Apart from purchasing older vintages of great Bordeaux at auctions or online, there are two reasons to buy red Bordeaux: Either you want top quality young red Bordeaux to store and wait for them to mature and become “glorious” (you hope); and/or you want inexpensive ($10 to $35) young Bordeaux to drink now or within the next year or two.
Why not buy elite Bordeaux wines for drinking in the short term? It is no fun to drink serious Bordeaux when it’s young. In fact, it’s rather painful on the palate--all that tannin and acid masking the immature fruit flavors of the wine! Fine, young Bordeaux are definitely not like New World wines--such as those from California or Australia--that you can enjoy when they are young.
Of course some great Old World wines, like Burgundy, can be consumed in their youth--even though the better Burgundies certainly improve with age. Pinot Noir-based wines are far less tannic and softer on the palate than Bordeaux.
At a Bordeaux event a few days ago, I was tasting top red Bordeaux wines of the 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 vintages (and barrel samples of 2012). I do not look forward to repeating that kind of tasting! It was thoroughly un-enjoyable. I did taste a really fine 2005 Château La Conseillante, a major Pomerol, but at least that wine was 8+ years old. Fortunately I also tasted a 1989 Pomerol, Château La Fleur Petrus, and a 1978 St.-Emilion, Château Canon--both excellent. The 1978, in fact, was at its peak of maturity.
Here‘s my point: Good Bordeaux can be wonderful when it is mature, or close to being fully mature. If you buy finer Bordeaux (costing more than, say $35), let it age. It is a waste to drink it young, in your home or in a restaurant.
For me, the best vintage by far in Bordeaux in the last 25 years is the 2005--the best since 1989 and 1990, and probably better than both. You might have to search a bit, but you can still find many 2005 Bordeaux online, some at surprisingly good prices. For example, I found 2005 Château Cantemerle, a Classified Growth, selling between $47 and $52. Another great value is 2005 Château Lanessan, a well-regarded Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux from the Haut-Médoc, selling in the $33 to $40 range. If you missed out on the 2005 Bordeaux wines when they were first released several years ago, now is the time to buy some before they disappear or become too expensive.
As for other current Bordeaux vintages, the newly released 2011 and the upcoming (in 2015) 2012 are lesser vintages. On the other hand, 2010 is definitely worth buying; I rate it right below 2005. It needs time, of course (as does 2005), but it should be one of the great modern Bordeaux vintages. The 2010 is not so voluptuous or complete as the magnificent 2005, but is a vintage to buy, if you have the time and patience. The preceding vintage, 2009, was a rather warm year in Bordeaux; it is also a good vintage, and will be drinkable sooner than the 2010. I rate it just below the 2010. The 2008 is a lighter vintage in Bordeaux, of average quality. The only other vintage worth considering in the last 25 years would be 2000, which I rate below the 2005 and 2010. If you have some 2000 Bordeaux already, fine. Hold on to them for another ten years if you can.
I understand that many wine drinkers don’t want to lay wines away for 10 to 15 years or more; they want to drink the wines now. Fortunately, Bordeaux is a huge wine district and makes a ton of inexpensive Bordeaux, ready to drink when you buy them. If you tend to favor Old World wines, such as those from Bordeaux, I urge you to try these ready-to-drink Bordeaux wines.
One important category of less-expensive wines is now known as Label Cru Bourgeois wines. These Bordeaux wines all come from the Médoc and Haut-Médoc on the Bordeaux region’s Left Bank. The term is awarded annually as a sign of quality to those Bordeaux wines in the Médoc/Haut-Médoc that apply and qualify for it. The list of Cru Bourgeois wines appears two years after the vintage. For example, the 2010 vintage list, containing 260 Cru Bourgeois wines, was published in 2012. For the most part, these are Bordeaux wines that did not make the “1855 Classification of Great Growths” (which listed 61 top red Bordeaux wines at that time). But Label Cru Bourgeois wines are wines of merit--many of which might possibly be “Classified Growths” today if the ranking were to be re-done. The term “Label Cru Bourgeois” is used on the labels by some but not all of the Cru Bourgeois wines.
About ten years ago, I co-authored a book on French wines, French Wines for Dummies (Wiley). Chapter 5, Red Bordeaux on a Budget, covers inexpensive Bordeaux wines. In the section called “Cru Bourgeois wines of the Médoc and Haut-Médoc,” I list about 90 of my favorite “Cru Bourgeois” wines. The list is still useful because practically all, if not all, of these wines made the 2012 listing.
Cru Bourgeois wines are a lot less expensive than Classified Growth Bordeaux, with a few priced as low as $15 to $20, but most in the $21 to $40 range. Six of the better Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux wines, originally rated “Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel” (a term no longer allowed) chose to remain outside the Cru Bourgeois classification and formed a group called “Les Exceptionnels.” They are all quite well-known: Château Chasse-Spleen (Moulis-en-Médoc); Château de Pez (St.-Estephe); Château Les Ormes de Pez (St.-Estephe); Château Potensac (Médoc); Château Poujeaux (Moulis-en-Médoc); and Château Siran (Margaux). These six wines are among the best values in Bordeaux today.
Even less expensive are the Bordeaux wines known as petit château wines. This unofficial term is used to apply to all of the other inexpensive Bordeaux wines that carry broad, regional appellations on their label, such as simply “Bordeaux,” or sometimes “Médoc” or “Premières Côtes de Blaye.” Just like all other Bordeaux wines, these wines are made from a blend of mainly Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and/or Cabernet Franc. These wines should be consumed within a few years after you buy them. They generally sell in the $10 to $20 range.
Buying inexpensive Bordeaux in a good vintage year, such as the readily available 2010 or 2009, is actually a very smart purchase. You can get a glimpse of what the vintage is like at a real value-price. And you don’t have to wait a decade or more to enjoy the wine!