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Affordable Bordeaux
By Ed McCarthy
Sep 27, 2005
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Big, fruity, ripe, high-alcohol wines have been popular choices for many wine drinkers during the past decade or so, but I am starting to detect a backlash.  Or is this just wishful thinking?  I know that I cannot drink that style of wine with pleasure, nor can quite a few of my colleagues.  I enjoy subtle, graceful, understated wines-wines that can complement my dinner.  That is the reason that I still drink red Bordeaux.

Even Bordeaux has been somewhat infected by this fruity, ultra-ripe trend which has swept through the wine world, especially in the St. Emilion region, with the influx of the so-called garagistes (new, small producers whose costly, small-lot wines have received high ratings).  But fortunately, you can still find many Bordeaux wines that are made in a subtle, understated style.

Of course, it's easy to find great red Bordeaux in the $75 to $300 range.  These are the Classified Growth wines of the Haut-Médoc-the Lafites, Latours, Léovilles, etc.-and the other renowned, big-name Bordeaux wines.  As good as these wines are, they're too expensive to drink on a regular basis.  Besides, they usually need eight to ten years or more of aging, at the very least, before they are mature enough to enjoy.

Actually, only a very small percentage of Bordeaux wines, both red and white, fall into the "prestigious" category.  Bordeaux is the largest appellation-controlled wine region in France; it has over 10,000 producers, and makes an average of 660 million bottles of wine annually, more than 80 percent of which is red.  Tons of affordable red Bordeaux wines sell in the $7 to $19 price range.  And the currently available vintages at this price are ready to drink.  Since they are Bordeaux wines, these affordable reds won't fall apart quickly, either.  You can generally keep them for at least five years. 

Twenty-five years ago, inexpensive Bordeaux wines could be risky; if you didn't buy a really good vintage, the wine was often too thin, too vegetal, or overly tannic, with not enough fruit character.  Nowadays, winemaking technology has improved so much that poor vintages are a thing of the past-even though some Bordeaux vintages will always be better than others.

These inexpensive Bordeaux are often referred to as petit château wines because they don't come from the large, prestigious estates (chateaux).  In reality, some of these ready-to-drink Bordeaux do come from specific, smaller estates, while others, the so-called generic Bordeaux, such as Mouton-Cadet or Michel Lynch wines, to name two popular brands, use grapes sourced from all over the region, and carry the general "Bordeaux" appellation.  In fact, the most inexpensive Bordeaux, those in the $7 to $13 range, fall into this category.  But even generic Bordeaux from a good vintage-such as 2000, 2001 or 2003-can be quite enjoyable. 

One step up from generic Bordeaux reds are wines from a specific appellation.  You can still find red Bordeaux that carry either the Médoc or Haut-Médoc appellations for under $20.  And across the Gironde River, on the Right Bank, there are nine petit château appellations which are sources for good, inexpensive red Bordeaux: Côtes de Bourg, Premières Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Castillon, Côtes de Francs, Lalande de Pomerol, and the four satellite districts of St.-Emilion: Puisseguin-St.-Emilion, Lussac-St.-Emilion, Montagne-St.-Emilion, and St.-Georges-St.-Emilion.  Of the nine, I have found that Côtes de Bourg and Premières Côtes de Blaye wines are the most reliable, followed by Lalande de Pomerol wines.  The first two are named after the port towns of Bourg and Blaye, located on the Gironde River, opposite the Haut-Médoc on the Left Bank.  Lalande de Pomerol is a satellite appellation of the Right Bank's famed Pomerol district. 
Almost all of the petit château wines on the Right Bank use Merlot as the dominant variety (because it grows very well in this terroir), with small percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Cabernet Franc added for structure.  The advantage of these Merlot-dominated Bordeaux wines is that they are ready to drink sooner than the Cabernet-dominant wines (more common on the gravelly Left Bank), thanks to their plumper fruitiness and softer tannins.  Most wines using the generic "Bordeaux" appellation use grapes sourced on the Right Bank.

Four different vintages can still be commonly found in retail outlets, 2000, 2001,   2002,  and now, 2003, with a smattering of 1998s and 1999s; the latter two are rather scarce at this point.  Of the six, only 2002 is a precocious vintage requiring near-term drinking.  The 1998s and 1999s are better than average, while the 2000s, 2001s, and 2003s are very good, especially the 2000s. 

