This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Jun. 29, 2009 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20090629.php.
In a time of recession and shrinking savings, a lot of us are more hesitant than ever to invest in high-end wines, and that moves a lot of the world's finest bottles off the bargaining table.
Burgundy, high-end Northern Italians and Napa Cabernets earn skeptical glances when bottle prices rise into the three-figure range. And the same is true, of course, of Bordeaux.
Bordeaux, with a heritage that reaches back 700 years or more, saw its high end fixed in 1855 in the Medoc Classification, a hierarchy of top labels that, despite vast changes in property, ownership and management, remains a buying guide for many wine lovers today.
The small core group of Bordeaux "first growths" and "super seconds" command breathtaking prices, year in and year out, without much regard for the quality of the vintage. While there's more than merely the "emperor's new clothes" going on here - these are wines of elegance, made from extraordinary fruit - any real connection between quality and value seems to be lost.
At the other end of the price curve, low-end Bordeaux has fallen into such disrepute that many lower-tier producers are now legally permitted to turn their product over for "crisis distillation," turning Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc over to factories to be converted into fuel alcohol.
The question for thrifty wine lovers becomes, quite simply: Can we find value in a niche where the critics and points-chasers focus on the three-figure bottles while much of the cheap stuff is plonk?
Sure we can! As always, plenty of good value stands hiding in plain sight on the bargain shelves, provided we use common-sense tools to seek it out. Here are a few quick tips for Bordeaux bottom-feeding.
* Avoid the big names. Unless you find an incredible sale (which might raise questions about storage and handling), steer clear of the classified Bordeaux growths in favor of the lower steps of the hierarchy. The so-called Crus Bourgeois that didn't make the first cut in the 1855 Classification offer good value; and even the generic Bordeaux Superieur and just-plain Bordeaux can rise above their humble origins.
* Along similar lines, shy away from the more pricey Bordeaux neighborhoods. You might find a bargain from sought-after Pauillac, Margaux or Pomerol, but chances are better that the price will be right in the less trendy "satellite" appellations; there are dozens, such as Moulis, Listrac, Cotes de Blaye, Cotes de Bourg, Lussac and many more.
* Look for estate bottling. While it's no sure guarantee of quality, the French "Mis en bouteille au chateau" ("bottled on the property") at least theoretically signals the presence of the owner and winemaker working on the premises with their own grapes.
* Sniff out the Merlot. A good dash of Merlot with the Cabernets and lesser grapes in a Bordeaux blend may add mellow fruit and early drinkability to a cheaper bottling, making it more accessible and easy to enjoy than a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blend at the lower end.
* Look for advice that you can trust. A good wine-shop owner whose recommendations have worked for you can be a treasure when you're on the quest for value. Be more cautious of the major publications, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and others, which tend to praise the bigger, more pricey, ageworthy big-name bottlings while dismissing value choices for just the reasons we seek them: Lighter, fresher drinkability and immediate enjoyment, even at the expense of cellaring.
Enjoy the quest! You'll find two of my recent successes - one in the lower $20s, the other in the mid-teens - reviewed below.
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Today's Tasting Report
Château Tour de Ségur 2005 Lussac-Saint-Émilion ($22.99)
Dark garnet with a clear edge. Black plums and more subtle mixed berries in an appealing but not really fruit-forward scent. A pleasant touch of earthy sweet leather joins delicate black fruit on the palate with good, food-friendly acidity and just a gentle touch of tannins. Tart plums and a hint of old leather books hang on in a long, appealing finish. Quite a buy for the lower $20s in a world of pricey Bordeaux. A blend of 65% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon from André Lurton, it sees a year in oak barrels, 25% of them new. U.S. importer: W.J. Deutsch & Sons Ltd., Armonk, N.Y. (June 9, 2009)
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Ruby, clear and very dark. Earthy blackcurrants, a rustic but delicious aroma and flavor that mingles tart fruit with minerality that evokes something like walking down a dusty country road on a summer day. Good, tart fresh-fruit acidity and moderate 12 percent alcohol makes it food-friendly; tannic astringency is present but not overly aggressive, suggesting that this one - like many good but lower-end Bordeaux - is better for drinking up over the next few years than cellaring. A blend of 40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc from Jean-Hubert Laville. U.S. importer: European Wine Imports Inc., Cleveland. (June 28,2009)
FOOD MATCH: Bordeaux and lamb make a natural match; it was fine with lamb burgers made with fresh natural lamb and pan-seared with garlic and fresh rosemary.
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For information about U.S. availability, try contacting the importer, European Wine Imports,
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