Why Bordeaux is Actually the Best Bargain in the Wine Shop
It’s affordable, it’s approachable and you can drink it as soon as you buy it. Three sommeliers—and F&W’s Megan Krigbaum—set the record straight about how to buy Bordeaux now.
Long one of the world’s most sought-after wines, Bordeaux has earned a reputation as being inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t have hundreds or even thousands of dollars to spend or years to wait for the bottles to mature in the cellar. But not all Bordeaux comes with a steep price tag or has aggressive tannins that need a decade to mellow out. In fact, the wine has reached a new equilibrium, where drinkers can purchase Bordeaux that really tastes like Bordeaux for $30. For $40 or $50, one can even get wines that have some age on them. F&W’s Megan Krigbaum talked with three sommeliers about why now is a fantastic time to drink Bordeaux.
Megan Krigbaum: I love Bordeaux. You love Bordeaux. Why do you think it’s fallen out of favor with sommeliers? And why should they start paying attention?
Emily Wines, Beverage Director, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants: As a Master Sommelier, I’ve been noticing over the last few years that when we’re giving young somms their exams, they don’t know about Bordeaux. It used to be a given that when you were starting out as a wine professional, you learned all of the Bordeaux classifications and all of the different châteaus, and nowadays these guys don’t. You look at a lot of wine lists and there just isn’t Bordeaux on them, and the sommeliers just don’t really care. In their minds, there are a lot of really great Bordeaux alternatives out there that are much more affordable. But Bordeaux is an opportunity to taste Cabernet and Merlot the way they were intended to be: elegant and finessed and with great acidity. These wines are very different from the powerhouse wines of the New World. Bordeaux has heritage and history—and the wines are really incredible with food.
MK : Sommeliers aren’t the only ones who have lost interest, though, are they?
Raj Vaidya, Head Sommelier, Daniel, NYC: Young people who have some money to spend want to know that what they’re buying has character and is valuable and special. And they don’t think they are really getting that from Bordeaux. There’s this notion that all of the wines are made in huge quantities by big châteaus, but at the same time, that the wines are too expensive and buttoned up. People have had less interest in all of that and have been more excited about smaller-production wines from Burgundy and the Rhône.
MK: Prices for Bordeaux have gone insane, driven in part by en primeur sales—which means collectors are buying wines before they’re even out of the barrel and into the bottle. High ratings from critics have also driven up prices. And yet, there are values to be had?
RV: Collectors who spent a fortune on en primeur wines, especially in the past 10 to 15 years, ended up with cellars full of Bordeaux they could only resell at a loss. I really don’t buy on release from wineries anymore; I pretty much only buy bottles with five or 10 years of age, directly from collectors. So it’s a market correction, in essence. It started at the top and came down, obviously, after the prices went really nutso and the economy went bad.
MK: How can average wine drinkers get their hands on good wines from Bordeaux at an affordable price?
EW: There are some great little family wineries—places with so much soul and history and heritage—and some good values, even from really luxurious regions. One of the most profound examples is Château Fonbadet, which is right in Pauillac. Their vineyards are intermixed, row by row, with the vines of Mouton and Lafite [two of the region’s most renowned producers]. And inevitably, Fonbadet’s winemaker Pascale Peyronie told me, every year one of the big châteaus will inadvertently harvest one of her rows, so they’ll have to give her one of theirs. So you’re drinking some of the most prestigious fruit in Bordeaux—but at just an incredible value, usually around $40.
Taylor Parsons, Beverage Director, République, Los Angeles: When you start to look at regions like Moulis and Listrac and Haut-Médoc and those slightly “inferior” appellations, you find some really great wines that are supertasty and that aren’t crazy expensive—many in the $30 range. Poujeaux in Moulis is such a dependable producer, as is Chasse-Spleen. Even in the Médoc, there’s Grand-Puy-Lacoste. It’s never expensive, usually under $30, and it always delivers. What I’m looking for with Bordeaux, as with all wines, is varietal character, which includes the character of the place and the character of the vintage. And I want all three of those things to exist in relative harmony. These wines really have that.
RV: And then there are the so-called “off vintages,” vintages that are less ripe, less alcoholic, less jammy and fruity. The critics who made the Bordeaux trade so important over the years have favored those rich, fruity flavors. So if you come across vintages that aren’t that way, you can find great values—even in old wines. Often, older wine is cheaper than current-release.
MK: How do sommeliers get access to so much aged Bordeaux? And where are you finding the best values?
RV: Mostly from private collections. There are a lot of people who bought wines in fairly large quantities over the years and they’ve come to realize they won’t end up drinking them all. Some older wines also do come directly from the château. For example, the Latour we have at Daniel comes from the château. But for the most part, the best values to be had are from collectors who bought these wines at $30, 30 years ago.
MKL: So which older vintages are best for finding really great values these days?
