How to Drink Great Bordeaux Without Breaking The Bank
People are often surprised to discover that there’s plenty of quality Bordeaux wines under $50, under $30, even under $20. In fact, much of the wine coming from this world-class region is actually approachable and budget-friendly. But the prestige of les chateaux looms large — one of the historical monuments of the wine world.
The 1855 classification was requested by Napoleon III so that the top chateaux would be featured in an exhibition. Any chateau designated on that age-old list still bears the same classification today. In addition to the classification system there are dozens of appellations, which are designations tied to terroir differences and diversity.
For collectible, age-worthy reds with pedigree, Bordeaux is one of the world’s finest sources. Names such as Château Lafite-Rothschild — Première Grand Cru Classé, in Pauillac, on the Left Bank — symbolize the height of expense and prestige. But there’s not many of us willing or able to shell out the kind of cash required to drink or hold like that.
For alternatives we look to the terroir and generational knowhow of Bordeaux wine growing families for wines that express the region’s quality in a more accessible way. Because not all wine originating in Pauillac (for example) is out of reach.
Here are several categories that generally over-deliver on quality without sacrificing the character of Bordeaux.
Image credit : Decanter
Need a Refresher? Here Are The Basics.
The Left Bank is associated with Cabernet Sauvignon. Here’s where you’ll find stars such as Barsac, Graves, Pessac-Léognan, and Médoc (includes: Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, and Saint-Estèphe).
The Right Bank is dominated by Merlot and includes iconic Pomerol and Saint Émilion. Pomerol has no classifications, but Saint Émilion has a unique structure — at the top are Premier Grand Cru Classé wines, which devolve into an A category and a B category followed by Grand Cru Classe wines and finally Grand Cru.
Entre-deux-Mers is the middle region, local to appellations such as Bordeaux-Haut-Benauge, Côtes-de-Bordeaux-Saint-Macaire, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux, and the sweet wines of Loupiac.
Love Left Bank Structure? Try Cru Bourgeois.
Cru Bourgeois is a classification that covers the prized Left Bank Médoc and boasts some of the most value-driven releases on the market today. These were originally vineyards run by the merchant class, a structure born when people began to populate cities in the Middle Ages. No longer were there only peasants and nobility, now there was also la bourgeoisie, a group that came to possess some of the finest plots in Bordeaux. The current classification system is well-oiled and reliable, with juried blind tasting and environmental promise required to achieve the stamp of approval.
Want Classics To Drink Young? Get Some Bordeaux Supérieur.
Wines that are labeled with the Bordeaux appellation can originate from anywhere in the full Bordeaux wine region, a large area populated with a variety of soils and terroirs. Within this scope there are some gems — look for Bordeaux Supérieur, which promise wines made with more rigorous requirements in the vineyard and the cellar. Wines in the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur are often crafted to drink younger and have an attractive price tag, but they are made with fruit cultivated in many of the most treasured terroirs in the region.
Need Right Bank Richness? Go to Côtes de Bordeaux.
Looking for Right Bank charm? Check out the hilly region known as the Côtes de Bordeaux: Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Castillon, Côtes de Francs, Côtes de Cadillac, and Sainte-Foy. These wines are cultivated on 30,000 acres of vines — 10% of total production of Bordeaux. You’ll generally find several vintages of these wines on the market, with a mix of blends and age-worthiness, but overall they are known for value and variety. Each produces its own range — from dry reds and whites to the beautiful sweet wines of the region.
Can’t Resist Finery? Go Ahead and Try Grands Crus Classé
The Classification of 1855 covers the Médoc region on the Left Bank plus sweet wine icon Sauternes — Grand Crus Classé, Cru Artisan, Cru Bourgeois, Bordeaux Supérieur, and Bordeaux. Fun fact: Château Haut-Brion is the only Bordeaux wine that’s twice-classified. In Graves classification plus the Grands Crus Classé from 1855.
One last trick. Don’t forget that Bordeaux produces a great variety of wine: structured red, fresh and aromatic white, crisp rosé, sparkling Crémant de Bordeaux, and succulent “noble rot” sweet wines. Sometimes it’s worth it to reach for something a little different, like an alternative category or a wine made in a neighboring appellation, these offer some of the best values. The region is also proud of women in wine, young winemakers, generational knowledge, family estates, and a warm welcome. Never assume that Bordeaux is too expensive or rare — you’ll be surprised by the affordable gems hiding in plain sight.