The wines of Bordeaux carry an international reputation for being high-quality, expensive wines. While this high regard may be esteemed from afar, it can be a significant image hurdle to overcome when it comes to buying and selling the affordable wines that constitute the vast majority of Bordeaux’s wine scene. With over 10,000 producers and close to 70 million cases of wine made every vintage, Bordeaux is more than capable of putting forth plenty of wine at a variety of prices every year. From the recent $1,800 price point for the 2009 Chateau Lafite Rothschild to the $18 dollars for the delicious and affordable 2009 Chateau Paloumey Cru Bourgeois, there is truly a Bordeaux wine to target every budget, every vintage.
Bordeaux Wines: Affordable vs. Expensive
Simply put the difference between the $18 Chateau Paloumey and the $1,800 Chateau Lafite Rothschild is a complicated equation of chateau classifications and reputations, vintage considerations, grape growing sites, vineyard age and yield, quality constituents, cellar aging, winemaker input, winemaking methods and on it goes. It’s no surprise that the wines from Bordeaux’s great vintages and great chateaus command the highest prices. As you go down the ladder from the Classified First Growths (many of the region’s tip top wines) to the Fifth Growths and down to the Cru Bourgeois (which represent 200+ unclassified chateaus in the Medoc) and the second labels of the big name chateaus (typically from younger vines, so not as complex in style or structure), prices will start to scale back accordingly. The same is true on the right bank with the highest prices going to the top 15 estates, classified as Premier Grand Cru Classe. The next level of classification, representing less expensive chateaus, carries the label designate of “Grand Cru Classe.”
Top Tips for Buying Bordeaux Wines
When buying any wine, Bordeaux or not, it’s important to determine if you are buying the wine for tonight or for the cellar. Do you intend to enjoy it this year or this decade?
If it’s sooner rather than later, then look for a wine that fit one of the following criteria:A) If it's a nicer wine for tonight, look for a wine that's already got a bit of age on it, say 3-5 years, sometimes more, from a good vintage (2004, 2007 and 2008) or 10+ years minimum from a great vintage (2005, 2009 and 2010) and a decent chateau (this is not the budget option). Icons to scout for include: Chateau Pavie, Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere, Chateau Smith-Haut Lafitte, Chateau La Dominique, Chateau Palmer (Alter Ego) and Chateau Gloria.
B) A wine that hails from a good vintage and a solid, reputable chateau, should be both affordable and enjoyable. Reasonably priced reputable chateaus include: St. Martin, Chateau Meyney, Chateau La Cardonne, Chateau Paloumey, Chateau Greysac, Chateau Olivier, La Tour Figeac, Chateau Haut-Surget and Chateau Labegorce.
C) Regional wines from a good vintage, labeled simply with a region like “Pessac-Leognan” or “Fronsac” will cover your bases for quality-driven, reasonably priced wines from Bordeaux (Fronsac, Pessac-Leognan and Graves are all known for offering solid red wine values).
D) A wine that sources its grapes from the Bordeaux region at large and will carry the AOC term “Bordeaux ” or “Bordeaux Supérieur” – these are generally entry level wines that are easy to drink early and lie on the cheaper side of the vine. Examples would be Thunevin's Mauvais Garçon "Bad Boy" Bordeaux, or the Bordeaux Supérieur by de Macard, a Bordeaux blend from Chateau d' Aiguilhe, or the Bordeaux Supérieur from La Verriere, and Mouton Cadet is always an easy to find, broad-based Bordeaux blend.
The Mix and Match Approach to Buying Bordeaux
Many buyers of Bordeaux enjoy the challenge of finding reasonably priced Bordeaux wines from every vintage. To make prices more plausible for the better wines there has to be a give and take of sorts. Case in point, in a great vintage like 2005, 2009, and 2010, one would look for a more modestly priced chateau from a favorite region. In good vintages, like 2006, 2007 and 2008, consumers can search for better chateaus and still hold the line on price because the vintage as a whole is not commanding elevated pricing. If this strategy still proves too costly, then look for wines with regional labels in either a good or great vintage. By buying from less-specific places (i.e. a specific chateau, village or district) and being open to a more general source of soil, like say Haut-Medoc, you’ll save money and scouting time.
Best Bordeaux Regions to Scout
Do you prefer a wine with a softer palate profile, more supple in structure and rounder in its approach? Would you typically buy a Merlot over a Cabernet Sauvignon at your local wine shop? If so, your best bet for a Bordeaux red would come from the region’s Merlot-leaning, right bank. Look for label designates with St. Emilion, Pomerol, Fronsac and Cotes as the most popular right bank regions. Keep in mind that Merlot-based blends tend to be more widely available and are easier to drink considerably younger than their Cab-based cousins. However, if the intense, elegance, dark fruit and tangible structure of Cabernet Sauvignon typically characterize your wine purchases, then you’ll want to veer towards Bordeaux’s Cab-heavy, left bank villages. Look for wines from the Medoc and Haut-Medoc with labels showcasing Haut-Medoc, Listrac, Moulis, Pauillac, St. Julian, St. Estephe or Margaux, with the later four villages being the most expensive.
Buying Expensive Bordeaux Wines
For those that do desire to spill some serious cash on high-end Bordeaux wine, there are plenty of ways to do so. First, you need to know that there are five First Growths (as classified in 1855) and they represent the crème de la crème of Bordeaux’s left bank red wine offerings. They include the estates of Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Haut-Brion and more recently (in 1973) Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. On the right bank, St. Emilion and Pomerol are the prevailing districts with Chateau Angelus, Pavie and Figeac among the top estates in St. Emilion and Chateau Petrus the queen of Pomerol. After the First Growths, there are the Second Growths and the Super Seconds that still claim plenty of cash in great vintages. If you see a well-rated vintage that’s not been released you can buy bottles prior to release, in what is referred to as “futures.” Buying Bordeaux’s futures can be a significant investment maneuver though depending on the vintage, it can be a wash or even prove to be a loss. Wine.com, KLwines.com and JJBuckley.com are three reputable routes for ambitious consumers to buy promising Bordeaux wine futures. These are wines to lay down for at least a decade.
From luxury wines to value wines and everything in between, Bordeaux offers an impressive array of wines at virtually every conceivable price point. Thankfully most of the red, white, rosé and sweet wine from Bordeaux is affordable, with 80% of the market in the under $30 price category and boasting an understated elegance, conveying a sense of place and promising a thoroughly food-friendly nature.