Bordeaux is one of, if not the most, well-known wine region in the world. But it’s suffering from an identity crisis as of late. The region has fallen out of favor with a large swath of the wine drinking public for many reasons. First and foremost is its’ image as a stuffy wine region with its’ grand Chateaus and hefty price tags. Not only that, we’re told that we have to wait a decade or so to truly understand and appreciate the wines. There’s also so much wine out there that is both easier to understand and just as good. Some say it’s also too confusing with all of its appellations and talk of Right Bank vs Left Bank. Oh, and they don’t put the name of the grape on the label. It used to be that if you wanted to drink good wine you only had a few choices: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Napa, etc. Not so anymore. We have access to great wines from all over the world. These days, sommelier’s are always on the look out for the new and different; something that will ‘wow’ the customer. So, Bordeaux has become pedestrian in a lot of somm’s eyes. That’s a shame because these are still some of the most exciting wines on the planet. Let’s take a look at Bordeaux and see if we can dispel some of these generalizations.
First off, most Bordeaux is actually very reasonably priced. By this, I mean that there is a lot of really good wine in the $12-$20 range (The Grande Mottes and Malleret fall into this range). There’s even some really good wine under $12 (Philao) but you have to look hard. How can this be when all we read about is the greedy Chateau owners raising prices year after year? Yes this is a fact. There are greedy Chateau owners who raise prices, even in not so good vintages. But these are just a small fraction of the 10,000 or so in the region. You read that correctly, 10,000 producers, give or take a few hundred. Only the top Chateau in the Classifications can get away with raising prices every year. They do so because they are fairly certain that their wines will sell as the demand is usually greater than the supply for the top wines. There’s also the way in which the top Chateau sell their wines that buoys prices. It’s called ‘en primeur’ and it’s taken a big hit lately with some Chateau dropping out altogether. Only the top couple of hundred Chateau participate in en primeur. The rest sell their wines through the classic distribution channels and the supply far out strips the demand for these properties. In fact, every year more and more of the lesser Chateau are on the verge of bankruptcy because there is just too much wine flowing out of Bordeaux and they can’t charge enough to cover their costs.
Why are Bordeaux wines shunned these days? Classic things, like cars, planes, boats and wine are called classic because, well, they’re classic. They’ve stood the test of time. The classics have put their time in and others are compared to them, not the other way around. Bordeaux is a classic wine region as is Burgundy, Barolo, Chianti, Champagne and others. Wine fads will come and go but the classics will remain. There is no shame in professing your love for Bordeaux regardless of what others think. And there is just something great about opening a bottle of these Cabernet and Merlot blends with their dark black fruits, cedar, tobacco and a touch of oak along with firm tannins on its medium bodied frame. Bordeaux is rarely as extracted as Napa Cabs and their weight makes you want to take another sip. They are also great food wines. And, no, you do not have to wait years to enjoy them. Look to the larger appellations on the label such as Bordeaux, Medoc, Haut-Medoc and Graves for wines that are ready upon release. Sure, the top wines reward cellaring but most Chateau also make a second and sometimes a third wine from the younger vines or the not so good blocks. These are often wines meant for immediate consumption or can be cellared for a few years. They are also great bargains.
Finally, Bordeaux does not have to be confusing. As long as you know your banks. The wines of Bordeaux are almost always blends of different grapes with either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot dominating. The Right Bank of the Gironde Estuary is home to Merlot dominated wines such as Pomerol, St. Emilion and Fronsac. The Left Bank is home to Cabernet based wines such as Medoc, Graves, St. Julien and Margaux. These are the names you’ll see on the labels. Of course there are always exceptions to the rules when it comes to grape variety and blend. If you have a wine that is labeled Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur, chances are it is Merlot based and comes from the Entre-Deux-Mers region of Bordeaux. Another labelling term to look for is Cru Bourgeois. These are some of the best value wines in the region and most are consistently good year after year. The whites of the region are now usually Sauvignon Blanc mostly with some Semillon added for complexity.
Vintage is very important in Bordeaux. A big reason is the region’s proximity to the Atlantic. It gets wet here. The season can be bookended by frost, summer storms are a problem and there is lots of cloud cover which tends to interrupt photosynthesis. Once upon a time in Bordeaux each decade would have 3 great vintages, 3 bad vintages and 4 average vintages. Now, if you believe the Chateau owners, almost every year is the next vintage of the century. Some of the recent vintages to look for are 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007 (considered not so great but they are drinking really well), 2009 and the fantastic 2010. All of the wines below come from the 2010 vintage, a truly stellar vintage in Bordeaux. These wines don’t need cellaring to be enjoyed and probably would not benefit from it (with the exception of the Malleret). If you like these you may want to look into purchasing some of the commune wines from 2010 for your cellar. There are still some out there at fairly reasonable prices. All of the wines below will benefit from being enjoyed with food. Anything from some soft or hard cheese to a burger or pizza and more elaborate dishes with earthy flavors. Enjoy the wines!
2010 Chateau Philao ‘La Gravelle’, Bordeaux
A straight up Bordeaux Appellation wine. This 95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon blend is round and supple with ripe black fruits and soft tannins. No need to wait here. Pop the cork and enjoy.
2010 Chateau Les Grandes Mottes, Cotes de Bordeaux-Blaye, Bordeaux Superieur
This comes from the Right Bank but is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with 20% Merlot. See, I said there were exceptions to the rules. It also come from what they call the ‘Cotes’. There are a series of appellations with the word ‘Cotes’ in them because they are all on the banks of the rivers. They are great values and often overlooked here in the US. This is drinking really well right now with fully-ripened raspberries, cassis and cherry. Just a touch of oak to go along with mineral notes and dried eucalyptus. This is smooth and still fairly youthful. Don’t wait too long for this one.
2010 Chateau de Malleret Le Baron de Malleret, Haut-Medoc, Cru Bourgeois
This quintessential Bordeaux Chateau, with its large, magnificent buildings, was founded in 1597 by Pierre de Malleret and has been home to one of Europe’s most famous horse stables, hence the label. The property covers just over 130 acres of sandy, gravelly soil in the commune of Pian-Medoc which is situated just northwest of the city of Bordeaux. Sustainable pest management control is practiced as well as the least amount of intervention as the region allows due to weather. This wine is actually the 2nd wine of the Chateau. The blend is 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc and 21% Merlot. All of the grapes are harvested by parcel and fermented separately before the final blend is determined. The wine sees 6 months in oak. There is great structure to this with firm tannins and bright acidity to go with the bold black fruit aromas and flavors with just a hint of vanilla and cedar. This can be drunk now with a good decanting or laid down for another 3 years or so.