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Starting with Bordeaux
By Ed McCarthy
Jan 31, 2012
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Wine began to become one of the loves of my life 40+ years ago.  At that time, Bordeaux and Burgundy were the primary “serious” wines in the wine world, and very available in the U.S.  Believe it or not, at that time I could purchase the best red Bordeaux wines (First Growths, etc.) for $15 to $20 a bottle.  Still, even that price was “not nothing” on a young teacher’s salary.  If only I could have looked into the future, I would have taken a loan out and bought cases of these wines.

These days, I fear that that many wine consumers under 45 years old have never experienced the pleasure of drinking a properly mature top Bordeaux wine.  By “top” I mean the five First Growths of the Haut-Médoc: Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion, and Château Mouton-Rothschild; Château La Mission Haut-Brion from Péssac-Léognan; Château Petrus, Château Lafleur, and Château Trotanoy from Pomerol; plus Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone from St.-Emilion.  The average price of the newest vintage of these eleven most renowned red Bordeaux ranges from $3500 to $4000 a bottle (for Château Petrus) to $425 (for Château Trotanoy).

I imagine that the price of Château Petrus has whetted your curiosity: Is it the most expensive wine in the world?  As far as I know, it’s the second-most expensive wine; the most expensive wine is Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which costs between $5,000 and $10,000 a bottle (!)--depending on where you buy it.

One of the few advantages of being in the ranks of the older generation is that I have accumulated many fine, mature red Bordeaux wines over the years that are now ready to drink.  (I collected many Burgundy wines as well, but drank most of them: Burgundy from good vintage years ages well, also, but is easer to drink when it’s younger). 

I can’t afford to buy top Bordeaux now.  Even if I could, I wouldn’t buy any because serious red Bordeaux usually needs about 25 years of maturing before it’s at its best drinking stage.  And I have enough Bordeaux wines to last the rest of my life.

Does this mean that younger generation of wine lovers (leaving out that top one percent in income who can afford expensive Bordeaux wines) cannot buy Bordeaux wines?  Definitely not.  The expensive red Bordeaux wines I referred to--let’s say those over $100 a bottle--make up less than two percent of the 700 million bottles of Bordeaux produced annually.  You can find tons of red Bordeaux at decent, competitive prices.

Why should you buy Bordeaux at all, you might ask.  Bordeaux is one of the last wine regions where you can still find elegant, balanced red wines made with 12.5 to 13 percent alcohol.  These wines are made to go with food.  I for one am tired of drinking, fruity, overly-extracted red wines that have alcohol contents ranging from 14 to 15.8 percent, and that do not complement the food that I am eating.

You can buy a decent bottle of young red Bordeaux, ready to drink, for as little as $9 or $10!  Not a renowned Bordeaux, of course, such as a Classified Growth (The latter term refers to the famed 1855 Classification of red Bordeaux and Sauternes, which identified the 61 top Bordeaux wines and placed them in five categories, ranging from “First Growth” to “Fifth Growth.”)

The 1855 red Bordeaux Classification listed mainly wines from the Haut-Médoc on the Left Bank--clearly the dominant red Bordeaux district at that time; 60 of the 61 wines listed are from the Haut-Médoc.  Only Château Haut-Brion came from another district, the Graves, south of the Médoc--the district now known as Péssac-Léognan.

The wines of Péssac-Léognan were classified in 1953, and again in 1959.  On Bordeaux’s Right Bank, the wines of St.-Emilion were classified for the first time in 1955, and are re-classified periodically--usually about every ten years.  The wines of Pomerol, the other major Right Bank district, have never been formally classified.
Classified Growth Bordeaux start at about $50 a bottle, and go up to $1600 to $2000 a bottle for First Growths such as Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château Latour.  But I would recommend that those readers who are just getting into red Bordeaux wines or who would like to buy moderately-priced Bordeaux try wines from two other categories: Label Cru Bourgeois wines from the Médoc on the Left Bank; and Petits Châteaux wines from throughout the entire Bordeaux region, but primarily from the Right Bank. 

One of the main differences in Left Bank and Right Bank red Bordeaux wines is the primary grape varieties; on the Left Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon is the major variety in most of the wines, with Merlot second.  Most Right Bank wines, however, are dominated by Merlot, with Cabernet Franc the second-most used variety.  That is a major reason that Bordeaux wines from the Right Bank are generally ready to drink sooner and somewhat softer than their more austere cousins from the Left Bank.  It is also a good reason for those wine drinkers just getting into red Bordeaux wines to begin with wines from the Right Bank.

