Bordeaux - Credit Crunch good value bordeaux wines

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  • Monday 18 August 2008

Recent vintages may be extortionate, but STEVEN SPURRIER has
unearthed some good-value, mature claret alternatives, to drink now.
After all, the credit crunch doesn’t mean we have to lower our standards…

When I joined the wine trade in 1964, I was told that one should drink Right Bank claret from seven years old and Left Bank claret from 10, the quality reference being cru bourgeois and above. Today, quality has benefited from investments in both the vineyards and the cellars, grapes are picked fully ripe, tannins can be controlled and the style of claret has become rounder and more supple. As a result, the wines can be drunk earlier, on the fruit, as the French themselves have always preferred. Yet one still has to wait for them to mature properly if vineyard and château expression is what you seek. And, of course, the wines are more expensive. Many claret lovers buy early and wait for the wine to develop, often opening the first bottle a bit too early and the last a bit too late. Forward wines like St- Emilion and light vintages such as 2002 can be drunk earlier; tougher wines like Pauillac and tannic vintages like 1996 need more time.

The good news, though, is that, in the aftermath of recent price hikes, for those with an empty cellar who are looking for a mature claret today, surprisingly good value can be found. Claret has always been the object of speculation, the merchants organising the market thus, but there is a great difference

between value for speculation (the first growths and super-seconds) and value for drinking (lesser crus classés, crus bourgeois and their Right Bank equivalents).

I’ve been leafing through UK merchants’ choose five underrated vintages, and five good value wines from each, drinking well now. From the 1990s, 1992 is best forgotten; 1993 and 1994 were rainy vintages with little future now; 1995 was a big, burly vintage with very little still around; 1997, fruity but weak, is already fading. Of the 2000s, 2000, 2003 and 2004 still need more time.

So here are my picks… 1996

This was a great vintage for the Left Bank, for it was a classic year for Cabernet that ripened perfectly during the exceptionally sunny October, yet retained firm tannins that are only now beginning to soften. Right Bank Merlot was ripe but tight, with an atypical leanness avoided only by the better châteaux. The Lafite Cabernet was so good that it represented 84% of the grand vin, with only 8% Merlot. Until 2005, 1996 was the year when I could hardly stop buying. In their second decade they are classically enjoyable.

Château Potensac, Cru Bourgeois, Médoc

The only Médoc, with four St-Estèphes, two Margaux and two Moulis, to be classified cru bourgeois exceptionnel in the now defunct 2003 reclassification. Firmness rather than fireworks. 2008–2012. £20.25; L&W

Ch Camensac, 5ème Cru Classé, Haut-Médoc Seldom highly rated among its fellows from 1855, Camensac makes good solid wines from its 60ha (hectares) that were

mostly replanted in 1965. 2008–2014. £19.99; Maj

Ch Les Ormes de Pez, Cru Bourgeois, St-Estèphe

This wine opens up early but keeps

superbly, guaranteeing satisfaction over a

long period. Quite meaty, but quite elegant.

2008–2015. £300/case of 12 (IB); BdI

Ch Meyney, Cru Bourgeois, St-Estèphe

Concentrated and plummy, with the

typical spice and leatheriness of St-

Estèphe. Robust, satisfying, and quite

classy. 2008–2016. £29.95; L&S

Ch Langoa-Barton, 3ème Cru Classé,

St-Julien

The ‘younger brother’ to Leoville Barton is

increasingly impressive. At 10 to 12 years

it is delicious, but in great vintages it can

last much longer. 2008–2020. £49; BBR

1998

This vintage was the reverse of 1996: superb for the Merlot on the Right Bank,

due to a particularly hot and dry August; less good for the later-ripening Cabernets on the Left Bank, which were disrupted by September rains. After the en primeur follies over the previous year, spurred on by an unsubstantiated demand from Asia, prices fell back a bit, but it was obvious from the early tastings that the Merlots were quite remarkable, and demand quickly outstripped supply. The Graves were a little green overall, but the Médocs have been unfairly overlooked. Ch Fontenil, Fronsac The home of Michel and Dany Rolland, bought in the 1980s and now (not surprisingly) producing one of the best

Fronsacs; perhaps the most underrated appellation in Bordeaux, with the exception of Cerons. Plummy Rolland style, but with Fronsac’s firmness. 2008–2012. £25; L&W Ch Hortevie, Cru Bourgeois, St-Julien With the exception of Gloria, this is the best of the non-classé châteaux in St-Julien (my 1978 is still holding up well), producing ripe, quite solid wines with good character, making it a regular on

The Wine Society’s list. 2008–2014.

