You have to hand it to the Bordelais: the price-setting for the 2013 en primeur campaign has managed to be – in the majority of cases – both marvelously stubborn and seemingly unfathomable.
But this is still a place that makes some of the greatest Cabernet- and Merlot-based wines in the world. These are wines that combine – at their best – fruit that is plush and ripe without being shriveled; acidity that gives a lilting finish and long life without straying into enamel-stripping; and tannins that are caressing without being clumsy.
But the Bordeaux system, with its classifications and futures campaigns, is set up so that commercial buyers and wine drinkers are signposted to the highway of celebrated estates and big-ticket bottles that promise rewards for a price.
|Château de Reignac|
|Château Capbern Gasqueton|
|Vieux Château Saint André|
|Château du Champs des Treilles|
It's easy to forget that Bordeaux contains around 8000 châteaux and perhaps 500 – at the very most – are in a position to charge top-end prices.
For the rest of the winemakers in Bordeaux it can be hard to attract attention, but it's among them that you can find the best-value wines. Not all are great, let's be clear, but there are smart ways to get to those ripe, lilting and structured wines without being held hostage to allocations and high prices.
Avoid en primeur
Personally, I think the system of en primeur is a good one. Sometimes it even offers potential for return-on-investment. But it's not the way to get best-value Bordeaux. So, moving on...
Be smart with names
Plenty of hugely talented winemakers also make less-expensive bottles, if you know where to look. Jean-Michel Comme of Château Pontet-Canet has his own vineyard, Château du Champs des Treilles in Saint-Foy-Bordeaux. His wife Corinne runs the estate after inheriting it from her Italian grandparents who emigrated to Bordeaux in the 1920s. This estate is where Comme honed his biodynamic skills and you can get a taste of them without paying Pontet-Canet prices.
Similarly, ex-Petrus winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet’ has an eight-hectare (20-acre) estate Vieux Château Saint André, in Montagne-Saint-Émilion. While Jean-Claude's eldest son Olivier has taken over the reins at Petrus, his youngest son Jeff is winemaker here - and since his retirement Jean-Claude works alongside. The approach to winemaking is not dissimilar to Petrus, including cement vats for vinification, a maximum of 50 percent new oak during aging, Merlot treated as gently as humanly possible. Even less well known is his 1.5-hectare (3.75-acre) Château Samion.
Not second wines but second châteaux
Second wines have mushroomed in recent years. Many are reliable, excellent quality and offer brilliant drinking pleasure. But best-value Bordeaux? Not usually. Why do you think so many have changed their names to signpost being the little sibling of the main château? Le Petit Mouton, Les Hauts de Smith, Echo de Lynch-Bages, Carruades de Lafite, Blason d'Issan...It's smart marketing and great for consumer recognition, but we pay for that slice of the magic.
For best value, I suggest looking for less-celebrated estates owned by the Bordeaux glitterati – a good bet is Château Cantelys from the Smith Haut Lafitte team. Then there is Château Capbern Gasqueton from the Calon-Ségur team, an estate that is just about managing to remain under the radar. Alternatively, Château les Ormes-de-Pez from the Cazes family of Lynch-Bages (and for white, their utterly delicious Château Villa Bel-Air from Graves) or Château de Fonbel from the Vauthier family of Ausone. I could go on.
Don't just take my word for it
Bordeaux runs a few yearly competitions to unearth new talent. One that is particularly interesting is the Prix du Raisin, rewarding winemakers under 40. This year, it was won by 31-year-old Amandine Giret of Château Côtes de Rigaud in Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion (an excellent wine that retails at €10, or $13.90, to buy direct).
Try Yves and Stephanie Vatelot's Château de Reignac, AOC Bordeaux Supérieur, which was given the Prix d'Excellence 2012 by the Ministry of Agriculture for their reliability, one of 34 winemakers across France to receive the prize. Alternatively, get recommendations from the high-end retailers whose reputations depend upon offering good-value wines that taste more expensive than they are. Chris Adams from Sherry Lehmann in New York suggests the Médoc's Clos de Moulin.
Chuck Hayward from JJ Buckley in California suggests the 2009 Château Côte Montpezat Cuvée Compostelle. "This is always one of my favorites," Hayward says. "I love what Stéphane Derenoncourt does with wines from Côtes de Castillon, one of the great areas for red wine values. It's an excellent introductory wine for those weaned on the New World, an easy transition and consistent year to year.
"Or 2009 Château de Carlmagnus, as Fronsac is another value area, with wines that have a bit more of a rustic/traditional Bordeaux feel. I love vintages like 2009 and 2010, where the excellent weather allowed everyone to make great wine. This is one of Bordeaux’s secrets, the ability to make tasty reds with individuality and character for under $20, something hard to find in California’s array of wines."
In Burgundy, we are always told to pick quality names over appellations. Bordeaux, and particularly the entry-level appellations, is no different. It's hardly news for me to tell you the best-value Bordeaux can be found in AOCs Entre-deux-Mers, Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur. But you have to know your producers.
Some are already widely recognized; the Despagne family at Château Mont-Pérat and Château Tour De Mirambeau, Patrick Carteyron at Château Penin, the Courselles at Château Thieuley. But there are a few other names in this little-trumpeted region that should be, well, trumpeted. The Ducourts are definitely one of them. I pretty much always have a bottle of one of their wines in my fridge at home and they are, not to put too fine a point on it, shamefully inexpensive. Try their Château la Rose du Pin white.
Don't assume classified means expensive
And finally, don't write off the classifications. If I am going to go all 1855, there are still a few estates that offer value for money. We might be heading a little over $20 or $25 here, admittedly, but look for the little-known fourth and fifth growths who have been investing recently. The whole of the Gonzague Lurton-Claire Villars stable – Châteaux Haut-Bages Libéral, Ferrière and Durfort-Vivens – is converting to biodynamic winemaking and producing increasingly impressive results. The market has not yet caught up. And there is of course one area where 1855 classified estates are like low-hanging fruit and routinely, and unfairly, undervalued: Sauternes.
Best buys tool here.