by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW
We returned to Bordeaux this year. Not only did we revisit the region, after too long an absence, but we also started drinking Bordeaux wines again. We grew tired of the over-extracted, high-alcohol, over-ripe, heavy-handed red wines that are being made everywhere today. We prefer subtlety and finesse—and we think that under-stated, lower-alcohol wines, such as most red Bordeaux, go better with food.
Bordeaux has not been immune from the trend of fruity, ripe, powerful wines that has swept through the wine world. This is especially true in the St. Emilion region, with the influx of the so-called garagistes—new, small producers whose costly, small-lot wines have received high ratings. But fortunately, you can still find many Bordeaux wines that are made in the subtle, understated style.
Somehow, many consumers have received the wrong message about Bordeaux wines. They’re laboring under the misconception that Bordeaux is expensive. Generally speaking, this is just not true. Yes, the two or three percent of Big-name Bordeaux wines—top classified growths such as Châteaux Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Léoville-Las Cases—will always be expensive. But only a very small percentage of Bordeaux wines, both red and white, fall into the elite category. Bordeaux, the largest appellation-controlled wine region in France, has over 10,000 producers, and makes over 660 million bottles of wine annually, more than 80 percent of which is red.
This is a great time for inexpensive Bordeaux. For various reasons, some of them political, the Bordelais have fallen behind in the world market. Australia, Chile, Italy, Spain, New Zealand and other countries have taken away much of France’s wine sales, particularly those of Bordeaux wines. In response, the producers of Bordeaux have had to keep their prices reasonable, and the currently available vintages at these prices are ready to drink. But since they are Bordeaux wines, these wines won’t fall apart quickly, either. You can generally keep these wines for at least five years. (On the other hand, Big-name Bordeaux wines, the special-occasion wines, usually need eight to ten years or more of aging before they are mature enough to enjoy.)
Thirty years ago, inexpensive Bordeaux wines could be chancey; you had to order good vintages, or else the wine might have been thin or overly tannic, with not enough fruit character. Nowadays, winemaking technology has improved so much that terrible vintages are a thing of the past—although some Bordeaux vintages will always be better than others, of course.
Figuring Out What’s What
"Petit château” is the term that’s often used to describe the huge category of inexpensive Bordeaux wines. This term is somewhat of a misnomer because it implies that the wine comes from a specific estate (chateau). In truth, many inexpensive, ready-to-drink Bordeaux do come from specific estates, while other, so-called generic Bordeaux, such as Mouton-Cadet or Michel Lynch wines, use grapes sourced from all over the region, and carry the general “Bordeaux” appellation. But even generic Bordeaux are better than ever. We were pleasantly surprised when we conducted a tasting of the least expensive red Bordeaux we could find a couple of months ago. The ’02 Mouton Cadet was quite good, and the 2000 Mouton Cadet Réserve Médoc, just a bit more expensive, was even better!
The 2002 vintage, one of the most available vintages now, is supposedly not a good one in Bordeaux. But two tastings of inexpensive Bordeaux that we have done in the last two months (including the one we are reporting in this column) proved to us that this is not the case. True, both 2000 and 2001 are generally better vintages, but the only fault that we could find with 2002—if indeed it is a fault—is that it does not possess the longevity of a vintage such as 2000. Whereas the better 2000s will survive 30 years and more, most 2002s will live for about half that time. But unless you’re cellaring wines for the long haul, the longevity factor is academic.
(On the subject of vintages, we can report from our recent visit to Bordeaux that 2003, a hot vintage, is good for near-term drinking but is not a keeper. The more classically-styled, not-yet-released 2004 vintage will be better than the ’03, and 2005 is shaping up to be a phenomenal vintage, one of the truly great ones.)
How and What to Buy
What should be your strategy in purchasing inexpensive Bordeaux? One way to approach the wines is in terms of the section of Bordeaux from which they hail. The first Bordeaux appellations we would look at are the Haut-Médoc or Médoc, particularly Haut-Médoc. Many of these wines are excellent. We’d also look at the “second” wines of the famous châteaux. For instance, our top-rated 2001 Réserve de la Comtesse, the second wine of the superb Château Pichon-Lalande, sells for about 25 to 30 percent of the price for this top “Super-Second” growth Bordeaux.
