Looking for value in Bordeaux?

My interest in Bordeaux remains steady, especially after visiting in December 2008. It's not a passionate love affair, but rather a respectful relationship. I acknowledge Bordeaux's stature and occasionally relish its company. For reds, invariably with a steak. For whites - salads, seafood, and poultry. And for sweets - foie gras or blue cheese - of course those being the classical combinations that assure success, though I always look for other eye-opening pairings, such as the one recommended by Xavier Planty of Chateau Guiraud - Sauternes and crab.

A self-respecting wine lover cannot ignore Bordeaux and the grandeur its greatest red and sweet wines attain. And as a certified wino, I owe it to myself and my readers to maintain my Bordeaux "qualification". Which brings us to Bordeaux L'Ecole du Vin - the premiere wine school in Bordeaux that recently invited me among other members of the trade for a full-day advanced seminar in San Francisco.

Bordeaux continues to evolve at a rapid pace, rules and regulations changing every year, introducing new appellations and revising classifications. Names of new AOC's like Cotes de Bordeaux are starting to show up on wine labels, and it behooves a value-conscious consumer to understand their meaning.

Here are a few useful tidbits that I thought I'd pass on to my readers that will hopefully assist you in your purchasing decisions.

  1. Latest vintages: 2005 - great; 2006 - good, higher acid than '05; 2007 - bad for reds, very good for whites; 2008 - very good; 2009 - so far so good. Every year, no matter how poor, great producers make good wine. In great years, nearly everyone does. Poor years normally have the advantage of producing earlier-drinking wines, while your blockbuster-year superstars are aging in the cellar. Discussing with the instructor, the rule of thumb for value-seekers is simple - buy lower-end, value producers in good years, but top producers in poor years.

  2. In my opinion, the quality of dry white wines from Bordeaux is astonishing. The vast majority of them are Semillon/Sauvignon blends, with occasional small amount (10%) of Muscadelle (totally different from Muscat or Muscadet). They vary in style from stainless steel fermented, simple and grapefruity to barrel-fermented, lush, complex, and ageable. White Bordeaux taste cleaner and without the grassy notes I find in New Zealand Sauv Blancs. The more substantial examples are coming out of the left bank (Graves and Pessac-Leognan), while the Entre-Deux-Mers area (between the two rivers) tends to produce simpler, crisper, more value-driven table wines. That said, at the seminar during the tasting of 4 white Bordeaux, I prefered the Entre-Deux-Mers (Chateau Bonnet 2008) to the other more oaky and riper examples from the left bank. As usual, however, the choice of wine should depend on the choice of food.

  3. A series of smaller appellations on the right banks of Garonne, Dordogne and Gironde rivers are collectively referred to as "Cotes", and as of 2008, some are being combined into a larger Cotes de Bordeaux AOC, undoubtedly for marketing purposes - a new appellation that includes Castillon, Blaye, Francs, and Cadillac (Cotes de Bourg, Vayres, and Sainte Foy elected not to join). These tend to be Merlot-driven wines, just like Saint Emilion, with typical Bordeaux flavor profiles, very good in good years, meant to be drunk fairly young, offering very good values due to their relative obscurity. Of these, I have particularly enjoyed values from Castillon that neighbors Saint Emilion and gets a lot of cross-over from there.

  4. If you don't want to spend big-$$ on Grand Cru Classe wines, but still get the classical Bordeaux flavors at good quality, look for Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois classification on the label. The Bourgeois classification mandates higher standards than a generic Bordeaux or a Bordeaux Superieur, and is just below the Grand Cru level.

  5. If you are looking for value sweet wines, seek out areas in Graves that are outside of Sauternes and Barsac - these two, particularly Sauternes, command huge premium due to their fame, and truth be told, wines produced there are often mind-blowingly spectacular. But if you look at Cérons, Cadillac, Loupiac, and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, prices drop dramatically. Also consider second wines from the top Sauternes estates, like this 2003 from Château Suduiraut on the picture to the right - a fantastic deeply-flavored Sauternes indeed.

Hope you find these tips helpful when you shop at your favorite wine merchant, such as Vineyard Gate. Au revoir!


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