A Really Rough Guide To Budget Bordeaux

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes, Great Wines Under $20, How to Buy Wine at Good Prices | 2 Comments

wine tastingSeveral weeks ago, I had the exquisite pleasure of attending the 2007 Union des Grand Cru des Bordeaux tasting in Los Angeles. For those who don’t speak French, “Union des Grand Cru des Bordeaux” translates, roughly, as “The Incredibly Fancy Wines From the French Region of Bordeaux. You Can’t Afford Them. Don’t Even Bother.” Look it up.

There were over one hundred wineries pouring at the event. Representatives stood behind low tables covered in white tablecloths, ice buckets, bottles and business cards. In the center of one portion of the cavernous conference room were lovely banquets of fresh fruit, colorful cheeses and a variety of crackers to absorb a bit of the booze. Separate tables supported shiny silver spittoons. Guests in subdued attire slowly wandered from table to table, shmoozing, sipping, smiling, spitting.

The room was divided according to the regions of Bordeaux:

Graves (Pessac-Leognan, Sauternes and Barsac); Medoc (Saint Emilion, Pomerol, Listrac-Medoc, Moulis-en-Medoc,

Bordeaux AOC

Bordeaux AOC

Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, Saint-Estephe). For the purposes of this piece, I will not go into the history and importance of Bordeaux, because I cannot do the proper justice which many an expert has already done on the region, and I could not begin to match the authority of these historians.

I’ll simply provide some broad stokes.

Red Bordeaux (called Claret, in the UK), is the most widely produced wine type in this region (outnumbering white wine by about 10 to 1), and is generally made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. To round out the “Fab Five” of Bordeaux, Petit Verdot and Malbec are also permitted, although these are blended in less

frequently. While Carmenere is also authorized, this varietal is now difficult – if not impossible – to find in the area, since replanting never quite took hold after the Phylloxera epidemic of 1867.

As a very broad generalization, Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux’s second-most planted grape variety) dominates the blend in red wines produced in the Médoc and the rest of the left bank of the Gironde estuary. Typical top-quality Chateaux blends are 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 15% Merlot. This is typically referred to as the “Bordeaux Blend.” Merlot (Bordeaux’s most-planted grape variety) and to a lesser extent Cabernet Franc (third most planted variety) tend to predominate in Saint Emilion, Pomerol and the other right bank appellations. These Right Bank blends from top-quality Chateaux are typically 70% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc & 15% Cabernet Sauvignon (Oz Clarke Encyclopedia of Grapes p. 129 Harcourt Books 2001 ISBN 0151007144)

Second in production is white Bordeaux, which is grown only in Graves and is mostly (exclusively, in the case of the sweet Sauternes), made from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, with neither varietal making up more than ninety percent of the blend. Typical blends are usually 80% Sémillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc. Muscadelle is sometimes included, as well, to round out the flavor of the wine, although rarely – if ever – playing a predominant role. On occasion, one can find small amounts of Colombard and Ugni Blanc mixed in, as well.

For me, the greatest thing about the Union des Grand Cru des Bordeaux tasting was the discovery of amazing Bordeaux whites – specifically from the Pessac-Leognan region. Each region in Bordeaux has its own terrior and as a result, the flavor profile of each wine differs noticeably from one parish to another. While I found most of the Bordeaux Blanc to be pretty special, it was the Pessac-Leognan whites that really took my breath away: Pure peachy-grapefruit refreshment. Silky smooth. Perfectly balanced (I mean perfectly). I cannot overstate how enamored I am of these velvety wines.

But while far, far below the sky-high prices of their darker brethren, bottles of white Bordeaux do not come cheap. What’s a value-minded vino-holic to do?

