Many wine lovers think that top quality Bordeaux is beyond their financial reach. Margaret Rand explains that there are bargains to be had, if you know where to look.
What constitutes good value in Bordeaux? There’s no objective answer to this question. But it might be reasonable to infer from the amount of unsold quality Bordeaux stock sloshing around the cellars of Bordeaux – plenty of 1999s, even more 2001s – that few consumers consider the pricier wines to be good value at the moment.
Over the last two decades, wines once affordable as special occasion bottles have disappeared from most consumers’ reach. So we’ve become adept at spotting the virtues of lesser wines – and happily, they’ve obliged us by improving their viticulture and winemaking to coincide with a run of good but mostly not great vintages – just the sort of years at which those in search of value should be looking.
There is no shortage of quality Bordeaux at the moment. And we needn’t buy en primeur to secure it. In fact, far better not to: the 2000quality Bordeaux vintage rose in price in the short term, but many 2000s are now being traded in Bordeaux at the release price; 1999 didn’t rise appreciably in value; 2001 seems for the moment to be stuck on the market, delicious though many of the wines are; and most négociants will be relieved to just sell some 2002s. The last thing we should do, then, is buy early and bear the cost of ageing: we can let somebody else do that.
For the purposes of this piece I’m taking good value in red quality Bordeaux to be from about £10 up to £15 or £20. Much below £10 and it’s time to exercise caution. As for below £5, forget it. Frankly, God did not intend red Bordeaux to be this cheap.
White is another matter. You can go as low as £3.99 for Bordeaux Blanc and still get a bottle of clean, fruity Sauvignon Blanc and/or Sémillon – just beware of over-oaking. Too many producers regard oak as a substitute for character and when it comes to inexpensive Bordeaux Blanc, I’d go for one without any new oak, every time.
Good value, quality Bordeaux has its roots in the vineyard. What we are looking for is producers who have smartened up their viticulture but who don’t charge the earth for such progress. Maybe they’re in a lesser appellation that doesn’t command enormous prices, or the market hasn’t caught up with their improvements, or maybe we’re looking at the second or third wine of a fancy château.
THE BETTER NEGOCIANTS
A great place to start is at the better négociants. Companies like Sichel, Dourthe and Calvet buy huge quantities of wine or grapes from small producers, and turn them into brands. Such companies are now demanding that small producers prune harder, increase the density of their vineyard plantings and deliver riper, better quality grapes. And it’s paying off: Dourthe’s top red is full of raspberry-plum fruit, the white all smoky quince. Calvet Reserve is reliably cedary and plummy. Sichel’s Sirius red and white are both exemplary – fresh and fruity.
Some négociants are even giving us super-brands, like Dourthe’s Essence, put together from the best parcels of several Bordeaux estates. Vines get deluxe treatment and the wines are blended into an elegant, modern red, with cashmere tannins, that has character without being expressive of any particular terroir. Then there’s Yvon Mau’s Exigence: dense, slightly manufactured and with a whack of new oak, but good fruit. The 2000 will improve for a while yet.
From here, it’s on to individual châteaux. For several years, Cambon la Pelouse has made a well-structured, fruity wine that holds its own with all but the very best of the crus bourgeois. Château Preuillac is on the up and makes better wine every year, under the ambitious direction of Jean-Christophe Mau. The 1999 is pleasant but simple; the 2000 more concentrated; the 2001 a big step up, with more elegance; and the 2002 the best yet.
Still on the Left Bank, Château Biston-Brillette and Château Peyrabon merit a mention; both are crus bourgeois which changed hands a few years ago; more importantly, both have benefited from investment. Peyrabon is the richer of the two, on current showing, with ripe tannins, weight and finesse; Biston-Brillette is leaner and drier, but with perfume and good length. Peyrabon is in the Haut-Médoc, and Biston-Brillette is in Moulis, both good areas for drinkers in search of reliable quality.
With over 400 crus bourgeois to choose from, any selection will be arbitrary. The trouble is that quality among the middle classes is hopelessly uneven. The reclassification of the crus bourgeois, to be announced this month, should sort the men from the boys, but until then, the phrase “cru bourgeois” on a label isn’t much help. The bourgeois include wines that are the equal of fifth or fourth growths, like Chassé-Spleen or Angludet, as well as lean, rustic offerings from the muddier reaches of the Médoc.