£14.50; WSo (limited stock)

Ch de Lamarque, Cru Bourgeois,

Haut-Médoc

At this historic castle with vineyards on

the right-hand side of the D2 route des

châteaux between Margaux and St-Julien,

the Gromond d’Evry have been producing

classic, quite robust Médocs with polish

and breed. 2008–2012. £15.99; C&B

Ch Labégorce Zédé Cru Bourgeois

Margaux

One of only two Margaux crus bourgeois

to be raised to exceptionnel status in the

2003 reclassification, due to sterling

efforts by the Thienpont family, this is

one of the most classic, elegant and

restrained of Margaux, with a depth of

fruit that continues to show freshness

even in maturity. 2008–2013. £18; WSo

Ch Gruaud-Larose, 2ème Cru Classé,

St-Julien

Running just behind Ducru-Beaucaillou

and the three Léovilles, this large property

occupies a single block of 78ha of vines set

well back from the Gironde. The rich and

spicy wines will drink young but also age

superbly. 2008–2018. £38.95; Whb

1999

The unfavourable climatic conditions of this early, large harvest meant work in the vines played a predominant role in quality. The wines showed charm but also a lack of concentration and depth, and often, by trying too hard, a lack of balance. Violent hailstorms damaged the St-Emilion ‘Côtes’ on 5 September. Overall, a modest year with goodish fruit, actually the fifth best year of the decade, with the advantage that most wines are ready to drink, and have a little more stuffing than the 1997s.

Ch Lagrange, Pomerol

Often understated but always elegant,

from very good soil on the Pomerol

plateau. Firm when young, with more

grip than flesh. Not for the long term.

2008–2012. £161.76/case of 12 (IB); BWI

Ch de Fieuzal, Grand Cru Classé,

Pessac-Léognan

After making rather overoaked, overrich

wines in the early 1990s, de Fieuzal had

calmed down by the end of the decade

but retained tobacco and spice elements.

Nice balance. 2008–2012. £31.14; RSW

Ch Duhart-Milon, 4ème Cru Classé, Pauillac

Purchased by the Lafite Rothschilds in

1964, this, along with Pontet-Canet and

Grand-Puy-Lacoste, is my favourite

among the affordable northern Pauillacs.

Classic, with Cabernet-driven elegance.

2008–2015. £380/case of 12 (IB); J&B

Ch Giscours, 3ème Cru Classé, Margaux

Always one of the stars of the vintage, in

1999 Giscours confirmed the position it

had held in the Médoc in the early 1970s,

but with a fruitier, more approachable

style. A really lovely wine, typically

Margaux. 2008–2012. £40; Maj

Ch Calon-Ségur, 3ème Cru Classé, St-Estèphe

The most northern of the five St-Estèphe

classed growths, whose single-block

vineyards on a gravelly, chalky soil bring

lightness to the commune’s more meaty

style. Fine depth of fruit. Very polished.

2008–2015. £29.90; Tan (limited stock)

2001

Described by David Peppercorn in July’s Decanter as ‘more approachable than 2000, with added elegance’ and awarded a similar five-star rating, 2001 is now attracting the attention it was denied on release. A very wet winter and spring were followed by high temperatures from May to August, but also high levels of humidity. Rain in September made it difficult to choose a date for the harvest, but an Indian summer during October played into the hands of the Médoc. (It also created one of the greatest Sauternes vintages of recent times.) Many châteaux on the Left Bank felt that their 2001 equalled their more robust 2000. This is a claret lover’s vintage that, alongside 2004, represents the best value for money at the moment.

Ch Paloumey, Cru Bourgeois A recent star in the southern Médoc, this wine is supple and fruity, with attractive polished depth that shows early but lasts well. 2008–2010. £16.99; ScC

Ch Haut-Chaigneau, Lalande-de-Pomerol

This wine is consistently excellent. Round

and complete, black-fruit expression, with

a high level of oak. Good tannins, long

finish. 2008–2014. £14.95; L&S

Ch de La Dauphine, Fronsac

The current owners are determined to lift

Fronsac back to the level it knew in the

early 19th century. With 2001, they

succeeded. 2008–2012. £15.82; F&R

Ch Batailley, 5ème Cru Classé, Pauillac

This classic, robust, reliable Pauillac

provides excellent drinking and very good

value for money. 2008–2015. £20; WSo

Ch La Tour Haut-Brion, Pessac-Léognan

A vineyard on the La Mission estate

opposite (and under the same ownership

as) Haut-Brion. Sturdy, robust and earthy,

but repays keeping. From 2006 the vines

have been made over to La Mission.

