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A New Look at Bordeaux
By Rebecca Murphy
Feb 16, 2016
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When is the last time you served a wine from Bordeaux?  It seems as if these wines have almost disappeared from everyday enjoyment or placements on wine lists, but maybe that’s just in the U.S.  Maybe all the Bordeaux love is going to China.  Apparently, the Bordelais have begun to notice that we’re not drinking their wines, because I was recently offered a group of wines to sample.  The criteria for their selection included producers under 40 years of age, availability in the U.S., prices of $40 or less, and being representative of the diversity of wine styles from the region.  I was delighted by the quality for price ratio shown by the wines, the diversity of style, and--in most cases--the modest alcohol.  I have listed some of my favorites later in the column.

When I first started working with wine in restaurants in the 1970s, Bordeaux was the ultimate in wine, the benchmark, the icon.  Perhaps the first chink in the iconic wine’s armor was the famous 1976 Paris tasting organized by Stephen Spurrier.  This year is the 40th anniversary of that blind tasting in which French judges chose California wines over elite Bordeaux reds and Burgundy whites.  That event certainly put California wines on the map.  At the time, I was the sommelier in a Dallas restaurant with an all-American wine list.  No one knew anything about California wines; they wanted a Bordeaux with their steak.  All the benchmark wines were European: Bordeaux reds, Burgundy reds and whites, German Rieslings.  But the task of convincing guests to try a California wine became much easier after Spurrier’s event, and today--in the U.S. for most wine lovers--California wines are the benchmarks.  So, what has happened to the visibility of Bordeaux wines?

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW is the North American Market Advisor for the Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB), or the Bordeaux Wine Council.  She reminded me that the traditional negoçiant system (whereby a chateau sells its wines to a middle-man who then markets the wine, often labeled with his company name as well as the winery name) puts distance between the producer and the customer.  The producer was not directly involved with the market where his or her wine was sold.  “They are realizing they have to be more involved and market the wine themselves,” said Gorman.

Alternatively, past practice has been that a small grower or winery might sell their grapes or wine to a cooperative winery that buys from many member growers or wineries.  The co-op processes grapes or blends the wines they buy and markets them under the co-op name.  “A number of wonderful young people have worked harvest in other countries and are much more aware of what’s going on in viticulture and winemaking throughout the world,” she said.  “In the past, their parents may have sold their wine to the co-op, but the new generation is saying, ‘No, I want to sell the wine myself.’”

Another issue is the fact that the reputation of Bordeaux rests with its most famous and priciest wines.  According to Martin Sinkoff, Vice President and Director of Marketing for Frederick Wildman & Sons, “Because the nine great grands crus classes of Bordeaux are so famous, so iconic, so well known, they drive perception of the entire ‘category’ and the entire region.”  He notes that, in one way, this is an advantage because of the very high quality of these wines, but not so good because of their price.  “There were only nine first growths in Bordeaux, now 11 with Pavie and Angelus, and only 60 wines classed in 1855.  After these, there are hundreds of crus bourgeois and thousands of estates,” he continued.  “Bordeaux is, after all, the largest AOC wine production region in France.  It is in fact a breadbasket of value!  Unfortunately, changing perception in our industry is difficult but, as new merchants and new drinkers come on stream, change is coming too.”

Of the wines sent my way, there were three dry white wines priced at $15 and under, and I would be happy to have any one, or maybe all of them, as my house white.  Château Thieuly, Bordeaux AOC, Sec, Sauvignon-Semillon 2014, ($14, Republic National Distributing Company, 12.5% alcohol) is from sisters Silvie and Marie Courselle the third generation of this family-owned winery.  It’s a beautiful example of the yin and yang of this classic grape combo, with Sauvignon’s citrus-herbal flavors and bright acidity balanced by Semillon’s waxy, fig flavors and rich round body.  Twelve to 24 hours of pre-fermentation skin contact enhances the richness in the mouth.

The prominence of Sauvignon Blanc in Château Recougne, Bordeaux AOC, Blanc 2014 ($12, Monsieur Touton Selection, 12% alcohol) makes for lean and lemony flavors with flinty mineral notes and vivid citrusy acidty.  It’s made by Marc Milhade who was 25 in 2005 when he took over Recougne, one of his family’s six estates.

Château Sainte-Marie, Entre-Deux-Mers AOC, Vieilles Vignes 2014 ($15, Polaner Selections, 12% alcohol) with 63% Sauvignon Blanc, 27% Semillon and 10% Muscadelle with peach, lime flavors layered with herbal and floral notes of is nuanced, round and creamy.  Stéphane Dupuchted is the second generation proprietor who is also the president of Entre-Duex-Mers Syndicat Viticole.

I was totally enamored with the savory character of Château Trocard, Bordeaux Supérieur AOC 2010 ($17, HP Selections, 14% alcohol).  It was made by Benoît Trocard, who is of the 15th generation in his family to make wine.  The wine is predominantly Merlot with 30 percent of the blend split between Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, and since Trocard’s creed is, “Fruit comes first,” it’s aged in stainless steel, with no oak.  Absolutely delicious.

Château Peybonhomme Les-Tours, Blaye-Cotes de Bordeaux AOC, Demeter Certified Biodynamic, Vin Bio 2012 $17 (Ideal Wine & Spirits, 13% alcohol) is a blend of 75 percent Merlot, 10 percent each Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, and five percent Malbec.  This is a steal from Guillaume & Rachel Hubert, sixth generation winemakers, who run the largest biodynamic estate in Bordeaux.  The wine is approachable and luscious with black cherry fruit with a touch of cassis.  It is medium bodied with supportive acidity and finishes with ripe tannins

While Château Robin has a long history, the Caillé family is new to wine.  Their business has been cars, and although Jérôme Caillé grew up with the family business, when his parents bought the estate, he found and new passion.  Château Robin, Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux AOC, 2010 ($21, Skurnik Wines, 14% alcohol) is a cheerful pleasure with cherries, blackberries, tobacco and spice playing nicely with bright acidity and silky tannins, tasting much more youthful than its age.

Like many young people, Emilie Gervosen had to try her hand at other endeavors before returning to her family’s estate to take over marketing and communication.  Château Larrivet Haut-Brion, Pessac-Léognan AOC 2012 ($40, Misa Imports or Savorian Wines, 13% alcohol) is elegant and structured with concentrated cassis, black cherry fruit, vivid acidity and sturdy, ripe tannins.  It drinks well now, but is built to last a long time.

If you ignore Bordeaux because you think it is too expensive, too old fashioned, snooty and showy, it’s time to take another look.  The few wines listed here, made by the newest generation of winemakers, are just a small sample of the diverse, delicious, authentic and affordable wines you can find from Bordeaux.  Don’t deny yourself!