Luckily, there are several options:

  1. Don’t buy Grand Cru: Right after the Bordeaux tasting, I dove into research and trips to local wine shops, trying to recreate the magic of what I had sampled in that large conference room – minus the hefty price tag.
    Chateau Loudenne Blanc

    Chateau Loudenne Blanc

    What I eventually found was a 2006 Chateau Loudenne. While not from one of the premier Chateaux, this wine is so incredibly delicious that the sommelier at a recent celebratory dinner stopped to comment on our choice to bring it to the restaurant. He did this several times. And then helped himself to a small pour. With a nose of sweet almonds and a soft, velvety mouthfeel rich with grapefruit and lanolin, who needs to spend Grand Cru prices to experience a similar level of deliciousness? Especially when this beautiful bottle cost me only $20. Maybe $21. Let me say that one more time: Even the sommelier at a restaurant with 2 Michelin Stars stopped to praise this “value” wine. It really was remarkable, especially when you consider that bottles from up the road in this region run $80+. I can’t recommend the Chateau Loudenne more highly, but there are plenty of incredible Bordeaux wines out there that are selling for a comparative song, simply because they lack that coveted First, Second or Third Growth status. But if “Cru” matters to you, remember that there is a significant price difference between First and Second Growth (Premiers or 1er and Seconds or Deuxiemes Cru Classe), Second and Third Growth (Troisiemes), Third and Fourth Growth (Quatriemes), and Fourth and Fifth Growth (Cinquiemes). The cost plummets even more precipitously when you go from Fifth Growth down to Cru Bourgeois – which is the class from which the Loudenne comes – although the Cru Bourgeois designation was officially done away with in 2007. Any value vinophile worth his or her salt should simply find the wines classified Cru Bourgeois before ’07 and hunt these bad boys down*. You know you’ll be getting an absolutely incredible value for the money. But one shouldn’t place too much emphasis on growth classification; just because a wine is Second, Third, Fourth, Bourgeois, etc., does not mean it’s far inferior to Premier – especially as the quality of some of the First and Second Growths waxes and wanes over the years.

  2. Don’t buy chateau-bottled Bordeaux: While there is very concentrated hoopla over several important Chateaux in the region, wine making in Bordeaux is not confined merely to grand properties where they grow and ferment their own. Like almost everywhere else in the world, Bordeaux also produces wines blended from several different properties – sometimes even the fancy ones – although you’d be hard-pressed to find this information on the label. This practice is actually borne of the age-old négociant (“merchant”) system – identical to the system that produces Cameron Hughes and Layer Cake Wines in the US. Winemakers source what they feel is some of the best fruit in the area and mix it to create their own special blend.
  3. Don’t buy “Bordeaux”: Instead, opt for the lesser-known appellations in the region, which are producing solid stuff at a fraction of what the classic parishes pull in. Look for appellations like Premières Côtes de Blaye, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Côtes de Francs, Côtes de Castillon, Cadillac, Côtes de Bourg, Fronsac and Montagne-St-Emilion. These are some of the “new” appellations, but they are all within the Bordeaux AOC. For potentially even bigger bargains, look for “Bordeaux blends” in regions entirely outside of Bordeaux – Like Loire, for example. Wines produced in other AOCs will not taste the same as the identical blend from Bordeaux, but there will be a similar and recognizable flavor profile you might really enjoy.
  4. Meet Meritage: The blends that produce Meritage are the classic Bordeaux mixtures, in varying proportions – made in America.

    The Meritage Association

From the website:

Meritage wines are provocative red or white wines crafted solely from specific “noble” Bordeaux grape varieties and are considered to be the very best wines of the vintage.

Meritage, pronounced like heritage, first appeared in the late 1980s after a group of American vintners joined forces to create a name for New World wines blended in the tradition of Bordeaux. The word was selected from more than 6,000 entries in an international contest. Meritage combines “merit,” reflecting the quality of the grapes, with “heritage,” which recognizes the centuries-old tradition of blending, long considered to be the highest form of the winemaker’s art.

While many bottles may contain the Bordeaux blend, only those that belong to the Meritage Alliance can use the name on the label. The Good: It’s generally really good wine at non-Bordeaux prices (although this doesn’t mean they’re necessarily value priced). The Bad: It isn’t true Bordeaux.