The Cru Bourgeois category first began in 1932.  A group of producers in the Médoc, upset that their wines were not being given the recognition that the Grands Crus Classés wines of the 1855 Classification received, obtained their own legally recognized classification, Cru Bourgeois.  But the term Cru Bourgeois no longer exists as a legal classification.  In 2003, the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce tried to re-classify this category, to take effect in 2005.  Of the 490 châteaux that applied for classification, 247 made the grade.  Moreover, they divided into three categories: a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnell, Cru Bourgeois Superieurs; and the standard category, Cru Bourgeois.  This attempted re-classification created such a stir among the producers left out or not placed into the category that they thought they deserved--78 producers bitterly contested the re-classification in court--that the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce annulled their re-classification.

The term now used for these wines is Label Cru Bourgeois, which is described as an annual quality assessment, not a classification of châteaux such as the 1855 Classification.

These Cru Bourgeois wines range in price from under $10 up to about $40 for a few of the better-known wines.

I have tasted many of the Cru Bourgeois wines over the years, and I am very impressed with the value-to-quality ratio that these Bordeaux wines offer.  The nine wines that follow are particularly impressive.  They all were formerly listed in the highest category of Cru Bourgeois wines, but now most of them have cut their ties with the Cru Bourgeois Alliance.  These wines retail for about $28 up to $40 (for Château Chasse-Spleen).  I am convinced that many would qualify for Grands Cru status if the 1855 Classification were revised:

•    Château Chasse-Spleen           
•    Château Les Ormes-de-Pez
•    Château Labegorce-Zédé   
•    Château Phélan-Ségur               
•    Château Haut-Marbuzet
•    Château de Pez
•    Château Poujeaux
•    Château Potensac
•    Château Siran

A few notable wine producers never applied for membership as a Cru Bourgeois wine.  Two highly regarded wines, Château Gloria from St.-Julien and Château Sociando-Mallet from Haut-Médoc especially stand out.  Château Gloria retails for about $40, and Château Sociando-Mallet sells for about $45.

Other moderately-priced ($20 to $35) Haut-Médoc wines that I recommend include the following:

•    Château Meyney
•    Château Haut-Beauséjour
•    Château d’Angludet
•    Château Coufran
•    Château Monbrison
•    Château Lanessan
•    Château Fourcas-Hosten

Petits Châteaux is the general term for the vast category of unclassified, inexpensive red Bordeaux wines throughout the region, but mainly on the Right Bank.  The term is somewhat of a misnomer because it suggests that the wines come from a specific chateau or vineyard estate; in fact, many petits chateaux do come from specific estates, but not all.  Almost all of these wines use Merlot as their primary variety.  Most all of these wines retail in the $9 to $15 price range, with a few between $15 and $25.

Some of these wines use grapes that have been sourced from all over the region, and others come from specific appellations.  Ten petit chateau red appellations, all on the Right Bank, are noteworthy:
•    Côtes de Bourg
•    Côtes de Bordeaux: Blaye
•    Côtes de Bordeaux: Castillon
•    Côtes de Bordeaux: Francs
•    Lalande de Pomerol                   
•    Puisseguin-St.-Emilion   
•    Lussac-St.-Emilion   
•    Montagne-St.-Emilion       
•    St.-Georges-St.-Emilion            
•    Côtes de Bordeaux: Cadillac
Lalande de Pomerol is a satellite district of Pomerol, and the four districts with “St.-Emilion” appended to their names surround St.-Emilion.  The Côtes de Bourg and Côtes de Blaye take their names from the port towns of Bourg and Blaye, on the Right Bank of the Gironde Estuary, opposite the Haut-Médoc district.  I especially recommend wines from the Côtes de Bourg, Côtes de Blaye, and Lalande de Pomerol as particularly good values.

For all of you who have not tried Bordeaux because you thought it was too expensive, or for any other reason, I urge you to buy some of the moderately-priced Bordeaux wines I have recommended here, or order them in restaurants.  Unlike the expensive red Bordeaux wines, these value Bordeaux wines will be ready to drink when they are young. 

Inexpensive red Bordeaux wines are especially good buys in the great Bordeaux vintages, such as 2005 and 2009 (and the upcoming, not yet released 2010 looks like a super vintage as well).  I think you might be pleasantly surprised at the quality of these wines.