Bargain Bordeaux 99 Percenters Can Afford: John Mariani

Bordeaux Superieur Vineyards
The vineyards with the appellation Bordeaux Superieur are often owned by small producers, and by law the wines must be aged at least 12 months before they can be sold. Source: Bordeaux Wine Council via Bloomberg

Even with some softening of prices in the past year, first-growth Bordeaux wines are still at levels only one percenters can afford.

While the first growths get all the hype and stratospheric prices -- a 12-bottle case of 2008 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild recently sold at a Zachys Hong Kong auction in May for $11,800 -- second through fifth growths have shown little in the way of price inflation.

But the real story, the bargain bin, for Bordeaux is found in the estates and appellations that fall into categories as Bordeaux Superieur. Look out for local names like Fronsac, Cotes de Bourg, Cadillac, Cotes de Castillon and others that make up 95 percent of the region’s wines. After all, it’s what the French drink on a daily basis.

Owing to a summer sale at New York’s Sherry-Lehmann, I stocked up on Bordeaux from such unheralded appellations and have been drinking them with pleasure, sometimes with real surprise.

It hardly needs noting that none rises to the levels of complexity that one finds in first and second growths, but I would be hard put to discern many from an array of third, fourth and fifth growths. And the prices range from just $13 to $20.

Bordeaux Blends

The vintages went from 2006 to 2010, and all of them were ready to drink right now, although a year or two more on some of the more recent vintages will prove interesting. All were typical Bordeaux blends of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, and cabernet franc.

None had an alcohol level above 14.5 percent by volume. (The prices below are those I paid on sale, but they may be higher or lower elsewhere.)

Chateau de Maison Neuve 2009 ($16)

This wine is from Montagne Saint-Emilion, where merlot dominates, so this had a bold body whose tannins are softened for balance. If you close your eyes and don’t look at the label, you may taste a hint of the illustrious Cheval Blanc and Ausone from the same region of Saint-Emilion.

Chateau Labatut-Bouchard 2009 ($13)

Made in a region called Cadillac better known for its sweet wines, this remarkably-priced red is a juicy glory, full flavored, deep in color and bouquet, and certainly worth its label proclamation as a “Grand Vin de Bordeaux.”

Porterhouse Steak

Chateau Jouanin 2009 ($14)

From Castillon, on the right bank of the Dordogne River, where the wines are known for their structure, this is a blend of 70 percent merlot, the rest cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc that shows a fine equilibrium between its fruits and acids buoyed by robust tannins. A terrific match with charcoal-broiled porterhouse steak and corn on the cob.

Chateau Le Bonnat 2008 ($17)

Made from wines that average 30 to 40 years old, Le Bonnat is a good example of modern French winemaking that brings out the best from a clay and limestone soil in the Graves region, known for the silkiness of its wines. Owned since 1997 by the Lesgourgues family, which also produces Armagnac, it’s not Haut-Brion, but has complex density and a lovely smoky quality.

Rustic Charm

Chateau Mayne-Vieil 2009 ($16)

This big blend of mostly merlot and cabernet franc from the Fronsac region in eastern Bordeaux may take a few years to show all its virtues, for its tannins are still firm and its character hearty.

Although modern winemaking has softened up Fronsac reds in recent years, one can still taste its traditional rustic charm, which makes it a good choice for a lamb stew or cassoulet this fall.

Chateau Thebot 2009 ($14)

Though it has a simple Bordeaux appellation, the wine is made from 75 percent merlot, and the first sip is impressive for its fist of fruit and tannins -- it’s 14.5 percent alcohol -- but the wine keeps revealing more fruit character as you drink it with food.

Chateau Haut Maginet 2009 ($11)

For 11 bucks, this is a real winner and has that taste of brick characteristic of Bordeaux, dark cherries and spices, with a delicious peppery component and an admirable 13.5 percent alcohol. Slog it back with anything from a hamburger to roast chicken and French fries.

Chateau Tour Leognan 2008 ($20)

This is the second-tier wine from Grave’s Chateau Carbonnieux, better known for its white wine. Cabernet sauvignon makes up 55 percent of the blend, but it has mellowed out and shows the kind of breeding such a respected estate can bring. It’s the sort of wine I’d bring to a friend’s house to surprise him with its high quality.

(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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