Red bordeaux doesn’t have to be famous to be worth buying. Rather the reverse, in fact. If, that is — and this may be a big if for some wine collectors — you plan to drink it rather than sell it.
One of my favourite illustrations in The World Atlas of Wine (our eighth edition is being printed as I write) is a table showing production costs for a bottle of red wine grown and made in the Médoc, Bordeaux’s most famous subregion. They seem remarkably low, about €16 a bottle for a famous classed growth (cru classé) that may well be offered at more than £1,000 a dozen long before it’s bottled.
Production costs for any ambitious Médoc cru are fairly similar, whether classé or not. The grands châteaux may be able to afford more brand-new oak barrels, more vineyard workers and a stricter selection for their principal wine, but all producers follow more or less the same procedures.
And, to judge from the performance of the likes of Ch Meyney in St-Estèphe in our annual blind tastings of about 250 bordeaux from a single four-year-old vintage, the best-run non-classed growths can easily hold their own with the crus classés.
So, given that there are about 600 wine estates in the Médoc, producing some 1,000 different wines, how do you identify the ones worth buying? It pays to find out, as many of them, even good ones, can be found for well under £20 a bottle even for a fully mature vintage.
The other night at dinner, I slipped a Ch Belle-Vue 2009 into a line-up of classed growths, including a first-growth Ch Latour 2003 (thanks to the generosity of my co-author Hugh Johnson, who was at the table) and two vintages of Ch Lynch Bages, the 1995 and the stunning 1986.
The humble Belle-Vue 2009 is currently selling around the world for an average of £33 a bottle, while the Lynch Bages 1995, the cheapest of the three classed growths, would set you back more than £150. The 2009 far from disgraced itself and was even more delicious and nuanced the next day (this is often the case with red bordeaux).
One pretty reliable shortcut to value in the Médoc is to head for a bottle carrying the cru bourgeois seal on the neck. Nowadays this incorporates a QR code that can reveal the full background for each wine — far more information than is available for most crus classés.
Cru bourgeois is the category down from classed growths, whose five divisions have been virtually set in stone since bordeaux merchants ranked their top 60-odd châteaux back in 1855. By contrast, the crus bourgeois have been anointed on a more topical basis.
In recent years, this was done for every single vintage on the basis of tastings. But the guardians of the category have come up with a slightly more durable classification. They are overseeing tastings by an independent panel of a range of vintages for each producer — five from 2008 to 2016, chosen and submitted by the producers — in order to decide which estates may call themselves crus bourgeois for five years from the announcement of the new classification next February.
The exercise will be undertaken again in 2024 for another, more recent set of five vintages.
The Bordelais love pulling rank. (A second-growth owner told me once that despite being a neighbour for decades, he had never been invited to a particular first-growth château.) The new cru-bourgeois classification is to have two super-ranks: cru bourgeois supérieur for superior estates and cru bourgeois exceptionnel for — well, you can probably guess.
Producers who have applied to join these two elevated ranks are currently being visited, inspected and assessed. Taken into account is not just the quality of the wine but the way the estate is run, with sustainability an important component, along with — more innovatively for conservative Bordeaux — facilities for tourism.
For years, the Bordeaux châteaux prided themselves on their closed doors, but this has been changing dramatically recently, even at classed-growth level. Of course, the crus bourgeois can hardly afford to be haughty, their wines being much less sought after.
One dampening effect on prices of crus bourgeois compared with crus classés is that there is no secondary market for them. The classed growths are meat and drink to salerooms and fine-wine traders. Not because they are rare. They are very much not.
But they do have a track record of glamour and longevity. The best vintages can have a lifespan of many decades, whereas crus bourgeois tend to be at their best at roughly 10 years old.
So crus bourgeois do not require years of storage charges, and it is much easier to buy mature vintages of them by the single bottle — unlike crus classés, which are generally available only by the case and long before they are ready to drink. But the disadvantage of crus bourgeois is that they don’t appreciably gain in value. They are — amazingly — wines to drink!
My team and I recently set out to test the value and durability of crus bourgeois by organising a tasting of pairs of vintages from 23 of my favourite examples: one current young vintage and one more mature one. Younger vintages of Ch Belle-Vue, for example, are available for about £11 a bottle, and at the time of our tasting The Wine Society was selling Ch Beaumont 2009 for just £15 a bottle. (It is currently offering magnums of 2010, a much longer-lasting vintage, for £30.)
Because of the need to retain considerable stocks of older vintages to qualify for the new cru-bourgeois classification, some producers were not able to provide samples from fully mature vintages, but there were enough examples from the twin superstar vintages 2009 and 2010 to prove the point that these wines really do represent the bargains of Bordeaux.
As if to underline the gap between these classical blends of Cabernet with Merlot and the wines that qualify only for the general Bordeaux appellation, the producers of the latter recently voted to be allowed limited plantings of seven vines foreign to Bordeaux, in response to climate change. They are Arinarnoa, Castets, Marselan, Touriga Nacional and three whites, Alvarinho, Liliorila and Petit Manseng — mainly new crossings plus two from Portugal.
Exceptional crus bourgeois
These are not the cheapest but the most outstanding of many good wines at my most recent tasting of crus bourgeois. In brackets is the average retail price worldwide according to Wine-searcher.com, which can supply stockists in many countries.
- Ch Le Boscq 2016 St-Estèphe (£25). £29.95 Handford Wines
- Ch Deyrem Valentin 2016 Margaux (£20). £31.99 Waitrose Cellar
- Ch Deyrem Valentin 2012 Margaux (£21). 24.43 Winedrop.co.uk, £25.07 Bon Coeur Fine Wines
- Ch La Fleur Peyrabon 2016 Pauillac (£32). £51.66 Winebuyers.com (this looks overpriced)
- Ch Tour Haut-Caussan 2009 Médoc (£22). $26.99 The Wine Specialist, Washington DC
- Ch La Tour du Haut-Moulin 2011 Haut-Médoc (£10). $24.99 Sherlock’s Fine Wine & Spirits, Marietta GA
- Ch La Tour de Mons 2014 Margaux (£21). £36 Made in Little France
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