves more viticultural control. The results are impressive: The bright apple and mineral flavors of this profound Rully unfurl gracefully with each sip.

2003 Dujac Fils & Père Puligny-Montrachet ($55) Fils (son) Jérémy and père (father) Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac fame draw on carefully selected grapes from seven local estates for their négociant project founded in 2000. This gentle Puligny has the lush, low acidity of the vintage, and ends on a note of stony earth.

2004 Lost Highway Project Bindi Macedon Ranges Pinot Noir ($75) Vine Street Imports owner Ronnie Sanders enlists top American and Australian winemakers for his one-off Lost Highway Project bottlings, creating extravagant wines like this velvety, earthy Pinot Noir from sought-after boutique Australian producer Bindi.

Star Selections

2003 Cloudline Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($19) Dreyfus Ashby, the importer for the long-established Burgundy négociant Joseph Drouhin, asked Véronique Drouhin-Boss of Oregon's Domaine Drouhin to help it produce this affordable, compelling Pinot Noir. The 2003's sweet berry fruit is balanced by its supple tannins.

2003 Potel-Aviron Morgon Côte du Py Vielles Vignes ($20) Burgundy producer Nicolas Potel and partner Stephane Aviron match Burgundian winemaking techniques—oak aging, open-top fermentation rather than sealed vat—with fruit from the top Beaujolais crus for wines like this ageworthy Morgon.

2002 Jean-Claude Boisset Chambolle-Musigny ($51) In 2002 Jean-Charles Boisset hired winemaker Grégory Patriat, formerly of the renowned Domaine Leroy, to help revamp this underperforming négociant label into an ambitious hybrid of négociant and grower. The '02 Chambolle-Musigny is lithe and taut, its raspberry flavors touched with anise notes.

Published November 2005
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