Bordeaux Bashers Beware! There’s More Here Than $1,550 Bottles

Daniel Johnnes
Daniel Johnnes, wine director of Daniel Boulud's New York-based Dinex group. Johnnes, a huge fan of Burgundy, has started importing reasonably priced Bordeaux from small family-run chateaux, reminding people that Bordeaux doesn't have to be expensive to be good. Source: Daniel Johnnes Selections via Bloomberg

Like many young savvy sommeliers, 33-year-old Michael Madrigale of New York’s Bar Boulud, extols obscure wines from the Jura, swoons over Burgundy and indulges in Bordeaux bashing.

“All the high prices in Bordeaux have left a collective bad taste in the mouth of everyone,” he said. His Bordeaux customers “are people with gray hair.”

But is the world’s largest fine wine region really just a no-soul place filled with insanely priced luxury products for investment rather than drinking? Well, not exactly.

Admittedly, Bordeaux’s image is one of glamorous chateaux, 87 glitzy crus classes wines, and worldwide demand. First growths now sell for thousands of dollars -- 2009 Lafite futures cost $1,550 a bottle and you won’t get the wine until 2012. That of course, is what has helped make the region a global success.

What everyone forgets is that Bordeaux has more than 8,500 estates, and some of them are tiny family-run properties that make good cabernet and merlot blends for reasonable prices.

Though I never turn down a glass of Burgundy, I still love the balance, structure and class of Bordeaux. These days that’s not a politically correct stance in insider wine circles. Everyone wants to be ahead of the next curve.

So I was intrigued when I heard that Burgundy fan Daniel Johnnes, wine director for Daniel Boulud’s New York-based Dinex group, was importing wines from 11 small Bordeaux estates this autumn.

Nudist Colony

Johnnes, who got his start as a waiter in a nudist colony in the Rhone valley, is widely known as the organizer of the U.S.’s annual bacchanalian Burgundy event, La Paulee (The next one is on Feb. 12 in New York). As an importer, he’s been bringing in top wines from Burgundy, like Dominique Lafon’s cult Meursaults, for 20 years.

“I’m not abandoning Burgundy, I’m not a traitor, but I got tired of hearing Bordeaux trashed,” he said. “Following the flock annoys me. I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian.”

Last year he headed for Bordeaux’s Right Bank, land of St.- Emilion, Pomerol, and lesser-known appellations such as Fronsac and Cotes de Castillon. He picked 11 chateaux whose wines don’t have to be aged for years.

Johnnes invited me to a tasting, as five of the proprietors told their stories to some young sommeliers.

In the private dining room at Restaurant Daniel, where carpet, chairs and walls are in soothing shades of brown, the “somms” nodded as Johnnes ticked off their complaints about Bordeaux.

Too Expensive

“The Bordelais have always sort of pissed me off,” Johnnes said. “I can’t open most of the top chateaux wines at home, they’re too expensive. The famous names are more like commodities for auction than wines with a sense of place. There’s a disconnect between drinking and collecting.”

The less-grand chateau owners, who’d just arrived from France, were not wearing designer suits or ties.

“The classed growths are like a black hole, they suck all the attention,” lamented Pascal Collotte of Chateau Jean Faux. I liked his smoky, fruity, slightly herbaceous 2007 Bordeaux Superieur, an appellation given to wines made from selected vineyard plots and older vines.

I also enjoyed smooth, savory 2005 Chateau Robin, a merlot-cabernet franc blend, from the Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux appellation, 10 minutes from St.-Emilion, a source of many excellent buys. Other favorites were the deliciously ripe, velvety 2007 Chateau Beausejour from Montagne Saint-Emilion (which I rated number 1) and juicy intense 2005 Chateau de la Huste from Fronsac.

Lower Price

Madrigale, who admits he likes “soulful handmade Bordeaux,” liked a few of the wines and plans to put those on his list. Most cost less than $30 retail, but a widely held conviction that good Bordeaux is expensive works against them.

“Customers think if they order a less expensive Bordeaux it’s going to suck,” Jason Wagner, 31, of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon at the Four Seasons, said on the phone a few days later. “They feel they’ll get more bang for their buck in Piemonte or Tuscany.” He finds value in second labels of big name Bordeaux.

Ralph Sands, Bordeaux buyer for the Bay Area’s K & L Wine Merchants, said: “Bordeaux is no longer where new drinkers start. That’s a major shift.” The rapid escalation of prices for first and 2nd growths “have cast a huge shadow of negativity over all of Bordeaux. Younger people go elsewhere. It kills me.” When they try inexpensive Bordeaux at the store’s monthly Bordeaux tastings, “they think they’re great,” he said.

At New York City’s Sherry-Lehmann, President Chris Adams says their Bordeaux master classes are packed with drinkers under 35, anxious to learn and taste.

I’ll admit that when the high 2009 futures prices were released I experienced greater sticker shock than usual and became a Bordeaux basher myself -- but only for a few weeks. I just had to look for other good chateaux, and it’s surprising how many there are.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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