The Bottom Line on Bordeaux
Ignore the chatter about price over quality. Look beneath the surface of romantic names to what Bordeaux is really about: well-made wines at good prices.
I just conducted a tasting at a private dining club in a major midwest city. My audience was local business people, professionals and people who enjoy wine but are not totally preoccupied by it. My subject was value wines, and I included wines from Bordeaux in my selection.
Those wines had an astonishing effect on my audience, especially when they heard the prices, around $20 a bottle. They asked me to repeat the prices. They did not believe that Bordeaux could offer such great taste at such modest prices.
We drank the same wines with the dinner that followed. Again, there was surprised pleasure. Bordeaux, they realized, is about wines that taste good with food. They balance alcohol, fruit tannins and acidity in a way that makes them taste almost seamless. The Bordeaux blend balances the structure and fruit of the Cabernets with the weight and richness of Merlot in a way that has been copied around the world. Of course, the best have great ability to age. But even the less prestigious wines, which is where the values are, develop for several years.
My audience had arrived at the tasting influenced by all the headlines about high-priced Bordeaux. My message was that Bordeaux isn’t just high prices. Most of Bordeaux is value.
With all the headlines about the high prices at the top of the market, we can easily forget that classified growths are only a thin slice of the Bordeaux pie. Those headlines are being burnished for the annual futures campaign, which starts at the end of this month with the barrel tastings in Bordeaux.
You’ll see the usual claims being made about the 2009 wines: “vintage of the century” or at least (and possibly correctly) vintage of the decade. The top few Bordeaux producers are already adding zeroes to their prices as speculators prepare to pounce on the first release in order to make money fast.
I urge you to ignore those headlines. What I want to concentrate on here is what I call Bordeaux value. These are wines between $20 and $30, wines with integrity, flavor and with a great ratio between price and quality. They are some of the most food-friendly wines around, balancing alcohol, fruit tannins and acidity.
Put aside the prestigious names and labels that attract the speculators, and that leaves 95% of Bordeaux for the rest of us. In my view, the most exciting wines in Bordeaux at the moment are the wines of the Côtes: Blaye, Francs, Bourg, Castillon and the Premières Côtes (also called Cadillac). Innovative, go-ahead producers are the key, and I urge you to read my reviews as they appear in Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide.
Come to think about it, there is so much in Bordeaux that is worth getting excited about. Wines from Pessac-Léognan are often great value. Wines labeled simply Bordeaux appellation can be very good. There are many wines from the Graves, from Haut-Médoc—in fact it is harder to stop suggesting Bordeaux value than it is to start.
To these red wines, I want to add whites. The quality of the whites, from simplest unoaked Bordeaux to the barrel-aged, ageworthy whites of Pessac-Léognan, is increasingly impressive, and the wines are still underpriced. It’s a great moment to delve into the variety of these blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.
Selecting quality-to-price ratio Bordeaux does have its complications. For a start, there are 9,000 Bordeaux producers out there, and much of what they make is under-performing and underwhelming. Some of it slips into the United States. That’s why reviews, and advice from wine retailers, are important.
Another Bordeaux problem, for us at least, is vintage. We are now accustomed to buying the latest release of a wine, whether a brand or an estate wine, without worrying about the year. That is the ease of the New World. Bordeaux does present the challenge of vintage. It is a cool climate, even with climate change. But, hey, we are all fairly bright people—a year is a simple thing to remember.
So look at any 2005s that may be left, look at the okay 2006s and the delicious 2008s, which will be coming to these shores over this summer. In a year, there will be the 2009s, and they will be great wines. Just take a pass on most 2007s, and the rest is easy.
To give you further help, a great resource is the Bordeaux Wine Council’s list called “Today’s Bordeaux: 100 Classic, Contemporary, Affordable Wines.” Each year, the U.S. office of Bordeaux’s wine promotion body tastes wines on the market, and comes up with this essential list. Find it at bordeauxwinebureau.org.
So here is my bottom line on Bordeaux. Put aside the headlines; they will continue to shout price rather than taste. Look below the wafer-thin veneer of big names to what Bordeaux is really about: wellmade wines at good prices.
You will be astonished, as the dining club was, at what modern Bordeaux has to offer. I am looking forward to tasting the latest releases from the region this year—the classed growths, certainly, as they are sure to be impressive, but also the wines we can pleasurably drink
without counting the cost of each sip.