One final note: Good wine – whether it’s from Bordeaux or anywhere else in the world – is the wine that tastes good to you. I’ve spoken to several industry veterans who have had the good fortune of experiencing several of the most renowned and celebrated wines on the planet. In each case, these experts remembered some of the wines as being perfect and lovely and delicious and incredible…and some of them tasting like…well…crap. Undrinkable. They poured their – otherwise perfect – glasses down the sink. I spoke to one man who said he went to a special winery dinner where, unbeknown to the head sommelier, they switched the bottle of the 3- or 4-figure wine of the evening with a bottle of Charles Shaw. The sommelier’s reaction was tepid: He thought it was a pretty decent bottle of Two-Buck Chuck and that the “exceptional” wine was quite a disappointment.

My point is this: Bordeaux is known for producing some truly special wines – for people who like to drink Bordeaux. There are no points given for paying top dollar for something you don’t want to drink. A region or a designation only makes the wine better in the way that a designer label improves a pair of jeans: Perhaps it’s an indication of quality or a certain cut or style, but there are a lot of other factors that determine the right fit.

Have fun, try a bunch of stuff, and buy what suits you. Maybe that’s Chateau Lafite-Rothchild, or maybe it’s something with a pretty label and a small price tag you buy from Trader Joe’s. In the end, you are your own expert, and only you can determine what you like to drink and how much you’re willing to pay for it.

* Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels:

Exceptional AND value-priced, too

Exceptional AND value-priced, too

Château Chasse-Spleen (Moulis-en-Médoc, Moulis-en-Médoc)

Château Haut-Marbuzet (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Labegorce Zédé (Soussans, Margaux)
Château Ormes-de-Pez (Les) (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Pez (de) (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Phélan Ségur (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Potensac (Ordonnac, Médoc)
Château Poujeaux (Moulis-en-Médoc, Moulis-en-Médoc)
Château Siran (Labarde, Margaux)

Bordeaux Wines That Won’t Break The Bank

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | 2 Comments

Arianna & Jess tasted Bordeaux wines for the first time at the BevMo 100th Store Mega-Tasting in Rolling Hills Estates. At this type of event (a large mixed-beverage tasting at a “big box” store) it’s unusual to encounter a real wine experience. But to BevMo’s credit they lined up 100 2007 Bordeaux’s for tasting, and brought in the owners from many of the wineries to introduce the BevMo customer to Old World winemaking and wine-drinking. It seemed a strange juxtaposition (elegant wines poured by elegant French people in a SoCal parking lot), but in the end, we tasted a wide spectrum of 2007 Bordeaux wines across a broad price range and now we feel a little less intimidated by French wine in general and by Bordeaux specifically.

Jessyca’s ignorance of wines from outside of California has been discussed before, so the following revelations should not be interpreted as wine snobbery, but rather sharing what she learned…

1. Bordeaux is not a grape. While most people who drink wine know this, Jessyca did not. Or at least not officially. Grapes grown in the Bordeaux wine region of France are predominantly Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Side note: Similarly, Chateau Neuf-du-Pape is not a winery, but also a wine region in France. Not all Chateau Neuf-du-Pape wines are worth the reputation.

2. They like to mix their grapes in Bordeaux. Most Bordeaux wines that we tasted were primarily Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, but nearly all were blends of 3 or four different varietals.

3. French people aren’t all snobby. The manager at BevMo found it important to tell us how unusual and special it is that this level of wine proprietors would be present at such an event, much less doing the pouring. I found the proprietors to be charming, patient, and knowledgeable. One even spent several minutes teaching Jess how to pronounce Pouilly-Fuisse and Pauillac. They were eager to expose the American consumers to their wines and had much better attitudes about the heat and crowds than the other winery owners present at the event.

World famous for some of the oldest and highest regarded wines on the planet, Bordeaux wines are full-bodied, rich and delicious. The wines we listed here are a great value and will age beautifully for the next 5 – 10+ years.