I recently tasted 17 affordable red Bordeaux wines from four vintages: 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003, in the $7 to $17.50 range, all of which I purchased retail.  All were medium-bodied, and thankfully, with alcohol levels ranging from 12 to 13 percent-most 12° or 12.5.°  (By the way, in my profession, I taste A LOT of wine samples, many of which are a chore to try.  However, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed this tasting.)  The following are my tasting notes, listed alphabetically, by vintage:

Château Barrail Meyney, Bordeaux (France) 2003 ($12, Ideal Wines & Spirits): 
A majority of the available Bordeaux at this price level use the generic "Bordeaux" appellation, such as this one.  The '03 Barrail Meyney, clearly dominated by Merlot, is soft, fleshy, and easy-drinking even now, although just two years old.  It has some charry oak aromas, with plummy flavors, good depth, and ripe, soft tannins.  87

Château d'Arcins, Haut-Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2002 ($17.50, Maison Nicolas):  Château d'Arcins has its "Cru Bourgeois" classification (a step below the 1855 Classified Growths) on its label, and is the most expensive wine in this group.  The '02 d'Arcins, the most dense, biggest wine in the tasting, is plump, with concentrated berry and cassis fruit character.  It is spicy, with rather firm tannins, and is more modern and international in style than the others.  A substantial crowd pleaser.  88 

Château La Grange Clinet, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux (Bordeaux, France) 2002 ($9, Maison Nicolas):  The '02 La Grange Clinet has surprising concentration of dark berry and cassis fruit plus a good amount of tannin.  It is a well-made, well-balanced wine, lean but concentrated, and a GREAT VALUE-exactly what I'm looking for in an inexpensive Bordeaux.  89 

Mouton Cadet, Bordeaux (France) 2002 ($7, Caravelle Wine Selections):  Mouton Cadet is the biggest-selling Bordeaux in the world, and so you can imagine how much money this generic Bordeaux has made for the Baron Philippe de Rothschild house over the years!  Considering its production and the vintage, I'm amazed that it's as good as it is!  Yes, the '02 Mouton Cadet, 65 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15 percent Cabernet Franc, is lighter-bodied than the other wines in the group, but it has decent concentration of tart, red fruits, is lean, cleanly made, and drinkable right now.  For the price, I loved it.  This delightful wine would be on my list of top $7.00 and under red wines of the world.  87 

Château Saint-Sulpice, Bordeaux (France) 2002 ($8.50, Frederick Wildman):  The '02 Saint-Sulpice has aromas of cherries and berries with an earthy, slightly vegetal note, is rather light in body, with flavors of dark plums.  A wine to drink now.  86  

Château Tour de Goupin, Bordeaux (France) 2002 ($10, Baron Francois Ltd.): The '02 Tour de Goupin, with red fruit and licorice aromas and flavors, also has an under ripe, vegetal note that can be found in some Bordeaux '02s.  And yet the dominant presence of Merlot adds a chunky, plummy character.  86 

Château Bonnet, Bordeaux (France) 2001 ($11, W. J. Deutsch & Sons): Château Bonnet is one of the many Bordeaux wines owned by the estimable André Lurton house, one of the largest producers in the region, and now making wines all over the world.  I have always found Château Bonnet, both the red and the white, to be among the most consistently reliable inexpensive Bordeaux wines, and the '01 Rouge does not disappoint.  It has aromas and flavors of dark red fruits with an earthy note, and is well-balanced, with good acidity.  Linear more than round; a classic Bordeaux.  89 

Château du Grand Mouëys, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux (Bordeaux, France) 2001 ($11.50, Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines): The '01 Grand Mouëys has aromas of sweet, spicy oak and big, spicy fruit flavors, more new-style than classic Bordeaux.  Try it with a rare steak to mitigate its tannin.  85 

Château La Mouliniere, Bordeaux Superieur (France) 2001 ($10, Baron Francois Ltd.):  The" src="images/labels/clinet-02.jpg" align=right Superieur? appellation merely means that minimum alcohol content must reach 12° (as opposed 11.5° for just ?Bordeaux? appellation).  The ?01 La Mouliniere has aromas flavors plums other red fruits hints earth spice.  It?s plump, ripe wine, with lots of Merlot in the blend and enough tannin to keep it around a while.  87 

