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Revisiting Bordeaux Wines
By Wayne Belding
Feb 21, 2024
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Unbeatable quality, indisputably aristocratic.  Ludicrously unfashionable.”

Those words were written in 1986 by Jancis Robinson in her seminal work Vines, Grapes and Wines.  She was writing about the Riesling grape, but I think the same commentary can be applied in some degree to the state of Bordeaux in today’s wine market.  The quality of Bordeaux is better than ever, and the region produces some of the world’s greatest wines.  Bordeaux, however, does not inspire the same passion among many current wine lovers as Burgundy, the Jura, Piedmont, or even Saumur.

When I began my serious pursuit of wine knowledge some 40+ years ago, Bordeaux was the place I started.  At that time, there were fewer options to try among imported wines.  Nearly all the wines were European – dominated by France, Italy and Germany with Spain and Portugal lagging somewhat behind.  New World wines in the market were largely California wines.  Products from Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa were rarely seen.  Oregon and Washington wines were just becoming available on a regular basis.

So, Bordeaux was a logical place to begin.  You could purchase a bottle from a specific château – Château Talbot for example, find it on a map, and read about the grapes used and the history of previous vintages.  Plus, you could count on trying the same estate wine from the next vintage.  It was easier for a novice to understand than Burgundy, where dozens of producers could offer a wine with the same vineyard name, and a consumer needed much more knowledge to sort out the good from the indifferent.

The more I investigated, the more intriguing the story became.  Bordeaux was not a natural vine paradise.  The famous gravel mounds in the vineyards of the Médoc were formed by repeated glacial floodwaters washing sediment seaward from the Massif Central and the Pyrenees.  It took the efforts of Dutch engineers to build drainage canals that lowered the water table enough for any viticulture to work at all.

Raymond Postgate was a wine writer in the mid-twentieth century and aptly described the natural state of the Bordeaux vineyard lands: “Wherever fine wines are produced, the soil is poor and difficult.  In the Gironde, it is gray, light, shallow, dusty, stony or dry – often all six.  Some of the most famous clarets come from stunted vines on land where a carrot would not grow.  Left to themselves they would support heather, thistles and a little clover; before the vines came they generally did.”

With proper drainage, the vines were able to take advantage of the moderating influence of the maritime climate.  That’s important, when consistency of product can have a profound effect on the economic health of the estate.  That’s perhaps part of the Bordeaux image “problem” – its consistency.  Its weather, although certainly variable, is less extreme than areas with a continental climate.  The Bordeaux tradition of blending, planting Cabernet Sauvignon along with Merlot and other varieties enhances consistency.  Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and can be utilized to make up a greater percentage of the blend in cooler years.  The tradition of making the estate or Château the most important term on the label leads to consistency.  The geography, which is primary in Burgundy, is secondary in Bordeaux.  Estates can, and do, purchase or sell vineyards within their respective communes and maintain the Château name.  The market will determine whether the wine value is enhanced or diminished by vineyard changes.

The consistency of viticultural inputs allows greater output.  A successful estate can increase production as long as their quality is maintained.  Many of the best known Bordeaux châteaux produce 10,000 cases or more of their best wine.  The market pressure keeps the quality consistent when so many bottles need to be sold every year.  That feeds the staid image of Bordeaux – you can always find it so a consumer need not buy RIGHT NOW as they must with a new release of a 300 case production cult wine.  

The wines are consistent, widely available, and often of the highest quality.  The complex aromas, the layering of fruit, the influence of oak, the elegance, balance and ageability all combine with the sheer abundance of wine to merit a periodic re-investigation of Bordeaux wines.

To that end, I was able to attend a recent tasting of 2021 vintage Bordeaux. sponsored by the Union Grands Crus Bordeaux – an organization that includes many top estates from the most famous Bordeaux appellations.  It is an opportunity to get a sense of the overall quality of the harvest and to see who made the best wines.  Most of the wines from noted estates can be purchased for delivery later this year.

2021 is not a great vintage.  Even the Bordelais vintners, who rarely shy away from effusive praise, admit that 2018, 2019 and 2020 were better years.  There are, however, some superb wines from 2021 and many very good wines as well.  The early spring was warm and wet and encouraged an early budbreak.  As is often the case with early growth, the vines were vulnerable to frost and the freezing temperatures of April 7-8 damaged vineyards throughout Bordeaux.  Sites near the Gironde were saved by the moderating influence of the estuary but vineyards away from the rivers received the most damage.  The weather through May and June and into July was cool and rainy, causing problems with fruit set and mildew.  Vintners had to be attentive to treat their vines and remove rotted clusters from their vineyards.

Warm and dry weather arrived in August and September and the rot pressure was reduced, but the crop size was limited and the cool early weather delayed the ripening.  The harvest for red grapes began in late September for the Merlot and a week or so later for Cabernet Sauvignon.  With less ripe grapes for many estates, there are more wines that show pronounced green and herbal characteristics.  The most successful wines, for me, were those from Margaux, St. Julien and Pauillac – all communes close to the Gironde that were spared from the frost damage.

In vintages like 2021, which are surrounded by more lauded harvests, prices will likely be more affordable.  A look at current US futures prices confirmed my suspicion.  This is a buying opportunity to experience the consistency, depth and elegance of some of the most aristocratic Bordeaux wines at prices that are thirty percent less than the average price of 2018-2019-2020 for the same wines.

Consequently, if you want to add some fine Bordeaux to your cellar at very good prices, I can recommend the following wines.  I prefer wines with less of an herbal or green note and that personal preference is reflected in my recommendations.  All the wines in this list are being offered for less than $100 and any of them would be a fine addition to your wine collection.  Prices listed are those I observed in February, 2024.

From Margaux, Châteaux d’Angludet ($45), Brane-Cantenac ($69), Cantenac-Brown ($48), Lascombes ($76), Prieuré-Lichine ($38), Rauzan-Gassies ($49) and Rauzan-Segla ($83) were showing well.  

From St. Julien, Beychevelle ($84), Branaire-Ducru ($47), Lagrange ($54), Langoa-Barton ($45), Léoville-Barton ($81), and St. Pierre ($59) impressed me.  

There were fewer wines from Pauillac at the tasting but Châteaux d’Armailhac ($53) and Duhart-Milon ($81) showed well.

Outside of those three communes, Domaine de Chevalier Rouge ($65) and Pape Clément ($88) in Pessac-Léognan were impressive.

So too were Châteaux Beauregard ($64) and Clinet ($93) in Pomerol, along with Larcis Ducasse ($82) and Pavie Macquin ($92) in St. Émilion, and La Tour de By ($18) in the Médoc appellation.

These are not the only fine red Bordeaux wines available, just the ones I was fortunate to taste and evaluate.  If you have a favorite Bordeaux, especially from the Haut-Médoc, shopping for it in the 2021 vintage could land a great bargain for you.

The dry white Bordeaux from the Graves and Pessac-Léognan were particularly good in 2021 and worth seeking out.  The April frosts did considerable damage to the vines in Sauternes.  Those who had any crop at all were able to make tiny quantities of good quality wine.

The wines tasted were from the top 5% of all Bordeaux wines – true vinous aristocracy, fashionable or not.  As always, there is much more to discover among the thousands of other Bordeaux wines produced every year.  A shopper, with a little effort, can find excellent wines in a $15-$20 price range, perhaps even less in the challenging 2021 vintage.          

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