Exercise extreme caution when buying petits châteaux from the Médoc below cru bourgeois level. Médoc petits châteaux are the most difficult of all areas in which to find gems, because in the past, any property with aspirations joined the Syndicat des Crus Bourgeois. It wasn’t difficult to get in; all you had to do was pay your dues. There are attractive wines at this level, but don’t be misled by château names into thinking you’re automatically getting something with character. If you do want to experiment, buy from a serious merchant – good merchants have good wines.
In the outlying areas of Bordeaux there isn’t much guidance. In the past, assurances that the Côtes are the places to find good value wines often proved over-optimistic. They were inexpensive, but to my mind if the wine is such that you don’t want to finish the bottle, it’s poor value at any price.
Suddenly, though, I’m finding lots of bottles I do want to finish: Château Les Ricards, for example, from Premières Côtes de Blaye, a supple, elegant Merlot-based number at under £10; or Cuvée Viva from Château Figault (also Premières Côtes de Blaye). There’s Château Marsau, too, from Côtes de Francs, all dense coffee fruit.
Over in Montagne St-Emilion there are more goodies: Château Teyssier, modern, balanced claret with plenty of fruit; and Messile Cassat, rich, firm and ripe. But one of the best places to seek out good-value, modern winemaking is Côtes de Castillon. Château Joanin Bécot 2002 is stylish, with bright, forward fruit and silky tannins. Château Cap de Faugères, with its roasted spice note and good length, is another gem. Château d’Aiguilhe, owned by Stefan von Neipperg of St-Emilion’s Canon-la-Gaffelière, exhibits all the clever winemaking associated with its owner. Its second wine, Seigneurs d’Aiguilhe, is a good supple number too.
Still on the Right Bank, Canon Fronsac offers the perfumed, savoury Château Haut-Mazeris and the approachable Château Canon-de-Brem. Meanwhile, investment at Château de la Dauphine in Fronsac is producing appealing wine with pretty fruit and a long finish.
In Lalande de Pomerol you’re close to classic areas. And with the wines of Pascal Chatonnet you’re in good hands. Chatonnet works with consultant Michel Rolland, and has a hand in the likes of Vega Sicilia. His own two properties in Lalande de Pomerol are Château Haut-Chaigneau and La Sergue. Both are delicious, not super-ripe and are extracted in the Rolland mould but much more elegant. This, I hope, is the direction of modern claret.
Second wines used to be the great bargain for quality Bordeaux lovers – the way of getting grand vin style at an affordable price. Now an awful lot of second wines are themselves priced as special occasion bottles. But at least they’re affordable special occasion bottles.
La Reserve de Léoville Barton is as fairly priced as the grand vin, and stylish; Reserve du Géneral, the second wine of Palmer, is another good-value bottle, as, indeed, is the grand vin. The great thing about second wines, even if they are pricey, is that you’re getting the same assured work in the vineyard, the same top-class winemaking skills, as goes into the grand vin. The vines may be younger, the terroir not the property’s best, but most are still good value.
The second wine of, say, a second growth, should be as good or better than the first of a very top bourgeois, for instance. The second wines of the first growths are fairly dear these days, though the third wine of Latour, called simply Pauillac, is a find: rich and deep.
FOIRES AUX VINS
A huge 60% of Bordeaux is sold in French supermarkets. If your visit to a French supermarket coincides with one of its Foires aux Vins, check out the wine department. Not everything there will be good – this is how Bordeaux offloads the quality Bordeaux it can’t sell – but you might find some bargains.
At cru classé level, prices fluctuate more vintage by vintage than they do lower down the chain; and these fluctuations have as much to do with the state of the world economy at the start of the en primeur campaign as they do with the quality of the vintage. 1994 saw price rises, as did 1995 and 1996. And 1997, by no means the best of them, saw absurd price rises. Things then settled until 2000’s hype sent prices spiralling again. Older vintages are thus better value than younger ones at the moment.
So what years should you buy? The 1997s are pricey compared to later vintages, but they’re probably the best vintage of the 1990s for current consumption. The 1999s, also quite forward, should be next on the list. You may find some bargains among the 2000s and 2001s, as volume pressures push prices our way. Even if the only classically great year is 2000, none of these are exactly off-vintages. It’s a wonderful time to be thrifty.