After that, we’d look at the lesser-known—and even less-expensive—appellations. There are nine petit château red appellations worth noting: Côtes de Bourg, Premières Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Castillon, Côtes de Francs, Lalande de Pomerol, and the four satellite districts of St.-Emilion: Puisseguin-St.-Emilion, Lussac-St.-Emilion, Montagne-St.-Emilion, and St.-Georges-St.-Emilion. Of the nine, we have found that Côtes de Bourg and Premières Côtes de Blaye wines, followed by Lalande de Pomerol wines, the most reliable. The first two are named after the port towns of Bourg and Blaye, located on the Right Bank of the Gironde River, opposite the Haut-Médoc on the Left Bank. Lalande de Pomerol is a satellite district of the famed Pomerol district, also on the Right Bank.
Merlot is the grape variety that rules on the Right Bank; most petit château wines use Merlot as the dominant variety, with smaller percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Cabernet Franc added for structure. The advantage of these Merlot-dominant Bordeaux wines is that they are ready to drink sooner than Cabernet-dominant wines, thanks to plumper fruitiness and softer tannins.
It might sound incongruous to some, but if you’re looking for good, inexpensive red wines, buy some Bordeaux!
We tasted 20 inexpensive red Bordeaux wines recently, mainly the currently available 2002’s and 2001’s. We purchased the wines locally; all retailed between $9 and $22. We list the wines according to vintage, and our rating:
Château Haut-Batailley (Pauillac): Because 2002 has not received “good press,” you can find a few name Bordeaux, such as this classified growth from Pauillac, at surprisingly low prices. The ’02 Haut-Batailley is a charmer: it’s all Pauillac, with its classic cedar and lead pencil aromas, concentrated small black fruit flavors, and medium body, with good depth, and tannin throughout the wine. It can be enjoyed now, but it will still be fine in ten years or more. 90
Les Fiefs de Lagrange (Saint-Julien): Les Fiefs, the second wine of Château Lagrange, a classified growth from Saint-Julien, was our second-favorite 2002 in the group, and wins our “Best Value” award. Great cedar aromas let you know you’re in the Haut-Médoc on the Left Bank. The ’02 Les Fiefs de Lagrange is medium-bodied, with lead pencil and black fruit flavors and firm tannins. It will live ten years, although it is very drinkable and enjoyable now. 89+
Château de Sales (Pomerol): This is the largest estate in Pomerol, a district on the Right Bank renowned for expensive, hard-to-get, small estate wines. We have always found Château de Sales consistent and reliable, year after year, and always a good value, especially for Pomerol. The ’02 de Sales typifies the Merlot-dominant Right Bank; it is plump and succulent, with dark berry aromas and ripe, black fruit flavors. It has lots of finesse, and is delicious right now, although one of us thought it would be better in two years. 89
Château Cantemerle (Haut-Médoc): Another classified growth selling at a great price! Château Cantemerle, a large, beautiful estate at the southern end of the Haut-Médoc, is usually available at attractive prices. The ’02 has the classic Haut-Médoc lead pencil and cedar aromas with cassis and small dark fruit flavors—characteristics that seem to really come to the forefront in this vintage. This is a charming wine that actually improved with extensive aeration. 88+
Château Nodoz (Côtes de Bourg): We love Côtes de Bourg and Premières Côtes de Blaye wines! They’re inexpensive, and always ready to drink. The ’02 Château Nodoz—60 percent Merlot, 35 percent Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5 percent Malbec—is plump and fruity, with aromas of black pepper, coffee, and spice, fleshy, dark fruit flavors. Delicious now. 88
Château Lauduc (Bordeaux): The ’02 Château Lauduc, the least-expensive wine in the group (retailing at $9), is also the lightest-bodied, but it is very pleasant for drinking now. Made from 75 percent Merlot and 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, it is well-balanced, with soft, supple tannins, and would be perfect as a luncheon wine. Thoroughly enjoyable for current drinking. 88
Château Potensac (Médoc): We’re big fans of Château Léoville-Las Cases, but the ’02 Potensac, owned by the Delon family of the famed Léoville-Las Cases, disappoints. Perhaps it has tried too hard to be powerful; despite some pleasant cedar and ripe fruit aromas and flavors, is too oaky and too tannic. It comes off as a bit clumsy. An overly ambitious ’02. 86
