Buying top Bordeaux doesn't have to mean remortgaging the house. ROGER VOSS guides us through quality wines from the famous commune appellations with all the style of first growths, but without the high prices.
Perhaps you can’t afford first growth Bordeaux. Or maybe you believe that they – and other highly priced clarets – are just not worth the price you have to pay nowadays. It is easy to assume that in order to find affordable Bordeaux, you have to move to the lesser appellations, to the côtes (such as Côtes de Bourg or the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux) or even to simple Bordeaux appellation wines.
Luckily, you would be wrong. For even in the famous commune appellations of the Médoc and Saint-Emilion, there are some affordable (some would say better value for money) wines. These may not have all the complexity and class of the finest growths, but they certainly have many of the qualities that create demand for these appellations. They are, as it were, distillations of those qualities – the essence.
You get the structure of Saint-Estèphe, the power of Pauillac, the generosity of Saint-Julien, the elegance of Margaux, the opulence of Saint-Emilion, the style of the Graves. And you find them in wines that are often more approachable when young, those that will give pleasure earlier than the top growths would. So if your dot.com ship didn’t come in, or you simply want to spend less on good-quality Bordeaux, here’s some alternatives to the pricey classed growths. The majority of them cost less than FF150 a bottle in France, with many priced at under FF100.
The wines of Cos d’Estournel and Château Montrose are the stars of this appellation, along with the newcomers (in quality terms) Châteaux Phélan-Ségur and Haut-Marbuzet. Tannins and serious fruit are the famous hallmarks of Saint-Estèphe, and its wines are difficult to approach when young due to their dry structure and not obviously generous fruit. However, the downside of that dryness – the austere, lean wines of the past – has mainly disappeared now, thanks to better vinification.
A 70-hectare (ha) property, with a high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon. This cru bourgeois is owned by the ubiquitous Castéja family, one of Bordeaux’s oldest. Stylistically, the wine is soft for Saint-Estèphe, emphasising fruit and aiming for balance with the wood. However, there is a tannic structure there, particularly in better vintages such as 1996 and 1998, so there is ageing potential as well.
This is the alternative to Haut-Marbuzet, also owned by Henri Duboscq. There is the same use of modern, new wood in the wines of this 8ha property. The fruit is rich, with tannins not excessive but certainly present. Unlike Haut-Marbuzet, the wine is usually ready to drink four to five years after harvest: start on the 1996 now.
Château le Crock
This cru bourgeois is made by the owners of Château Léoville Poyferré, and its vines are next door to both Cos d’Estournel and Château Montrose. The structure of the wine is defiantly Saint-Estèphe, and is full of tannins and firm, rich fruit. There is a second wine, called la Croix Saint-Estèphe.
This small (7ha), cru bourgeois property doesn’t normally make headlines. But its wines, from a vineyard on the high gravels of Saint-Estèphe, are solid and satisfying without being flashy. The closest comparison in style is with Château Calon-Ségur.
The Tesseron family of Château Pontet-Canet in Pauillac own this fourth growth, whose price is remarkably inexpensive. It is at the southern edge of the appellation, and is separated by a road from Cos d’Estournel. The style is classic rather than modern, with wood present, but never dominant.
Château la Peyre
An estate that bottles its own wine, la Peyre is a relative newcomer. Previously, the grapes from the 15ha property were taken to the local cooperative. It burst on to the scene with the 1996 vintage, a stunning wine, full of solid tannins and complex fruit. The second wine is Clos du Moulin.
This 21ha vineyard is based around a château hotel of the same name. The wine is lighter and less tannic than some Saint-Estèphes, which means it ages quicker. If you want to taste the serious fruit without waiting, this is a good buy.
Another property that belongs within the Castéja family orbit. The 30ha of this cru bourgeois estate are divided equally between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and its chunkiness is reminiscent of the neighbouring Château Meyney, with a hint of the power of Château Montrose.
The appellation that contains three of the five first growths – Lafite, Latour and Mouton – is short on good-value wines. But they do exist, on the edges of the appellation or between the top classed growth vineyards. These less pricey wines share the common characteristic of all Pauillacs: they are powerful expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon, with both grandeur and a typical marked blackcurrant flavour.