2008–2016. £240/case of 12 (IB); BWI

2002

The forgotten vintage of the decade, saved from rain at the 11th hour, but totally overshadowed by every other vintage since 2000. Difficult on the Right Bank due to rain, only a little better on the Left Bank, but modern winemaking techniques (and money) saved the day. Pleasantly fruity wines for the medium term.

Ch Caronne-Ste-Gemme, Cru Bourgeois, Haut-Médoc From St-Laurent du Médoc, this wine has improved strongly under the watchful eyes of the Nony family. Good solid wine with class and charm. 2008–2010. £12.99; Maj

Ch Peyrabon, Cru Bourgeois, Haut-Médoc

A fine cru bourgeois whose vines at St-

Saveur are inland from Pauillac. As Berry

Bros says, ‘delicious with the Sunday

roast’. 2008–2010. £120/case of 12; Mls

La Dame de Montrose, St-Estèphe

The second wine from Montrose, whose

powerful blackberry-fruit flavours and

slight pepperiness give it immediate

appeal, but it has enough tannin to age

further. 2008–2012. £20; Jer

Ch Grand-Puy-Lacoste, 5ème Cru Classé,

Pauillac

Along with Lynch-Bages, GPL is the

outstanding 5th growth of Pauillac –

Michael Broadbent never misses a vintage.

True vineyard depth and character.

2008–2015. £216/case of 12 (IB); BWI

Domaine de Chevalier, Grand Cru Classé,

Pessac-Léognan

The vines at Chevalier are now more than

15 years old, and the dedication to quality

is shining through. Beautifully balanced.

2008–2015. £220/case of 12 (IB); Far

The hype surrounding the 2005 vintage, and the dismaying escalation in prices for its wines, should not lead Bordeaux lovers to despair. No doubt 2005 is a great vintage across the board, but it is not three or four times as good as some previous vintages, even if its prices could lead you to that conclusion. Because Bordeaux is, and has always been, a wine of speculation, many of its wines are traded rather than drunk. And because production volumes are high (with certain exceptions such as Ausone and Pétrus) even the first growths are not exactly rare. So a conscientious scanning of merchants’ lists and online trading sites will reveal a variety of good, often great, wines at affordable prices. Value is found in good vintages that are overshadowed by more celebrated years: thus 2001 is undervalued because it came after the splendid 2000s, and 2004 came after the (largely unwarranted) 2003 price hikes. Good-value Bordeaux, such as the leading crus bourgeois, remain good value in 2005, though it can be tempting to buy a mature vintage at roughly the same price as a new vintage in need of cellaring. Similarly, wines from outlying and less-fashionable regions – such as Blaye, Bourg, Fronsac and the Côtes de Castillon – are stable in price. Moreover their ageing potential can be limited, so there is less point in buying older vintages. The wines below are in order of vintage, with the 2005 vintage price in brackets.

Ch Rauzan-Ségla 1996, 2ème Cru Classé,

Margaux The estate ranked immediately after Ch

Margaux in 1855. Impressive from the

outset, with a classic cedary aroma and

firm tannins that will keep it going for

years to come. £47.99; Odd (2005=£75)

Ch Mouton Rothschild 1996, 1er Cru

Classé, Pauillac

Mouton’s record is a bit patchier than

most first growths, but the 1996 is

fabulous. Flamboyant nose, with blackcurrants, oak, coffee and a light

balsamic character. Much the same on

the palate, which exudes blackcurranty

fruit and has a long, swaggering finish.

£270.25; N&P (£600)

Chateau d’Yquem 1997, 1er Cru

Supérieur, Sauternes

A wonderful Sauternes vintage, and Yquem,

as usual, is its greatest representative.

