Bordeaux at $1,400 a bottle? Is this wine, or is this ridiculous, label-obsessed conspicuous consumption? The result of the 2009 Bordeaux futures campaign has seen prices of a top handful of chateaus spiral out of sight. As a result, wine drinkers, as distinct from investors, feel they are being priced out of the great Bordeaux market.
Or are they? I’m here to offer hope to lovers of Bordeaux and a proposal for drinkers who have been scared away.
The recent vintages from Bordeaux (from 2004 onward) have seen a huge gap open up. The five first growths, a few other estates in the Médoc and a cluster in St.-Émilion and Pomerol—no more than 30 wineries in all—attract all the headlines.
They have also done Bordeaux a great disservice. “Those top 20–30 wines are no longer the locomotive that drives Bordeaux,” says Ralph Sands, Bordeaux expert at K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City, California. “Now they are making people turn away from Bordeaux.”
Once, in the halcyon days of the late 1990s, prices of first growths were twice those of other fine Bordeaux chateaus. In 2009, the price differential is as much as 20 times more (see chart, below). Douglas Bryant, president of Sherlock’s, a group of fine wine stores in Atlanta, says he is seeing an increasing number of people who are turning their backs on these wines, refusing to pay the exorbitant prices.
What is so crazy about headline pricing is that it is easier than ever to get value for money from prestigious appellations in Bordeaux. “People become savvy buyers,” says Bryant. “They look beyond the headlines and realize that most Bordeaux is not expensive.”
Beneath the thin veneer of glamour and high prices, there is great quality. The vintages of the last decade (2002 and 2007 aside) have been a succession of “vintages of the century.” They show that, at this stage of climate change, Bordeaux has been blessed with reliable weather and increasing ripeness. Couple that with some of the best winemaking in the world (yes, really), and it seems hard to go wrong. French consumers call it rapport qualité-prix (quality-price ratio) and they are experts.
A little off the top
So where to begin? Almost at the top. “Once you remove from the equation the firsts and the super seconds, then you have a large choice,” explains Martin Sinkoff, director of marketing for fine wine at New York importer Frederick Wildman. “Our strategy has been to focus on the value classed growths and the crus bourgeois category, which represents real quality in bottle at under $50.”
The chart on this page lists prices of recent vintages of five chateaus from Margaux, St.-Estèphe, St.-Julien and St.-Émilion, all prestigious labels worthy of any table. Compare their opening futures prices for a case with the current retail price and the increase—despite the dollar versus euro—is relatively small. In fact, their prices are still reasonable, certainly when compared with wines like Napa Cabernets.
These wines, be assured, are classic Bordeaux blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, sometimes with a little Petit Verdot as the seasoning. They have all the attributes of fine Bordeaux: tannins, acidity, medium weight, black currant fruit and the true ability to age. What they don’t have is the investment price tag. These are wines for drinking and cellaring.
And they are just the beginning, a symbol of a much larger picture. With the change in generations, the growth of consultants spreading their advice and increased investment in the region, there’s no shortage of quality to be found in Bordeaux.
But before we take a tour of the region’s wines, ask yourself: Am I happier with a label wine, one that conveys reassurance and desirability through its label as well as its quality—a wine that has the glam appellation but not the price point? Or a palate wine, where taste and discovery go hand in hand as part of the pleasure? Both are valid approaches and either way you will find what you want if you look more deeply in Bordeaux.
Start with the cachet of Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. The greatest of these come from the Médoc’s great appellations of Margaux, St.-Julien, Pauillac and St.-Estèphe. This is where the high prices are, but not every chateau in the appellations is expensive. Only the ones that have become subjects of investment have soared.
Take Pauillac. It has three first growths and other pricy estates. But next door to these thousand-dollar bottles are wines that sell in the tens of dollars. Generally selling for under $60 are Batailley, Clerc-Milon, Grand-Puy-Ducasse, Lynch-Moussas and Pibran. Depending on the vintage, Grand-Puy-Lacoste may also fall into this price range.
In St.-Estèphe, just to the north, Lafon-Rochet, Meyney, Cos-Labory, Tour de Pez and Le Crock all possess the firm style of St.-Estèphe and provide the pleasures of cellaring potential without inflicting undue pain when it’s time to pay up.