This is one of the few affordable classed growths of Pauillac. While its wines never hit the heights of the more famous names in Pauillac, they are quintessential old-style Bordeaux, with blackcurrant fruits and subdued wood flavours. The wines also have the advantage of ageing relatively quickly – the 1996 will be very drinkable by 2004.
Château la Becasse
Owned by the Fonteneau family, this small, 4ha estate comprises at least 20 different parcels. Despite this, the wines are solidly constituted. I enjoyed the 1996, with its ripe, elegant fruits and the flavour of chocolate, balanced with tannins.
This 25ha vineyard is on the plateau of Pauillac, close to Château Lynch-Bages. In past generations, the grapes were taken to the cooperative, although they were vinified and bottled separately. Since the 1970s, however, its wines have been estate bottled. The wines are uncomplicated Pauillac, with the powerful fruit, even if they lack the complexity of the greater classed growths.
Situated in the hamlet of Saint-Lambert, wedged against the vineyards of Château Pichon-Longueville, this 17ha property shows much of the power of the southern Pauillac wines. There’s nothing flashy here though, just good-value Pauillac. The 1998 wines are particularly successful.
Another of the better-value classed growths, this property, like the neighbouring Batailley, is owned by the Castéja family. The style, definitely improved since the early 1980s, is more modern than Batailley, with good use of new wood. As part of an upward quality curve, the 1996 and 1998 are the best – to date – from the estate.
One of the AXA-owned properties, this 10ha estate has developed a style akin to the fruity style of Château Lynch-Bages, but without the overwhelming power. The vineyards are close to Château Pontet-Canet, towards the north of the appellation.
Château la Fleur Peyrabon
This 5ha vineyard is at the western end of Pauillac. The wine shows the lighter side of Pauillac: seductive and full of cherry flavour. An inexpensive introduction to Pauillac fruit quality without the need for ageing.
The famed quality consistency of Saint-Julien wines is not just found in the classed growths, but seems to exist also in the good-value cru bourgeois properties. Solid, satisfying fruit comes from these vineyards and is reflected in the juicy, eminently attractive wines. For many drinkers, the opulence in Saint-Julien is the closest the Médoc comes to Saint-Emilion.
Château de la Bridane
This cru bourgeois property was brought together in the 1960s and 1970s by the present owner’s father, Pierre Saintout. The wines are characterised by their harmony and their richness, giving medium term ageing.
Château du Glana
This large, 45ha property has no château as such, just a large chai. It is owned by the Meffre family, who is better known for its Rhône wines. Du Glana produces attractive, fruity wines, which are accessible relatively young but have plenty of the Saint-Julien charm.
This is the poor man’s Ducru-Beaucaillou since it, like its more famous namesake, comes under control of the Borie family. This Lalande-Borie is a lighter, less tannic wine, but still has much of the structure and the fleshiness of its more famous elder brother.
Château Moulin de la Rose
This 5ha property is located right in the centre of the appellation, broken up into small parcels. New wood dominates on the young wines, but all of the fruit is there, especially in richer years, such as 1998. Tannins and wood suggest longevity.
The layout of the parcels making up this 15ha property means that they touch on nearly all the classed growths of the appellation. The wine seems to combine all of the virtues of Saint-Julien – richness, fruit, roundness, generosity – without the price tag of the classed growths.
The largest of all the Médoc commune appellations is studded with chateaux, and gives a great range of price and quality. Away from the classed growths, there are some good-value, well made wines to be had. Look especially in the communes of Soussans and Cantenac, which exhibit a comparative lightness of touch. The best, with their high proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon, can also age well.
The family of the late Peter Sichel will all celebrate 40 years of ownership of this estate in 2001. The wines have continued to improve over the years, and now are among the best of the cru bourgeois in the appellation. Perfume and elegance, also found in Margaux classed growths, are both typical of Angludet.
Château la Bessane
A tiny, 3ha property in the southern part of the appellation. The wine is both generally firm and tannic, although with attractive new wood and violet aromas. The 1996 seems to have been very successful. Château Ferrière One of the properties under the control of Claire Villars-Lurton of Chasse-Spleen, this classed growth estate was farmed as part of Château Lascombes until the early 1990s. Now its potential is being realised, and it produces full-bodied, well structured wines.
Château la Gurgue
Another of the properties run by Claire Villars-Lurton, this estate is adjacent to the western side of Château Margaux. The style is on the delicate side of the Margaux spectrum, but everything’s there, and the fruit in good years is definitely Margaux.
