Affordable Bordeaux is not an oxymoron. The truth is that, aside from the 60 or so top chateaux, wines from Bordeaux offer tremendous value.
It is equally true that the top tiers–the first and second growths–of the Médoc Cru Classé, those 60 chateaux from the Médoc (including Haut-Brion, from Pessac Léognan in Graves) classified in 1855, have become super luxury items affordable only to “the one percent.” And even the remaining Cru Classé wines are out of the reach of most consumers. In vintages with less perfect growing conditions than 2010, those properties have the resources to pick grapes with tweezers to make their selection if they wanted. (In the recent past, some chateaux have used helicopters hovering over the vineyards as giant fans to dry the grapes when autumn rains have the potential to spoil the harvest). There is no doubt the 2010 vintages was a stunning success for these chateaux. If I win the lottery I would pack my cellar with these wines.
The Cru Bourgeois Shine in 2010
In reality, for me, the real success of the 2010 vintage in Bordeaux lies not in the Big Name Châteaux, but in the wines of the Cru Bourgeois. They are harmonious and delicious. Best of all, the Cru Bourgeois are relatively affordable. Enticing to drink now, they have the requisite balance to be cellared and transformed into complex wines to be sipped and savored. For example, I recently had a1982 Château Greysac, usually one of the most widely available of all the Cru Bourgeois, which was marvelously mature yet still fresh.
Phil Minervino, co-owner of Newton Lower Falls Wine Shop, a highly respected Boston area store and a regular attendee at the annual en primeur tastings in Bordeaux (during which the new wines are tasted from barrel in the spring after the harvest), is enthusiastic about the 2010 Bordeaux in general and the Cru Bourgeois in particular, “I believe in them. They will get the attention of people who normally don’t think about Bordeaux. I bought a lot of them.”
The Cru Bourgeois properties have been known, somewhat derisively, as “petit chateaux.” Indeed, the only thing “petit” about them is their price, especially compared to the Cru Classé.
A Little Background
Founded in 1932, the Cru Bourgeois classification was established to draw attention to 444 worthy properties excluded from the 1855 Médoc classification. Over the years the number was whittled down about 250 and stratified into three levels–Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels at the top, followed by Crus Bourgeois Supérieurs and then Crus Bourgeois at the base–analogous to the layered 1st through 5th growths of the 1855 Médoc classification. Quite incredibly, or maybe not, knowing the French bureaucracy, the French government recognized the classification officially only in 2003, at which time a group of chateaux owners who were excluded from the classification sued. A French court annulled the whole classification in 2007.
The new Cru Bourgeois classification was resurrected in 2008 without the subdivisions. Under the new system, any Médoc property may apply for Cru Bourgeois status, which must be renewed annually. Those that make the grade–about 90 percent have since its inception–carry a distinctive CB on the label or neckband. A supposedly independent organization evaluates the chateaux’s vineyards and winery to help determine who is selected.
With the 2010 vintage, 260 properties spread all over the Left Bank were included in the Cru Bourgeois classification. For those who like the numbers, 104 are in the Médoc, 89 in the Haut-Médoc (which does not imply a higher–haut–quality, just a more southern location) and 67 in the more prestigious appellations, Listrac, Margaux, Moulis, Pauillac and St-Estèphe.
Although the wines from these properties reflect the predilection for Cabernet Sauvignon in the Médoc, many château use a substantial amount of Merlot in the blend. Half of Château Greysac’s vineyards, for example, are planted to Merlot.
Not Everybody is On Board
The independent organization that evaluates the châteaux also organizes blind tastings to assess the wines. And that’s where the controversy begins. Well-established properties, formerly classified as Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels or Crus Bourgeois Supérieurs, such as Chateau Coufran, have failed to join the new organization. They claim it’s too bureaucratic and cumbersome to submit wines for tasting every year, according to Ms. Lovely Miailhe-Conquéret, a representative of the family that owns Chateau Coufran. She also objects to an assessment of the wines rather than a sole focus on terroir. I suspect it’s as much they view being lumped with all the others as a demotion from their higher Crus Bourgeois Supérieurs status. Whether these formerly classified Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels and Supérieurs properties will group together to market themselves under a single umbrella organization or whether each will opt to go it alone remains to be seen.
