Bordeaux Bargains Start at $10 as Price Cut: John Mariani

The most illustrious names in Bordeaux -- the First Growths like Lafite, Mouton, Margaux, and others -- show no signs of drop-off in sales, despite prices that rise into the hundreds of dollars per bottle.

Not far below the First Growths, even among the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Growths, wineries in Bordeaux have had a tough time selling their product. The global market is flooded with cheaper quality wines from so many other countries.

What’s worse, even the French have cut back drinking their own wine. According to a demographic report by AgriMer released last November at the Vinitech wine and spirits trade show in Bordeaux, the annual per capita wine consumption in France has dropped to 46.6 liters as of 2010 from 160 liters in 1965.

The percentage of French who drink wine “almost every day” fell to 17 percent in 2010 from 51 percent in 1980. Today, 24 percent said they drink wine with dinner -- less than half the percentage 32 years ago.

For years, Bordeaux regional estate-bottled wines, cru bourgeois and bordeaux superieur were selling at prices that drinkers worldwide balked at for wines with no reputation. For the last decade it was easy -- and onerous -- enough to pay $50 and more for Bordeaux wines of no particular distinction.

In the last year or two, the Bordelais have smartened up and begun selling and shipping wines that show their terroir well and are priced to move. These are, of course, the wines the French themselves drink on an everyday basis, with First, Second and Third Growths saved for special occasions or collecting.

Terroir Emphasis

“The range of Bordeaux emphasizing their terroir is definitely becoming far more approachable price wise,” says Lelanea Fulton, wine director of one of New York’s hottest new restaurants, Bill’s, where she carries about 350 international labels.

“I’m finding that the winemakers for some of the most prestigious chateaux have branched off to make their own small estate wines,” Fulton said, “like Chateau Cherubin, which is owned by Bertrand Bourdil, and his daughters Carole and Marie-Line. He used to be the winemaker at Mouton-Rothschild.”

I found an exceptional array of Bordeaux for much less than $30, some less than $20. These were not bland red commune wines or generic Bordeaux like Mouton Cadet, the mass market wine made by Chateau Mouton.

These are distinctive blends and have the true taste of Bordeaux, restrained fruit when young, solid tannins, and plenty of minerals that provide layers of flavor and texture. And, even though they may improve with a little age, they are ready to drink right now. Here are some that enchanted me.

Chateau Lavagnac 2010 ($10): This one was an amazement at this price. A blend of 75 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent cabernet franc, it is velvety smooth and lush on the palate, a perfect wine for French appetizers like terrines and pates. While its appellation is merely “Bordeaux,” it shows its terroir, north of St. Emilion, with dignity.

Chateau Penin Grande Selection Merlot 2009 ($13): A Bordeaux Superieur from Graves, this 100 percent merlot has the gravelly taste characteristic of the region’s terroir as well as a remarkable fruit component that makes it very good with grilled meats.

Chateau Haut-Mondain Grande Reserve 2010 ($15): If you’ve never tasted Bordeaux and wish to know its character, this happily priced example, which won a silver medal at the 2011 Los Angeles Wine & Spirits Competition, will provide all you need to know how soil rich with clay, gravel, and limestone minerality can impart flavor and spice. The blend has equal parts smoothness and tannic grip, with 69 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent cabernet franc.

Chateau Lamothe-Vincent Intense 2011: This simple, good wine lives up to its name, with bold fruit and powerful but supple tannins that make even this young vintage impressive. I’d keep it around for another year or two. Priced as low as $11, it’s worth buying a case and sampling it every six months or so.

Chateau Bellevue Bordeaux Superieur 2010 ($15): I was surprised that this young bottle had some sediment. Still, this is a big Bordeaux, made by the family of Vicomte Bruno de Ponton d’Amecourt from vineyards that date back to the Hundred Years’ War. There’s some malbec in with the dominant merlot and cabernet sauvignon, with plenty of structure and depth. It would be just as good with firm cheeses like cheddar as it would with prime rib.

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

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.