Accessible now, but will keep for three

decades more. £215; Cam (£425)

Ch Léoville-Las-Cases 1998, 2ème Cru

Classé, St-Julien

A tricky Médoc vintage, but Las-Cases

sailed through. Lots of new oak, sweet

tannins, great persistence. Can only

improve. £65.40; MFW (£230)

Ch La Mission Haut-Brion 1998, Graves

The fragrant cedary nose is beginning to

show some maturity. The tannins seem

well integrated; fruit is to the fore. Spicy

and very persistent. Approachable, but

will live for decades. £152.75; PWy (£550)

Ch Climens 1999, 1er Cru, Sauternes

A fine year for Sauternes, and none is

more elegant than Climens. Stone-fruit

aromas; lean, persistent palate, with fine

acidity and lift. Approachable now, but

will improve. £46.55; W&C (£75)

Ch Suduiraut 1999, 1er Cru, Sauternes

Another great Sauternes, but in a different

style from Climens. More overt lushness, a

silky texture, and delicious apricot and

mandarin flavours. £29.50; W&C (£48)

Ch Canon-La Gaffelière 1999, Grand Cru

Classé, St-Emilion

A good dose of Cabernet Franc gives this

St-Emilion an elegance that is balanced

by the luscious fruit. This wine doesn’t

lack stuffing and grip. £36.02; MFW (£52)

Ch Léoville-Las-Cases 1999, 2ème Cru

Classé, St-Julien

One of the wines of the vintage: oaky

aromas, velvety texture, spice and vigour,

and a lot of grip to ensure many years of

pleasure ahead. £67.35; MFW (£230)

Ch Pontet-Canet 1999, 5ème Cru Classé,

Pauillac

This spicy, vigorous, assertive wine is

tannic but not harsh, immensely fruity

and persistent. Rises above the norm for

the vintage. £26.67; Mls (£85)

Chapelle d’Ausone 2000, St-Emilion

The second wine of Ausone is often better

than many wines from top properties

nearby. Expensive, but as close as most of

us will come to the grand vin. Succulent

and elegant. £148.59; F&R (£207.34)

Domaine de Chevalier 2000, Graves

Warm, ripe, fleshy aromas and a whiff of

smoke, as well as cherry fruit. Already

supple and drinking well, but there’s spice

and a taut structure, too. £43.50; Wsp (£52)

Ch Bourgneuf Vayron 2001, Pomerol

Fine Pomerol is hard to find at affordable

prices, but this is an exception. The 2001

has been improving in bottle, showing

spice and complexity. £23; WSo (£28.53)

Clos de l’Oratoire 2001, Grand Cru Classé,

St-Emilion

From the same stable as Canon-La

Gaffelière, this voluptuous, super-ripe wine

is drinking well now. £29.95; Imb (£30)

Ch Langoa Barton 2001, 3ème Cru Classé,

St-Julien

A delightful medium-bodied claret, with

perfumed cherry aromas, delicacy and

structure on the palate and good length.

£30.15; L&W (£46.95)

Ch Troplong Mondot 2001, Grand Cru

Classé, St-Emilion

One whiff is sufficient: glorious aromas

of black cherries, toasty new oak and

truffles. This wine, with its opulence and

sensuality, shows why Troplong deserved

promotion to premier grand cru in 2006.

£46.41; Ply (£200)

Ch Brane-Cantenac 2002, 2ème Cru

Classé, Margaux

After many years in the doldrums, by

2002, this property was back on form.

Pure blackcurranty aromas, supple and

medium-bodied on the palate and a long

elegant finish. £25; Mls (£52)

Ch Gazin 2004, Pomerol

This has intense aromas of raspberries

and cherries, and a palate with

considerable power and heft. It may lack

some length, but it will provide admirable

medium-term drinking. £25.21; C&B (£45)

Ch Léoville Barton 2004, 2ème Cru Classé,

St-Julien

Classic St-Julien, with blackcurrant and

black-cherry aromas, and a palate of

succulent plump fruit. Cellar for a few

years. £43.82; BdI (£95)

Ch Pavie Macquin 2004, Grand Cru

Classé, St-Emilion

This is not for the faint-hearted: it has a

good deal of tannin, power and alcohol.

£30.12; BdI (£125)

Ch Pontet-Canet 2004, 5ème Cru Classé,

Pauillac

This superstar of Decanter blind tastings

is rich, dramatic, highly concentrated and

built to last. £39.50; BBR (£85)

Ch Rausan-Ségla 2004, 2ème Cru Classé,

Margaux

Opulent black fruits and oak on the nose;

powerful and concentrated palate, with

spice and freshness. Needs further

cellaring. £28.33; Mls (£75).

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