- Friday 21 January 2011
The morning sun slanted through the windows of Beaune’s Hôtel du Conseiller du Roy. This gracious, tired, elegant old house, sitting as comfortably on its foundations as a cat on a favourite cushion, is where the Boisset-owned négociant Bouchard Aîné receives its guests and hoards its old bottles. It was the first grand residence built outside the walls of Beaune (by Jacques Philibert Parigot, one of Louis XVI’s counsellors, in the mid-18th century); it then
became the scruffier Post Horse Hotel in later Revolutionary times. I was chatting to Nathalie Bergès-Boisset about how her family makes sense of the 14 different négociant companies it owns. That, though, is another story. The one I want to tell concerns a photograph on the wall.
Bouchard, tout court, was the greatest négociant house of its region, founded by cloth trader Michel Bouchard in 1738; it became Bouchard Père et Fils in 1785. In 1828, the eldest (‘aîné’) of the three brothers who had taken over the running of the company from their father Antoine in 1824, decided to quit– in order to found his own company, which he called (both cheekily and with lawyerly precision) Bouchard Aîné.
Fast forward to the early 20th century, and that black-and-white photograph. It shows an elderly gentleman, splendidly bewhiskered and hatted, with a silk handkerchief protruding from his suit breast pocket, pipe in left hand and tastevin in right, sniffing the latter while a beatific minion stands by, in collarless shirt and braces, pipette in hand. ‘That,’ said Nathalie, pointing to the patrician, ‘was Charles Bouchard. He nearly bankrupted Bouchard Aîné. Fighting the appellation system.’
What? Nathalie sketched the astonishing story, described in more detail in a book the Boisset family commissioned in order to redeem the wealth of archival material it found when it took over Bouchard in 1992 (Une Epopée Bourguignonne by Frédéric Crestin-Billet and Jean-Marc Bourgeon). Here in the very cockpit of terroir, the region which today boasts 684 premier cru formulae despite producing only 3% of French wine, the most important local merchant had done all he could to prevent legal delimitation. Not just opposition voiced at a meeting or
two, but a systematic campaign waged with what appears to have been implacable determination.
What was Bouchard’s motivation? Was he ahead of his time? Did he foresee, 90 years early, theconfusion of the hapless Tesco shopper faced with a shelf or two of French appellation complexity? Did he fear that defining Burgundy would lead toits eclipse and demise in the face of competition from elsewhere?
It would appear not. At best, he seems to have been an old-fashioned paternalist who thought that the growers were best served by leaving everything in the hands of the négociant. A less charitable interpretation would be that he was acting in the purest self-interest, and in particular that he wanted to retain the right to continue to blend the company’s geographically vague cuvées (like ‘La Marche’ or ‘Grand Vin’) year in, year out, even ‘when the [local] wine will be undrinkable, as in too many years’. Bottles labelled ‘Romanée’ or ‘Chambertin’ were, prior to1919, entirely unaudited as to origin. The lavish stacks of labels for each found in the archive suggests an artistic interpretation.
Bouchard Aîné had flourished through conditions of great chaos. The 50 years prior to the implementation of the delimitation laws of 6 May 1919 against which Charles Bouchard was campaigning had seen the phylloxera crisis, followed by a wave of compensatory overproduction, as unsuitable hybrids like Othellowere planted in easy but unpropitious locations. Fraud was commonplace, aided by the new railway network. Then came the dual disasters of the First World War and Prohibition (Bouchard had significant export sales). The pressure for change came from growers who could see their efforts undermined by imposture and chaos. Charles Bouchard’s 1911 campaign to get growers to sign a petition ‘asking the public powers to maintain thestatus quo’ was such an embarrassing failure that one of his contacts in Santenay advised him to burn it. January that year had seen the celebrated riots in Champagne – events that had been closely watched down the road in Burgundy.
A century later, and the landscape has changed forever. No one now questions delimitation; indeed it‘s been powerfully influential in making the region as prosperous as it is. Nor has it sounded the death knell for the négociants, though the fact that 14 are now in one set of hands shows that only the fittest have survived. In one sense, the process Bouchard fought has been their salvation. The négociants’ role as intermediaries in bringing an almost impossibly morsellated setof wines to market is a vital one. It can be done well, without creative blending. The distinguished old gentleman was wrong.