Château Sénéjac, Haut-Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2001 ($17, Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines): Château Sénéjac has attained the "Cru Bourgeois" classification, and therefore, our expectations should be higher here than for most of the other wines in the tasting.  The '01 Sénéjac is very dark in color, with aromas and flavors of oak, classic Bordeaux cigar box, and sweaty saddle.  It is a substantial wine, but a bit too oaky and tannic, not what I'm looking for in an under $20 Bordeaux.  86  

Château Bel Air, Haut-Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2000 ($11, Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines): Château Bel Air is another Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux from the Haut-Médoc, but this one lives up to its classification and then some!  Granted that it is a superior vintage (2000) than the pricier Sénéjac (2001), but it's inherently a better made wine.  Bel Air has long been one of my favorite affordable Bordeaux wines-similar to the generic Mouton Cadet in that it seldom disappoints.  And at $11, it's a steal!  The '00 Bel Air has classic lead pencil and cassis aromas along with concentrated, plummy fruit flavors.  Quite rich for this price level, and ready to drink.  90  

Château Carignan, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux (Bordeaux, France) 2000 ($15, Serge Doré Selections): The 2000 Château Carignan is closed right now, aromatically, but is well knit, with concentrated dark fruit flavors and some serious tannins.  A substantial wine (65 percent Merlot, 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10 percent Cabernet Franc), but too young and unevolved to drink now.  88 

Château La Cornelle, Fronsac (Bordeaux, France) 2000 ($13, Boston Wine Co.):  I was amazed to find a 2000 Fronsac for $13, because most Bordeaux from this district on the Right Bank retail for over $20.  The '00 La Cornelle, 60 percent Merlot, 30 percent Cabernet Franc, and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, shows good concentration of tart black currants, with surprising depth for a $13 wine, It's a lean, sleek, classically styled Bordeaux that needs some time to develop.  89 

Château des Graves, Bordeaux Superieur (France) 2000 ($11, Palm Bay Imports):  The 2000 Château des Graves has ripe, plummy fruit character, and is concentrated, with lots of Merlot in the blend.  An easy-drinking, well made, delightful wine that is perfect for current consumption.  Great value.  89 

Château Greysac, Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2000 ($16, Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines): Château Greysac, Cru Bourgeois classified, is one of the most well-known and most widely available Bordeaux wines in the U.S.  The 2000 Greysac has aromas and flavors of cedar and ripe, black fruits, with considerable tannin and a classy, velvety finish.  89 

Château Larose-Trintaudon, Haut-Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2000 ($16, Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines):  Larose-Trintaudon, another Cru Bourgeois classified Bordeaux, makes more wine than any other wine estate in the Haut-Médoc, and is widely available.  Like most Haut-Médoc wines, it is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  The 2000 Larose-Trintaudon has dark fruit aromas and flavors, is quite tannic,  and cries for a piece of hard cheese, such as Cheddar or Comté.  Give it two years.  88 

Mouton Cadet Réserve, Médoc (Bordeaux, France) 2000 ($13.50, Caravelle Wine Selections):  Yes!  A big step up from the quite good Mouton Cadet, the 2000 Mouton Cadet Réserve Médoc, 55 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7 percent Cabernet Franc, and 38 percent Merlot, is a well-balanced, structured wine with dark fruit aromas and flavors, good concentration, and is cleanly made.  You can enjoy it now, but it will age for another few years.  Excellent value.  90 

Concluding remarks: Yes, vintage really does matter in Bordeaux, even in the inexpensive wines I tasted-perhaps even more so with these wines.  The 2000s clearly stood out with the highest ratings-buy them now, before they disappear!  But none of the four vintages disappointed, even the maligned 2002s.  If you're looking for freshness and exuberance, buy the 2003s.  I recently enjoyed a delicious 2003 red Premières Côtes de Blaye in a local Brooklyn restaurant, priced at $27.

A few of the well-established names really shone, e.g., Chateau Belair, Chateau Greysac, and both Mouton Cadet wines, especially the Reserve Médoc.  Finally, a brief plug for my local outlet, Pop's Wines and Spirits in Island Park, Long Island, New York.  How many wine stores can you walk into and find a dozen or more inexpensive (less than $20) Bordeaux?  Pop's had more than I needed, which is a nice problem for the consumer.  If you have a similarly great source for affordable Bordeaux in your area, please let me know at:  emccarthy@winereviewonline.com