Distribution Remains a Problem
One of the challenges for consumers is the fragmented—and sometimes limited—availability of the Cru Bourgeois throughout the United States. It’s understandable when a château produces only 5,000 cases. But unexplainable—at least to me—quirks in the market can add to the consumer’s frustration. In the case of Château Greysac, one of the best-known Cru Bourgeois because of its consistent quality and its 40,000 case annual production, unsold wine from the 2009 vintage has delayed the distribution of the 2010, according to Lionel Tonnerieux, Director of Sales for Domaines Rollan de By, the company that owns Château Greysac. I find that surprising because the 2009 vintage in Bordeaux in general was stellar and Greysac was particularly successful that year. Tonnerieux expects the 2010 to be on the US market in the spring of 2014, which is good news for consumers, because it’s one that’s easy to recommend.
The recommendations below are based on blind tastings of bottled 2010s (finished wines, not barrel samples) I did in Bordeaux earlier this year as one of the judges for the Coupe des Bourgeois de Médoc, an annual competition of Cru Bourgeois wines, and other tastings (not blind) at VinExpo, Bordeaux’s biannual trade fair. All the wines are currently available in the US, but if your retailer doesn’t stock them, ask him or her to suggest other 2010 Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux. If you love Bordeaux, it’s a vintage you don’t want to miss. If you’re unfamiliar with Bordeaux, it’s a good place to start.
Château Lalande (Listrac) 2010, $14: Ripe lush fruit flavors belie its origins in the Listrac, an area where the wines are often more austere. The reliance on Merlot (60%) and the stature of vintage may explain the texture of this hard-to-resist wine. 89
Château Pey de Pont (Médoc) 2010, $16: Even though the label proclaims “Elevée en futs de chêne” (aged in oak barrels), oak flavors do not dominate. You feel the effects of barrel aging without tasting the wood. An elegance and polish appears in the finish. More tightly wound than many of the other 2010s, it would benefit from a few years in the cellar. If you can’t wait, open it and decant it a couple of hours before you throw a butterflied leg or lamb on the grill. 88
Château Corconnac (Haut-Médoc) 2010, $16.50: The old vines (40 years) impart an impressive complexity, especially for the price. Glossy tannins envelop this graceful and exciting wine. An outstanding buy. 92
Château Beaumont (Haut-Médoc) 2010, $19: A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (53%), Merlot (43%) and Petit Verdot, the 2010 Château Beaumont delivers a seamless combination of ripe dark fruit balanced by almost sweet tannins. Yummy for current consumption. 88
Château la Gorre (Médoc) 2010, $20: Firm tannins balance the ripe, dense, gorgeous, black fruit-like flavors in this easy-to-recommend wine. There’s an attractive austerity in the finish that contrasts with the sometimes sweetness of so many California Cabernets. It’s another candidate for the cellar or a couple of hours of aeration in a decanter if opening it tonight. 88
Château Malescasse (Haut-Médoc) 2010, $22: The high proportion of Merlot (50%) in the blend helps explain the concentrated ripe fruit. The round tannins make it easy to enjoy now. 88
Château du Taillan (Médoc) 2010, $22: With a fabulous interplay of ripe fruit, savory notes and freshness, the 2010 Château du Taillan is as attractive as the historic château is gorgeous. It’s hard to find this quality and class at this price. 92
Château Sénéjac (Haut-Médoc) 2010, $22: Château Sénéjac has always been one of my favorite Cru Bourgeois and with nearly a 17,000 case annual production, it is usually widely available. The 2010’s ripeness is nicely offset by freshness and firm, but not aggressive, tannins. There’s an engaging trace of bitterness in the finish. A wonderfully long and graceful wine, it shows the beauty of Bordeaux. 92
Château du Breuil (Haut-Médoc) 2010, $25: There’s plenty of stuffing here to make the firm tannins melt into the background. Its stature is apparent in its great length. 91
Château Clauzet (St. Estèphe) 2010, $27: It has the structure and earthy flavors you’d expect from a wine from St. Estèphe. What’s unexpected is how plush and ripe it is and how easy it is to drink now. 91
Château Tour des Termes (St. Estèphe) 2010, $28: A more Right than Left Bank blend with Merlot and Cabernet Franc accounting for over two-thirds of the wine, this stunning wine will sweep you away with its fragrance, ripeness and suppleness. 93
Château d’Agassac (Haut-Médoc) 2010, $32: The beauty of old vines–half of their vineyard has 50-year old vines–is apparent in the depth and complexity of Château d’Agassac’s 2010. A very fleshy wine, it’s deceptively forward despite its underlying firm structure. Similar to the other 2010s, it has an enlivening brightness. 92
Château Mongravey (Margaux) 2010, $36: A glossy texture–Margaux speaking–surrounds a stunning combination of black fruit and savory notes. Brilliant acidity amplifies the enjoyment. 92
September 17, 2013