2007 Chateau La Chenade, Lalande de Pomerol. $16 – $20

Bright, dark red. This wine smells of strawberry and is a little firm on tannin. This is a value price for a wine from the Bordeaux region, and while rich and delicious, it tastes “younger” and “greener” than some of the others on this list. However, La Chenade is a good place to start and will improve (although not a ton), by aging.

Drink by 2015

70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc.

Jessyca really enjoyed this wine and after tasting 12 different Bordeaux wines, feels this one in particular is of good value. It also says something interesting about the power of winemaking because she’s not a fan of Merlot.

2007 Chateau Chasse-Spleen, Moulis-en-Médoc. $25 – $35

Although the property’s history dates back to 1560, it is likely that the vines from which these grapes descended are much, much older. The vineyard is widely held in high esteem, despite being one of the smallest producers in the area.

Deep red. Tastes of dark fruit, minerals and chocolate. This is an excellent wine at an excellent price. Drink now until 2025.

73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 7% Petit Verdot.

2007 Chateau d’Issan, Margaux Bordeaux. $35 – $45

Dating from the 15th century (and possibly even the 12th), Château d’Issan is located in Margaux, 30 minutes’ drive from Bordeaux. The chateau is still surrounded by a moat, and is frequently described as the most romantic in the Medoc appellation.

Mild at first with a strong finish, this lighter-colored red is fruity on the nose, with a nice, full structure and hints of tobacco.

70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot.

2007 Brane Cantenac, 2nd Grand Cru Classé, Margaux. $35 – $50

A Bordeaux blend middleweight, this is a softer, more “feminine” wine. Well crafted, earthy, with tastes of chocolate, strawberries, and raspberries. This isn’t one to age for long, but it’s an excellent value.

As a less robust wine, this might be a good choice for those who are just beginning to dabble in Bordeaux.

Drink now until 2015.

53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc.

Another of Jess’ favorites from the group–this was a smooth, flavorful wine that was pleasant in the mouth and had a long, enjoyable finish.

Duluc Ducru Dulicious

Duluc Ducru Dulicious

Chateau Branaire Duluc-Ducru, St. Julien. $40 – $55

Oak-y, earthy, fruity and balanced. Nicely integrated tannins. Hints of mocha, blackberries and violets. 2007 was not a great year for the region, but this shows a delicious fruitiness for the vintage. Very nice finish. This one is a good choice for the holidays, and should definitely be a crowd pleaser. Drink now until 2017.

63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc.

At GrapeSmart we like to talk about how you can get more value out of your wine purchases, but sometimes we want to share wine experiences that defy the “Under $25” ethos and extend into the “If I had a million dollars” dreamscape…

The Tale of the Two Longueville Wineries – And Bordeaux Futures
(by Jessyca)

Those in-the-know went straight for the uber-expensive Bordeaux wines (and in retrospect, we should have done this, too) because these were only futures not yet available for purchase.

All day long people were talking of terroir, a concept that has much deeper meaning in France than it does in California. When the following two wines were poured, an explanation included that these two wineries are right across the street from one another so that they should have much in common with one another, and also, the particular area of Longueville in Pauillac is desirable, so the wines are higher-priced.

The 2007 Chateau Pichon Lalande ($100 – $120) and the 2007 Chateau Pichon Baron ($90 – $115) could not have been more different. The Lalande is 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. Easily one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted, smooth and luscious. It was easy to see what winemakers the world over are trying to achieve when I had the opportunity to taste such deliciousness. The Baron on the other hand, 74% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot, was more acidic and less special. It felt extraordinarily overpriced, especially in comparison to the Lalande.

This experience really solidified for me the importance of winemaking in the whole process, and rather downplayed the terroir impact. These wines shared little other than their name and their price tag. Ultimately only you can say if a wine is good or bad for you. You just have to try a lot to know what you like and what you don’t.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that K&L Merchants has a MUCH better price on these two wines than BevMo is offering which suggests that perhaps when you want premium wines, it still pays to shop around before you buy.

