Food & Drink

The Grapevine: Affordable picks from the pricey world of Bordeaux

Bordeaux was one of my first wine loves, but I, like so many wine lovers, can be fickle. It’s not that I find Bordeaux uninteresting or undrinkable. My wandering eye simply has led me to other discoveries. Until a visit a few months ago, I hadn’t even thought much about Bordeaux in recent years.

I’m not the only American who has given Bordeaux the cold shoulder. A number of people have weighed in over the last couple of years to say that Bordeaux has become irrelevant to most U.S. wine drinkers. The problem? American palates accustomed to the forward fruit, low acidity and fine tannins in New World wines don’t like Bordeaux’s savory nuances, higher acidity and firmer tannins.

Skyrocketing prices for the top wines of Bordeaux also are at least partly to blame. The first-growth wines from the excellent 2009 vintage can be had for around $1,000-$1,500 a bottle, while Chateau Petrus, from the Pomerol appellation, can run you $4,000. Many buyers balked when prices for 2010 wines were even higher. (Most aren’t even in the market yet; many Bordeaux wines are sold as “futures” — pay now, take delivery a couple of years later.) Prices for 2011 were way down, but we’re still talking serious cash for a good but not stellar vintage.

So if you’re interested in taking a look at Bordeaux, where should you start? I’d suggest Cru Bourgeois, especially from the outstanding 2009 vintage. The wines aren’t cheap, but they are priced within reach of many wine lovers.

Cru Bourgeois wines are from the Medoc, on Bordeaux’s so-called Left Bank, and most are blends dominated by cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The Medoc wines were classified in 1855 according to a hierarchy, with first growth at the top. Cru Bourgeois wines occupy a rung just below the classified growths.

In 2009, a new standard was put in place for Cru Bourgeois. There are 304 chateaus eligible to have their wines designated as Cru Bourgeois; producers must submit their wines to a blind tasting by a panel of experts. For the 2009 vintage, 246 chateaus were able to label their wines as Cru Bourgeois.

One good example is the 2009 Chateau Paloumey ($30) from the Haut-Medoc region. It’s quite elegant, with cherry, cassis, savory notes of dried herbs and anise, and fine tannins.

Chateau Fonbadet is in Pauillac, home to such luminaries as Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild and Latour. Perhaps because of that location, Fonbadet is a little more expensive, but the 2009 ($40) is still a good value, lively and fairly concentrated, with black cherry, spice, firm tannins and a long finish.

Chateau Beau-Site in Saint Estephe is another well-known Cru Bourgeois; the 2009 ($35) offers lively, generous dark fruit, good concentration and firm tannins typical of the appellation. The 2009 Chateau Haut-Maurac Medoc ($20) is a good value, with its ripe black fruit, notes of anise, cedar and earth and firm tannins.

Some other Cru Bourgeois wines with fairly good distribution include Chateaus Greysac, Maison Blanche, Belle-Vue and Malmaison.

Email Laurie Daniel at