Although lacking the wow factor of their illustrious southern neighbours, the cru bourgeois of the northern Médoc offer the best value, says CLIVE COATES MW

Readers may be forgiven for being both confused and angry with the present state of play over the current classification, such as it is, of the crus

bourgeois of the Médoc. How can we tell, when all the châteaux are mixed together in a single category, which are the best and which are the least good? The answer is, we can’t. So we should refer back to the 2003 classification, even though, as James Lawther MW explains on the previous pages, it officially doesn’t exist. You’ll find the list in all good reference books. A very profitable hunting ground is Médoc (also known as Bas-Médoc), as opposed to the Haut-Médoc. Here, Iargue, are the best values, especially given the horrendous increases in prices at cru classé level. A wine here will have onlyrisen in price by some 35%–40% in the past decade, rather than several hundred per cent. Here are a new generation of ambitious and talented men and women. Here are the properties to watch. Why Médoc rather than Haut-Médoc? Because the really good examples of the former, from Sociando-Mallet and Haut- Marbuzet downwards, have long since been discovered. The best of these sell for classed-growth prices and have risen alongside these wines in recent years. Thelesser examples show less ambitious (I’m tempted to say ‘greedy’) movement, but I still find the levels excessive. Better value can be found by heading north. Médoc occupies much of the northern part of the peninsular formed by the Gironde estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. It starts at Saint-Yzans de Médoc andSaint-Germain d’Esteuil and continues north to Saint-Vivien de Médoc, covering

16 communes. Viticulturally, as well as interms of prestige, this is a minor area

south, although they are roughly the same size if one excludes the named

communes such as Pauillac, St-Julien, and so on. One gets the feeling that only the very best bits of the authorised land in Médoc is in fact planted wth vines, for the geology is mixed. Yes, there are gravel plateaux, but there are also parcels of limestone and sand. The countryside is low-lying, flat and open to the skies. It is by no means as monocultural as it is futher to the south. Fields of pasture, cereals and copses alternate with vineyards, small villages and the occasional farmhouse, much too unpretentious to be called a château – although this is what will be put on the label – and its dependent winemaking buildings. It is peaceful, but a little bleak, rural and remote. Rarely do foreign wine buyers venture this far from Bordeaux. Nevertheless, the wines are well worth noticing, because at their best, they represent what Bordeaux has been accused of failing to supply: good value.

Where Médoc scores over the other, lesser areas of Bordeaux is in its

higher-than-elsewhere proportion of Cabernet in the mix. This gives the wines acidity and backbone. In weak vintages, they do not attenuate after a few years. They may be a little moreaustere in their youth, but after a year or so in bottle they begin to round off,and in the best vintages, such as 2005, most satisfactorily. Even in 2006 there is a lot of decent wine, as I found out on a visit in February. It helps, though, as in the other, lesser parts of the Bordeaux region, to have a warm, dry end to the vintage. The grapesripen later here than they do at, say, Latour; and even an Haut-Médoc cru bourgeois inland from Latour should ideally wait another fortnight before starting its harvest. The perfectionists in Médoc will wait even later, so they need Indian summers, like the one in 2007. Life is not easy for a Médoc proprietor. The world rushes in for its Lafites and Latours, whose prices get more and more inflated. Your Monsieur Vigneron in Begadan, a village with more than its fair share of good winemakers, has costs only barely covered by what the market will pay for his wine. A Médoc cru bourgeois will now have a sorting table, but the wine not worthy of being bottled under the château label can only be sold off in bulk at cost price as Bordeaux Supérieur – woe betide a frostbitten vintage.

We should be grateful to the many dedicated vignerons of Médoc. They can

provide, at hardly a pound or two more than the fiver you are used to spending

on an anonymous merchant’s house Bordeaux, excellent value. In the classification of the Médoc cru bourgeois of 2003 – now dormant for legal

reasons – one château (Potensac) out of nine crus exceptionnels came from Médoc, as opposed to Haut-Médoc; similarly, there were 13 cru bourgeois Supérieurs (out of 88) and 47 out of 150 cru bourgeois. I recently sampled all the Médoc exceptionnels and supérieurs bar one, and a selection of the better non-supérieurs from the 2005 and 2006 vintages. Included in the tasting were two co-operative wines, not classed, both from the producers of Gaillan: Esprit d’Estuaire and Le Grand Art. I commend them to you.

Written by CLIVE COATES