- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Bordeaux long has been home to the world’s most famous red wines, but few of us can afford them anymore. Prices for wines from the most renowned estates have skyrocketed during the past decade.

The Medoc first growths now on sale come from the good but overhyped 2003 vintage, and they cost $500 or more per bottle. At that price, they become trophies to display rather than beverages to drink.

Bordeaux, however, contains much more than eminent, aristocratic estates like Lafite, Latour and Mouton. The region as a whole is huge — nearly 300,000 vineyard acres. (By comparison, the Napa Valley has only about 40,000.) About 10,500 independent producers grow grapes and make wine in Bordeaux, and the vast majority of their output is affordable and ready to drink.

That’s the other issue with legendary, expensive Bordeaux red wines. The bottles invariably need many years of cellaring before they’re ready to open. The less costly wines tend to be much more accessible. They’re designed for near-term drinking, not long aging.

With so many excellent wines available from so many different places these days, why even worry about Bordeaux? Because the best wines at every price display deliciously distinctive characteristics.

They have rich flavors but are not dominated by fruit like many New World reds. And while they also display leathery, tobacco-scented undertones, they are not as blatantly earthy as many other European reds. Put simply, good Bordeaux reds, no matter their price, are in a league of their own.

Bordeaux, however, can be confusing. The region is so large that it contains about 57 separate geographic appellations — not only the well-known such as Pauillac or Saint-Emilion, but plenty of obscure zones like St.-Foy and Cotes de Francs.

How is anyone except the most committed connoisseur supposed to make sense of them all? Begin with the river, or more precisely the estuary — the Gironde, which cuts through the region, dividing it virtually in half.

Although red Bordeaux is always a blended wine, made with two to five different grape varieties, the dominant grape in any particular wine depends on which side of the river that particular estate is located. (Incidentally, almost all Bordeaux estates are called “chateaux,” even though very few of them have castles or even fancy houses on their properties.)

The wines from the two sides of the river can taste quite different. On the western side, or as it is often called, the left bank, cabernet sauvignon is king. The soil there is very gravelly, and while the landscape seems fairly flat, terraces of small stones crisscross the region, providing the cabernet vines with superb drainage and giving the resulting wines a firm, often quite tannic structure.

Wines from the left bank typically contain 60 to 70 percent cabernet, the remainder of the blend being mostly merlot. (Cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot are the other permitted Bordeaux grape varieties.) They tend to display dark berry or currant fruit flavors, with secondary flavors and aromas reminiscent of leather, cedar, pipe tobacco and more. Because they can be tightly structured, they invariably benefit from decanting — especially when drunk young.

While the left bank is home to much of Bordeaux’s wine aristocracy, it also holds thousands of less exclusive properties. Many of the finest come from the Medoc or Haut-Medoc regions and have been designated as “cru bourgeois.” The best of these rival some top classified growths.

Some cru bourgeois Bordeaux chateaux have crept out of the affordable wine category in recent years, but plenty offer good value, the wines usually costing less than $30. Personal favorites include Chateaux Duplessis, du Glana, Potensac, Tronquoy-Lalande, and Verdignan, all of which showed especially well in a recent tasting of soon-to-be-released wines from the 2004 vintage.

Right bank Bordeaux reds tend to be less tannic than their left bank cousins. That’s because merlot is the dominant grape variety, and the soil is richer — a mixture of clay, silt, sand and limestone. A typical right bank wine will contain about 70 percent merlot, the rest being cabernet franc or cabernet sauvignon. When well-made, it will taste both sumptuous and substantial.

The most famous right bank appellations are Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. The first is too small and exclusive for good values, and although the second is larger, the less expensive wines made there actually can be overpriced, producers being able to trade on the famous name on their labels. Better choices come from other appellations.

Fronsac and neighboring Canon-Fronsac is a good place to start. Wines from producers like La Dauphine, Haut-Mazeris, La Riviere, La Vieille Cure, and Villars are priced much like the best cru bourgeois from the other side of the river. While softer in texture, they have plenty of stuffing.

Another source of excellent, affordable right bank wine is the Cotes de Castillon, an appellation that in recent years has seen a substantial influx of investment, much from some of Bordeaux’s top movers and shakers. Producers to look for include Cap de Faugeres and Clos l’Eglise.

A bevy of affordable Bordeaux comes from farther north and west on the right bank, in the Cotes de Bourg and Cotes de Blaye appellations. These are large districts (over 9,000 acres under vine in Bourg, and 19,000 in Blaye), so, not surprisingly, quality varies considerably.

I’ve sampled plenty of disappointing wines over the years. Happily, I’ve also enjoyed some real gems. From the Cotes de Bourg, Chateaux Mercier, Roc des Cambes, and Tayac offer consistently fine wines. From the Cotes de Blaye, look for Les Grands Marechaux, Segonzac and La Tonnelle. None should cost more than $20.

Even less expensive but good red Bordeaux wines can come from petit chateaux estates in the vast Entre Deux Mers region. Lying between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, this area turns out a veritable ocean of wine every year.

Much of it is boring at best, but some overachieving vintners make consistently fine wines. Their labels may sport designations such as “Bordeaux Superior” or “Cotes de Bordeaux,” but far more important is the name of the producer. Personal favorites include Beaulieu Comtes de Tastes, Marjosse, Reignac, and Thieuley.

It’s worth noting that while vintage matters in Bordeaux, it is not nearly as important as some commentators would like you to believe — especially with wines designed for drinking rather than cellaring. You’ll find affordable Bordeaux from 2001 through 2004 in local shops. None of these years is what fairly could be called a bad vintage. Each, though, has its own character.

The summer of 2003 was frightfully hot in Bordeaux, so the wines tend to be fruity and rich — sometimes too much so. By contrast, 2001, 2002, and 2004 were cooler, and the wines taste more restrained. In the affordable price range, wines from 2001 and 2002 seem to be drinking especially well now.

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