Chartron et Trébuchet, a small, quality-oriented Burgundy shipper that specializes in Chardonnays from the Côte de Beaune, has filed for protection from creditors under French bankruptcy laws, saying its sales have suffered from the effects of the weak dollar and the Iraq war.
Many Burgundy wine producers have reported financial problems in the last three years, when the economic climate toughened for all French wines, but Chartron et Trébuchet is the first well-known Burgundy négociant to face bankruptcy.
A French judge has appointed an administrator for the shipper and given it until December to put its financial house in order. If the Chartron family fails to inject capital or find an investor or a buyer, the judge ruled, the négociant's assets must be auctioned off.
Chartron et Trébuchet, based in Puligny-Montrachet, belongs to a new generation of small- to medium-size shippers that have sprung up in Burgundy during the last two decades. Created in 1984, it produces 54,000 cases a year from about 50 appellations, from regional Burgundies and village wines to grands crus. Three-quarters of its production is Chardonnay. The 33-acre Domaine Jean Chartron, an estate created in 1859 that produces about 8,000 cases annually from a dozen appellations, isn't touched by the woes of the family's négociant business.
Chartron et Trébuchet had stopped paying interest on 5 million euros in loans, "and the banks forced us into bankruptcy proceedings," said CEO Jean-Michel Chartron. The firm spent about 2 million euros to expand its winery in 1999; the Chartron family took on more debt in November 2001 to buy out its partner, Louis Trébuchet, said Chartron. These investments were followed by the SARS outbreak in Southeast Asia, the Iraq war and a strong rise in the value of the euro against the dollar -- all of which slowed wine sales.
Chartron said he had been unable to sell 20 percent of the shipper's 2000 and 2001 wines, mostly premiers and grands crus. "That would never have happened a few years ago, when I sold all my wines in a 12-month cycle," Chartron said.
The general downturn in Burgundy exports has been severe at the top level. Exports of white grands crus Burgundies fell by 50 percent between 1996 and 2003; half of this drop occurred between 2002 and 2003 alone, according to the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne, a leading trade organization. Exports of village wine and premiers crus are also down, but less so than grands crus, the BIVB said.
In 2004, Burgundy's overall situation seems to be improving. During the first quarter, sales of white Burgundies in the United States were up 6 percent in volume and 12 percent in value compared with the first quarter of 2003, according to the BIVB.
For Chartron et Trébuchet, however, the improvement might come too late. "2004 isn't our best year," Chartron said. "We don't feel a real economic rebound."