Réserve de la Comtesse (Pauillac): The second wine of the great “super-second” growth, Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de-Lalande, shows its pedigree in the 2001 vintage; it is round and harmonious, with classic Pauillac cedar and lead pencil aromas and cedary, inky, ripe fruit flavors. Tightly framed with oak, it has good concentration, great depth and lots of grace. The ’01 Réserve de la Comtesse should even get better in five years. 91
Château La Gurgue (Margaux): Talk about classic Margaux style! The ’01 La Gurgue is textbook Margaux; it is light-to-medium-bodied, supple, round, plummy, and extremely well-balanced. A delight to drink now. A great value; highly recommended. 90-
Château Bernadotte (Haut-Médoc): Now owned by Château Pichon-Lalande, Château Bernadotte is one of the many Haut-Médoc wines that has improved greatly in the last decade. The ’01 Bernadotte has ripe, dark fruit and lead pencil aromas and flavors, with good acidity and firm tannins. A fine Left Bank Bordeaux, still a bit young. 88+
Château de Malleret (Haut-Médoc): The ’01 Château de Malleret, classified as a cru bourgeois wine, is rich and plump, with lead pencil aromas, good acidity, ample tannins, and lots of depth. We’re just amazed to be finding so many good Bordeaux wines priced in the mid-teens! The de Malleret is fleshy, well-knit, fresh, clean, and well-balanced. A more modern-styled Bordeaux. 88
Château Senéjac (Haut-Médoc): Here is a wine that clearly needs time to breathe. One of us disliked it on the first day, finding it too rustic and disjointed; and yet the ’01 Senéjac, a cru bourgeois Haut-Médoc wine, tasted so much better the next day! That’s what we love about complex wines such as Bordeaux and Barolo: give them time to aerate, and they take on different personalities, or perhaps, show their true colors. The ’01 Senéjac is fleshy, with lead pencil aromas, still a bit rustic, but very enjoyable, even a bit hedonistic! (Or does another wine critic own that word?) 88
Château La Fleur Saint Georges (Lalande de Pomerol): A classic Right Bank wine, the ’01 La Fleur Saint Georges has sweet, plummy Merlot fruit on the front palate, with soft tannins and very ripe, chocolatey flavors. An easy-drinking, richly textured, supple wine that is ready now. 88
Marquis de Calon (Saint-Estèphe): The second wine of Château Calon-Ségur, a classified growth, the ’01 Marquis de Calon is really textbook Saint-Estèphe. It is stemmy, tannic, and a bit rustic, sort of the unkempt country cousin of the La Gurgue from Margaux. It is lean, with lots of astringent tannin and good concentration of dark fruit. The acidity is a bit high. 88-
Chateau Haut-Bellevue (Haut-Médoc): One of the least expensive wines in the group, the ’01 Chateau Haut-Bellevue is light-to medium-bodied, fairly lean and supple, with pleasant, plummy flavors. Unusually for an Haut-Médoc wine, it has more Merlot (55 percent) than Cabernet Sauvignon (45 percent); this explains its plumminess. An ideal luncheon wine. 87+
Château Poujeaux-Jean Theil, prop. (Moulis-en-Médoc): Château Poujeaux of Jean Theil has long been a favorite cru bourgeois Bordeaux of ours, but the 2001 seems to be going through a dumb, inexpessive phase right now. One of us liked it more than the other, but we both agree that this dense, tannic, old-style Bordeaux is not saying much right now. It clearly has good, concentrated fruit; our guess is that it needs a few years of aging, typical of this estate. 87
Château Canon de Brem (Canon Fronsac): The ’01 Canon de Brem was the most controversial wine in the group; like many of the wines from Canon Fronsac on the Right Bank, it is over-oaked, making it a bit foursquare, as the British say, lacking refinement and elegance. It clearly has plump, dense fruit flavors, but, for our palates, these are masked by too much charry oak. And yet we realize that some tasters would rate this wine more highly. 87-
(Note: Few 2000s are left in the marketplace. The relatively low scores of the following two wines do not accurately reflect the superiority of this vintage.)
Château Puy-Blanquet (St.-Emilion Grand Cru): The oak tannins dominate the fruit in this ’00 Right Bank wine now. Easy to drink, but not what we would expect from a St.-Emilion grand cru from the heralded 2000 vintage. We presume that it will be better with a few more years of aging. 87
Château du Moulin Rouge (Haut-Médoc): This cru bourgeois Haut-Médoc wine, from a large estate, is usually very reliable, but the ’00 is presently showing more oak tannins than fruit character. Given its track record, we would suggest that it will improve in a few years. 87-
Chateau Bel Air (Haut-Médoc): Château Bel Air, a Cru Bourgeois Haut-Médoc wine, is simply one of the best-value wines in the world! We loved the 2000 Bel Air, giving it a 90 rating in a previous tasting. The ’99 is not quite up to the ’00, but is perfect for drinking now, with soft tannins and ripe, concentrated fruit flavors. 88+
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