Bill’s Best Bets – January 2016
Left Bank, Right Bank: Rediscovering Red Bordeaux for $30 or Less
by Bill Zacharkiw
I’ll be straight up with you – I took a long break from Bordeaux. All the reasons for this hiatus were not necessarily fair but many were justified.
My two chief reasons were that I found the prices exorbitant for the higher end cuvées, putting them so far out of reach that only a select few were able to buy them. The other was that I found many of the wines overly manipulated and overly concentrated to feed the thirsts of a market that wanted big red wines and those critics pumping up that style of wine.
Manipulated in what way? Talk to any winemaker who is willing to be honest, and they will tell you that it is not hard to find a reverse osmosis machine in the region. This machine is used to artificially concentrate the must by removing water. I found as alcohol levels rose and textures became richer, that many of the wines no longer resembled what I felt was the true character of Bordeaux – wines that show great power but tempered by restraint. Bordeaux, for me, is synonymous with elegance.
The region was once the archetype of what is cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and its take on cabernet franc was equally distinctive. But dropping Bordeaux from my shopping list was unfair to many worthy vignerons. For all of its prestigious Chateaux and other monikers of wealth, the region does produce some great wines that are fairly priced and exhibit those qualities that I think make the region so unique.
But first, here is a little primer on where to find which grapes, and why they are grown there. In keeping with the idea of value, all wine suggestions are approximately $30 or less.
The Bordeaux blend is primarily different percentages of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, with petit verdot, malbec and carmenère being of lesser importance.
Bordeaux is divided in two by the Gironde River and its tributaries. The Left Bank is home to the cabernet sauvignon-dominated Médoc wines. The Médoc is divided into two large appellations: Bas Médoc (lower) and Haut-Médoc (upper). It is in the latter that one finds such famous communes of Pauillac, St. Julien, Ste. Estèphe and Margaux. The Graves region, further south, has its most prestigious appellation in Pessac-Léognan. Both regions benefit from a maritime climate, being so close to the Atlantic as well as the rivers.
The primary difference is the soils. In Graves, the soils are poor and gravelly. As you move up the river into the Médoc, there are richer soils with more clay. The clays yield more powerful, heavier wines with cabernet sauvignon dominating the blends. Graves wines tend to be lighter, more finessed and mineral. And here you will find more of an equal split between the three grape varieties.
A great example of power and restraint is the 2010 Haut-Médoc from Tour Saint Joseph. An almost equal split between merlot and cabernet sauvignon brings good complexity of fruit, but with all the finesse one would expect from 2010. A rare 100% merlot from the same appellation, the 2010 Château L’Abbaye offers great value in a supple and fruit driven wine.
From the Graves, the 2010 Haut-Selve is drinking superbly and shows the delicate florals and minerality that one can find in the region. If you want something with more punch, with its 50/50 split between merlot and cabernet, the 2010 Graves from Villa Bel-Air will do the trick.
The Right Bank is merlot and cabernet franc country, perhaps best represented by Pomerol, Saint- Emilion, and Fronsac. But there are a number of lesser known appellations, like Côtes de Bourg and Côtes de Castillon for example, that offer fantastic wines for much less. Because they are further inland, the climate is more continental. The growing season is generally shorter, which is why they rely more on early ripening grape varieties like merlot and cabernet franc. But with global warming trends, more wineries are planting cabernet franc as opposed to merlot which can suffer from a lack of acidity during warmer years.
One of my favourite merlot based wines is from Château Bujan. This Côtes de Bourg is always good, and the 2012 is one of the best I have tasted. Try it with lamb chops. And any discussion of right bank satellite appellations must include the Bordeaux Côtes de Francs’ Château Le Puy. The 2010 is once again one of the best Bordeaux bargains at the SAQ.
From the better known appellations, but still around $30, try the 2011 Saint Emilion Grand Cru, Côtes Rocheuses. Merlot dominated, it shows good power. Or for a touch more, the 2011 Saint-Emilion Grand Cru from Château Haute-Nauve is wonderfully elegant.
If you want to taste the power of merlot in Pomerol without paying the price, try the 2012 Lalande-de-Pomerol from Château La Croix des Moines. If you think merlot is wimpy, then try this!
If you are looking for bargains, then look no further than the more general Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations. These wines can be made over the entire region of Bordeaux and while they can age, can be drunk and enjoyed right way.
Two of my favourites are from Château Fillon, whose 2010 is so classy and highly drinkable, and the 2012 from Château Sainte-Antoine, which is so richly fruity yet manages to maintain superb freshness.
Stay warm and drink well folks,
“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial
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