St.-Julien, smaller and more compact, is a tight squeeze for the value hunter, but Saint-Pierre, Gloria, Lalande-Borie and Talbot fit the bill. In Margaux, the choice widens, with dozens of chateaus. My preferences run to Malescot Saint-Exupéry, Rauzan-Gassies, Marquis de Terme, Siran and Monbrison.
From less well-known regions where much of the pleasure is in discovery, start in the Haut-Médoc, the large area surrounding the village appellations. Care must be taken here because while the region boasts some great bargains, it still harbors disappointments. Try the vastly improved Camensac, then look into Sociando-Mallet, Paloumey, Cambon la Pelouse, Coufran and Caronne Sainte-Gemme.
South of the city of Bordeaux are some of the most ancient vineyards in the region. First planted in the Middle Ages, today they are offering top-level wines at some of the best prices in Bordeaux. Pessac-Léognan is the white wine heartland of Bordeaux, but its reds are worth a look, too, with their enticing cigar box aromas and berry fruit flavors layered with tannins. Prices remain reasonable, so add Carbonnieux, Latour-Martillac, Couhins-Lurton and Domaine de Chevalier to your shopping cart.
Across the river to the Right Bank, St.-Émilion and Pomerol offer fewer bargains. The reason? The properties are smaller, the taste of Merlot is tantalizing and the demand is strong. Even here, though, there are some regular values that add the perfumes of Cabernet Franc to the sumptuous Merlot flavors. La Tour Figeac, Berliquet, La Dominique, Moulin Saint-Georges, Franc-Mayne and Larmande should go on the list, along with Vray Croix de Gay and Rouget as rare values from Pomerol.
What makes a great Bordeaux?
Price alone doesn’t make great Bordeaux, even though the headlines and some critics suggest otherwise. History, soil and location are the starting points. But there is more. Bordeaux today is at the cutting edge of red winemaking. Chateaus believe that money spent in the vineyard is the most important investment.
Time and again, as the generations change, so do winemaking techniques. Low yields, high density of planting (anything up to 4,000 plants an acre), total attention to detail—these are the norm and not just for the expensive wines. Given so many changes, small ones here, tweaks there as modernity scuffles with tradition, it is no wonder that the general quality level of Bordeaux gets better every year. Add to that climate change, and Bordeaux is going through a golden age.
What does this mean for wine drinkers? Get away from the headlines and high prices and Bordeaux is a bargain hunter’s treasure trove. Buying top-quality Bordeaux for a reasonable price is not hard once you get out of the mindset of thinking of Bordeaux only as expensive. See it as an opportunity to rediscover the original Bordeaux blend, on its home turf, at a time when the wines have never been better, or offered better value.
The charts show two different sets of prices from the same properties in different vintages. The first shows the price as the wine was offered as a future. The second shows the price as of October 2010. Two first growths—superstars on the auction circuit—are included to illustrate the scale of that market. The other five properties make top quality, great wines, and yet are not on the celebrity circuit where status is as important as wine. These are wines to buy and drink.
Château du Tertre. This Margaux fifth growth, under the same ownership as Château Giscours, has been totally renovated and, since the 2000 vintage, produces wines that are full-bodied yet elegant. Prices do not yet reflect the increased quality.
Château d’Issan. A Margaux third growth, this is a true moated chateau owned by the Cruse family, one of the top Bordeaux merchants. Once it was light-weight, but since 2001 the wine has filled out to offer richness, weight and aging potential.
Château Fombrauge. Owned by Bernard Magrez, whose properties stretch right across Bordeaux, this is a huge estate for St.-Émilion. There has been a money-noobject policy to produce wines that are soft, generous and showy. It is sold direct, which keeps the price reasonable.
Château Les Ormes de Pez. The Cazes family team that brings you Château Lynch-Bages also produces this St.-Estèphe wine. It is reliable, always a pleasure to drink and never overpriced. Consistent with above.
Château Branaire-Ducru. This fourth growth in St.-Julien produces wines that have a consistently high quality level, and age deliciously if perhaps more quickly than some other St.-Juliens. Owner Patrick Maroteaux has maintained a fair price.