How Much Wood Would A Good Wine Want?

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | 1 Comment

steel-barrelsFast on the heels of Jessyca's wedding wine recommendation request from Twitter, in this episode – dear readers – I thought I would take you on a journey to the land of Unoaked Chardonnay. Grab a glass, kick back and enjoy the ride!

My education on unoaked Chard started when Jess and I went to SummerTASTE at the Grove a few weeks ago. This LearnAboutWine event was co-sponsored by The Whisper Restaurant and Lounge, and focused – specifically – on unoaked wines. Naturally, most of the wines offered were white and fruity. I have to admit that a lot of them were also not my preference.

Then I wandered over to the Sweeney Canyon tasting table.

I was first poured a taste of 2008 Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay in order to contrast against future pours. This wine was presented only for sweeney-canyon-chardonnay1contrast, and it was made clear that what I was drinking was not even available for purchase. Good thing! As the pourer promised, this wine was undrinkable: sour and harsh and unpalatable. The 2007 was worlds better. It was smoother and sweeter, with a fuller and richer – although oily – mouthfeel. The 2001 was, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. The 2000 I was poured last just did not match up with the quality of the 2001.

But here is what really got me: None of the Chardonnay at this table had ever touched wood. Nor had it undergone malolactic fermentation (MLF).

What I didn't realize at the time is that this method of producing Chardonnay has been around for awhile, although most people are still familiar with the big, lush and buttery Chardonnays that are aged in oak barrels.

Let's look at why this is:

Some of the world's most renowned Chardonnay-based table wines come from the Burgundy region in France. Burgundy whites have a reputation for being complex and delicious…and aged in oak barrels, using malolactic fermentation. But Burgundy is Old World, with a cooler climate which makes it more difficult to bring the fruit to full ripening. These cool-weather grapes don't see a lot of sun and are low in sugar and high in acid. French oak helps to round out the wine, making it more complex and balanced. The addition of  lactic acid bacteria (usually Oenococcus oeni or various species of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus) de-acidifies the wine, creating a much smoother, richer and buttery mouthfeel. Considering the amount of acid the grapes produce, malolactic conversion is almost a necessity in order to produce a palatable wine.

As more and more Americans developed a vigor for vino in the 1980s and early 1990s, they became enamored with the woody vanilla flavors of oaked whites – like those from Burgundy. To meet demand, New World producers began to age their Chardonnay in oak – typically American oak – which by nature tends to impart a stronger woodiness than the tight-grained French barrels. Considering New World Chardonnay grapes are already ripe and lush and packed with sugar (but little acid), the result of barrel-aging is a big wine which tends to overpower the taste of the fruit. The low acid levels leaves very little for the MLF to work with, and thins the structure of the wine. In the end, American-oaked New World Chardonnay is unlike Chardonnay from Bordeaux.

nooakbarrelBy the mid-1990s, people had begun to develop a new appreciation for less bulky whites, preferring instead crisp, fruit-forward wines like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. This led to an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) backlash, and new buzzwords like steel tanked, un-oaked, unwooded and acero (Spanish for “steel”).

New Zealand, like many of the New World wine regions, produces large amounts of Chardonnay grapes, and they were the first region to embrace production of un-oaked Chard on a grand-scale. The trend took off, and here we are – more than a decade later – and the movement is growing more and more popular.

Big, rich, oaky Chardonnays are unlikely to disappear. But for those who are looking for the crisp acidity and liveliness of the Chardonnay grape – front and center – unwooded Chardonnay is the way to go.

And stay tuned! Next up – Arianna reviews three different unoaked Chardonnays: 2008 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay (from New Zealand, and one of the first mass-market unwooded Chardonnay producers), 2007 Toad Hollow Francine's Selection Unoaked Chardonnay (Mendocino, California), and a 2007 Morgan Metallico Unoaked Chardonnay (from Monterey, California). Yum!