RV: Going back to the 1960s, ’66 is a vintage I quite like. It’s something you don’t see very often and it’s not very highly regarded, but the wines are really pretty, almost Burgundy-like; they’re very light. The ’75 and ’79 come to mind. Depending on the château, ’83 is excellent; ’88 is great for a high-acid wine; in the 1990s, ’94 and ’97.
TP: I have some ’02 Calon Ségur that I bought for $40—it’s totally mature, and it’s delicious. That wine is an awesome value, just because people don’t think of that vintage as being particularly great.
MK: The stereotype of Bordeaux is that it’s very restrained and austere. Is that a fair assessment?
RV: I don’t think so. The world of wine is leveling out now. With young Bordeaux, even from excellent producers, you can come across stuff that’s pretty drinkable now and has more in common with the fruitier wines from California. At the same time that many California producers are leaning away from that really opulent style, some Bordeaux is kind of reaching toward it.
MK: Is fraud a huge problem when it comes to Bordeaux?
RV: You do have to be very fastidious in your sourcing. But to be honest, I think fraud really is starting to become more of an issue in Burgundy. Most of what is falsified in Bordeaux is either Le Pin (which I don’t even have on the list at Daniel because the prices are absurd) or Petrus. But it’s pretty easy to monitor Petrus and figure out what’s real and what’s not—there are a lot of telltale signs if you meticulously study the labels and corks like I do.
TP: No one’s faking wines at low prices. What’s the point of faking a $30 bottle of Bordeaux?
MK: Seems like white Bordeaux [made from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc] is often left out of this discussion. Are those wines worth seeking out?
EW: I love white Bordeaux, especially when it’s aged. An old white Bordeaux can be like drinking an old white Burgundy from the top producers. There’s something about Sémillon that is really special. It’s similar to Riesling in that it’s delicious, fresh, drinkable when young, but then as it ages, its weight, texture and flavor become completely different. The wines become so fragrant and concentrated and honeyed.
MK: Do you think all Bordeaux needs to be aged?
EW: No, I don’t think so. There are certainly some examples that need a couple of years, in the reds, anyway—like brawny Cabernet-based wines from Left Bank regions such as Margaux, Pauillac and Graves. But there are some styles from appellations like Entre-Deux-Mers that are fairly approachable in their youth. They’re not necessarily wines that you need to hang on to, or even want to. They tend to be very approachable early on.
RV: In the last 10 to 15 years, the wines have been made in a style that is much more drinkable when young—partly because of technology, but also because the region’s been getting warmer, so the grapes are riper and the wines are more opulent and open up sooner. That being said, when you have a great example of something from the ’60s or ’70s, you understand a very different side of the wine. There’s beauty to be found in young Bordeaux, for sure, and young wines in general, but I think the real story is when you go into something older.
TP: I like drinking young wines and I like drinking old wines. They always tell you different things. It’s like with people: When you’re talking to a seven-year-old kid, he might tell you something supercool that rocks your world. When you talk to a 60-year-old person, that can be interesting in a totally different way. And wine’s a lot like that, too. Does it make sense to take your two bottles of $30 Bordeaux, rent an off-site storage facility and put them away for 15 years? Probably not. It’s not cost-effective. But does it make sense to put the wines in your wine fridge, have one bottle that night and return to the other a year later? Yeah, awesome. I love checking in on wines; sometimes they’re closed and they don’t tell you a lot, and you’re like, “OK, I’ll come back to it in a couple of years.”
$100 Bordeaux Challenge
Here, our experts pick 6 incredible bottles all for $100 or less.
1996 Château La Lagune
I get more interested in Bordeaux when it starts to shed some of its more fruity flavors and pick up characteristics best lumped together under the category “Aromas of a Victorian Gentleman’s Study”: dried leaves, tobacco, cedar, wet soil, shoe leather. The 1996 is really nice right now. $100
1975 Domaine de Chevalier
Auction house Hart Davis Hart in Chicago has this online from an excellent seller, H.B. Harris, who has an incredible cellar full of great wine in great condition. Domaine de Chevalier is one of my favorite Bordeaux. It’s in Pessac-Léognan, an appellation I really like. The wines have a little bit of dirty earthiness to them. $45
2010 Domaine de Chevalier
I like the flavors that are already present in this wine, but I think it needs a long time to age to develop more character. I’d drink the 1975 today, but I’d wait 10 years to drink the 2010s. Hopefully, I’ll be the guy showing off the $30 label and saying, “Look, I bought this for nothing!” $30 (2 bottles)
2012 Clarendelle Blanc
This blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc is from the family that also creates the greatest Bordeaux Blancs, Haut-Brion. $20
2007 Château Brane-Cantenac
I love the structure of Margaux wines—and, surprisingly, it is possible to find affordable ones. This vintage is drinking well right now.$80