Affordable Bordeaux? You Bet

By Christopher Matthews

For most folks, “Bordeaux” and “affordable” are two words rarely mentioned in the same sentence. Considering the prices (and media ink) that the top Bordeaux wines — the “Grand Cru Classé”— fetch internationally at auction or in wine futures, this is understandable. Beyond the pocketbook of most wine consumers, they run from around $50 a bottle at the lower high-end, to upwards of $1,000 a bottle for one of the hallowed “First Growths” in a great vintage, like 2005 Chateau Margaux.

Yet for all the attention paid to the “classified growths“, they represent only 5% of total Bordeaux production and 10% of total value. In fact, Bordeaux is the largest winegrowing area in France, an enormous production zone covering 60 different appellations, 7,800 winegrowers and 40 cooperatives, and comprising some 40% of French still wine exports (54% of value). Within this prodigious volume, excellent, affordable everyday wines abound, offering a taste of place and natural acidity that make them versatile food companions.

Bordeaux wine region

For the all-important American “millennials” market, however, Bordeaux hasn’t been the touchstone it was for wine enthusiasts of earlier generations (including me). It faces much more competition from across the globe, both from New World producers, like Argentina and South Africa, and from European neighbors, like Italy and Spain — even other regions of France. Coupled with perceptions of exorbitant prices, this has led to a certain pessimism about Bordeaux’s overall prospects here.

Today’s Bordeaux 2012

But the Bordelais have been on the case. Since 2005, Bordeaux’s official wine council, the CIVB, has conducted annual showcases promoting the 100 top, affordable Bordeaux wines available in the US market. Under the “Today’s Bordeaux” nameplate, three guest American judges and number of locally appointed Bordeaux wine connoisseurs (“Les Wine Buffs”) choose, via blind tastings, their favorite 100 Bordeaux wines under $35.00 from over 300 wines submitted by US importers and distributors. As a value hunter myself, I usually shop in the $12 – $25 range for everyday purposes; $35.00 would be a splurge. But factoring in availability in the US market and price/quality ratio, $35 became the ceiling for this year’s promotion. I was also reassured that 56% of this year’s selection, unveiled recently at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, was $20.00 or under, and that 72% was $25.oo or under. And it’s always a fun tasting, revealing numerous, quality bargains.

A disclaimer: sampling 100 wines in the hour and a half I had available at the Wythe Hotel was mission impossible, so I had to skip over a number of undoubtedly deserving selections. Still, with a balanced approach, and useful direction from the on-hand Les Wine Buffs (shout out to April Bloom and Mollie Battenhouse!), I found quite a few wines to recommend.

Some picks of the picks

I’ve long considered dry Bordeaux whites as the most undervalued wine category of the region, especially the more Sauvignon Blanc-driven appellations of AOC Bordeaux (which can be made from anywhere in the entire Bordeaux region) and Entre-Deux-Mers (“between the two seas”). The dry whites of Graves, which are generally barrel-fermented, feature higher doses of Semillon and are somewhat pricier, also demand attention; they showed very well this year. Some of my favorite whites from the tasting:

Chatron La Fleur 2011, AOC Bordeaux, $12.99

Dourthe La Grand Cuvee 2011, AOC Bordeaux, $14.99 (a super value)

Chateau Timberlay 2011*, AOC Bordeaux, $20.00

Chateau Haut Selve 2011*, Graves, $24.99

Chateau de Chantegrive 2010*, Graves, $25.00 (best in show — electric juice!)

But make no mistake about it: Bordeaux is primarily red wine country — 89% of all plantings are red. And a unifying theme across almost all appellations is the blending of more than one red grape variety. Chief among the allowed grapes are Merlot (63% of red vines), Cabernet Sauvignon (25%), Cabernet Franc (11%) and smaller doses of Petit Verdot (mostly in the Medoc) and Malbec (mainly in Blaye). At the tasting, there was quite a range of districts, blends, vintages (including the heralded 2009) and price points in play. I divide my red recs into “$20 and Under” and “Over $20″:

$20 and Under Reds

Chateau Les Rouilleres 2009**, AOC Bordeaux, $11.99

Chateau Tour Chapeaux 2010*, AOC Bordeaux, $11.99

Chateau de Lugagnac 2009*, Bordeaux Superior, $13.99

Cheval Quancard Reserve 2009, AOC Bordeaux, $15.00

Chateau Segonzac 2009**, Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux, $19.99 (a hedonistic gem)

Chateau Sainte Colombe 2006*, Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux, 19.99 (ripe, harmonious and ready)

Xavier Flouret Quai Lumiere 2009**, Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux, $20.00 

Over $20

Chateau Gros Caillou 2005, Saint Emilion Grand Cru,$22.99 (excellent value, great year)

Chateau de Rochemorin 2009***, Pessac-Leognan, $24.99

Chateau de Lamarque 2008**, Haut Medoc, $24.99 

Chateau Haut Selve 2009*, Graves, $24.99

Chateau Bernadotte 2004***, Haut Medoc, $26.99 (drinking beautifully now)

Chateau Tournefeuille 2009*, Lalande de Pomerol, 29.99

Chateau la Grace Dieu 2008***, Saint Emilion Grand Cru, $31.00

Chateau Haut-Beausejour 2009*, Saint Estephe, $32.99 (a Left Bank knockout)

Chateau Paveil de Luze 2009*, Margaux, $34.99 (classic and compelling)

Chateau de la Coste 2010*, Margaux, $35.00

*Available in northeast and other major markets

**Available in New York tri-state region only

***Available nationwide

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