Château Haut-Breton Larigaudière
The château here is now a restaurant in the village of Soussans. The wine comes from the 13ha property, which is what remains of the once largest estate in the village. The wine’s chief characteristics are its liveliness and freshness, but at the same time there is good weight and soft fruits.
A 22ha vineyard in Soussans that has improved in recent years and is now worth following. Vintages of the château’s wine from 1995 onwards have benefited from a new cellar and selection. A second wine, called Château Gravières de Marsac, is now produced at the estate.
A tiny estate of only 2ha, owned by local funeral director, Paul Bajeux. There’s plenty of life in his wines, though, and he brings out much of the cassis fruit qualities of Margaux wines with the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon in the final blend.
A demand for the relatively small quantities of wine (that’s compared with the Médoc) produced by Saint-Emilion estates has pushed up prices dramatically. The style of the right bank appellations, with their dominance of Merlot, is also more appealing to modern, New World-influenced wine drinkers. But while many grands cru classés have shot up in price, there are plenty of estates following in their wake. These can offer the pleasurable generosity of Saint-Emilion, without the added pain on the pocket.
Found at the south-eastern corner of the appellation, this 12ha grand cru makes modern wines that are dominated by new wood when young and are reminiscent of some of the Saint-Emilion cult garagiste wines. Medium-term ageing will bring the wine to maturity.
Gilles Pauquet, who consults for a number of properties in Saint-Emilion, has brought about considerable improvements at Fombrauge. From 1996, especially, the wines have been more structured and fruitier, while retaining the fleshiness that has made them so popular.
There has been enormous investment at this 7ha estate, which is now owned by the Belgian liqueur producer Georgy Fourcroy. With Michel Rolland as the consultant, the style is concentrated and rich, very much in the modern wave of Saint-Emilion.
Château Grand Corbin-Despagne
This estate lost its grand cru classé status in the Saint-Emilion revision of 1996, and it is now working hard to return to the exalted ranks in 2006. All in all, this means that the property offers good value and increasing quality. From 1998 onwards (and certainly with the 2000), the wines will definitely be worth looking out for.
Harmonious wines seem to be the hallmark of this grand cru classé estate. As with many Saint-Emilion properties, there have been considerable improvements in quality from the mid-1990s onwards and, as yet, the prices do not reflect these changes.
Since its purchase by La Groupe Mondiale, the extra investment capital available has transformed this property into a showcase. The external improvements to the château have carried over into the wine, which is now modern and is new-wood dominated when young, but very ripe and perfumed as it settles down.
Château Rol de Fombrauge
A 5.5ha vineyard found in Saint-Christophe-des-Bardes, at the eastern end of the appellation. Both 1996 and 1998 were great successes at the property, and 2000 promises even better. Full-bodied but beautifully perfumed, these are wines to watch.
The wines from the southern vineyards of Bordeaux, in Graves and Pessac-Léognan, always represent good value for money. Their current run of successful vintages – in 1998, for example, they produced some of the best wines of the year – make these wines that should be bought by anyone who enjoys classic Bordeaux. Prices, apart from the top growths, remain remarkably reasonable.
This 17ha property is owned by Denis Dubordieu, the man responsible for the renaissance of white wine making in the Graves. He is also the producer of a soft and supple, fruity red that brings wood, spices and red fruits together in a fine balance.
Château la Garde
The red wine from this 50ha property exhibits all the juicy, ripe fruit typical of Pessac-Léognan. Equally typically, under all the fruit is a firm tannic structure, which suggests the wine has good potential. New wood is evident in recent vintages.
Owner Jean-Jacques Lesgourgues put this 24ha estate together from scratch. From the 1996 vintage, he has produced wines of immense power, which are more Pessac-Léognan than Graves. Red fruits, tannins, wood and elegance are very well combined. Watch this property.
Recent investment, since the purchase of the estate in 1997 by current owner Alfred Bonnie, has already paid off in the excellent 1998 wine, which showed a striking increase in structure and concentration over previous wines from the property.
The Pontac family was once the major name in Bordeaux. The name lives on in this property in the Pessac-Léognan appellation. The elegance and stylishness of the wine is typical of this area, as are the perfume and the supple tannins.
Written by ROGER VOSS