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.
    meritage_assoc

    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)

A visit to the Ancient Peaks tasting room

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | Comments Off on A visit to the Ancient Peaks tasting room

On a recent trip to Paso Robles, and nearby Santa Margarita, Mitch and I stopped into the Ancient Peaks Winery tasting room.  The stop made our schedule because I've been curious about Zinfandel lately (I don't like most of what I've tried) but the Paso Robles area is known for their Zinfandel and Ancient Peaks is, too. I suppose the biggest disappointment of the visit was that the 2006 Zinfandel was sold-out. This is most likely because the annual Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival was the weekend before we arrived. Oh well, better luck next time.

ancient-peaks-winery-logo

The tasting fee was $5 which was a fair price for the amount of wine we tasted. No souvenir glasses here but that's okay because we're running out of room. We chose to do one of each of their available tastings, so that means one Estate Wines tasting and one Limited White Label Collection tasting. In a rather unusual turn of events, the more expensive the wine got the less we liked it. The Estate Wines seem fairly priced and would make nice table wines. The Limited White Label Collection left much to be desired considering the $35+ price-point. Here's what we tasted and what we thought about it:

2007 Ancient Peaks Sauvignon Blanc, $12 per bottle

ancient-peaks-2007-sb-smallWhat they say: Vivid aromas of pear, gooseberry, and lemon zest. The pear impression continues on the palate, accompanied by integrated flavors of melon, pineapple, and green apple. The texture is bright and fresh, finishing with a crisp acidity.

What Jess said: Nice. Light on the nose. A hint of apple. Kinda zippy… nice. Actually, it was nice enough I bought two bottles of it because at $12 a pop, it's a very nice white to have kicking around the house for salad-night.

What Mitch said: Slightly bitter, not unpleasant, light, easy nose.

2006 Ancient Peaks Merlot, $16 per bottle

ancient-peaks-2006-merlot-sWhat they say: High-toned aromas of black cherry and blueberry with hints of cola. A smooth, silky texture brings flavors of black currant, blueberry, mocha, and vanilla cream. The finish is cool and velvety, with hints of blackberry and clove spice.

What Jess said: Buttery popcorn on the nose, buttery in the mouth. Cherry. Also nice. We tried it a second time and I found it less exciting the second time around.

What Mitch said: Tarry finish at the back of the mouth, but light. More sour than bright.

2006 Ancient Peaks Syrah, $16 per bottle

ancient-peaks-2006-syrah-smWhat they say: Warm plum and spice aromas with smoky-earthy nuances. The palate bursts forth with bright rounded flavors of black cherry, plum, cola, and mocha. The finish lingers with long fruit and supple tannins.

What Jess said: Bacon on the nose. Big up front with a diminishing finish. I'm not crazy about this wine, and I found it a little boring (and I generally like Syrah, especially from this region).

What Mitch said: Uvula firecracker. First it's smooth, then it burns and finishes flat.

2006 Ancient Peaks Cabernet Sauvignon, $16 per bottle

ancient-peaks-2006-cs-smallWhat they say: Intense aromas of black fruits and leathery spice. The palate is deep and juicy, unfolding with ripe flavors of plum, cassis, black cherry, and mocha. Supple tannins are interwoven into a long, chewy finish.

What Jess said: Not much on the nose, but gentle and pleasant in the mouth. I thought it might be a little chocolatey. It had a long but delicate finish. Definitely tasted the Central Coast terroir in this Cab. We tasted this one a second time too, and it was notably sweet the second go-around.

What Mitch said: Pungent nose, flavorific but not heavy.

I found this on Bizrate for $12.95 if you'd like to give it a try.

2006 Ancient Peaks Malbec, $35 per bottle

ancient-peaks-2006-malbec-sWhat they say: Aromas of raspberry plum, rhubarb, and forest floor. Deep jammy flavors of boysenberry and blackberry anticipate accents of cedar, tobacco, and Asian spice. Juicy tannins embrace a supple, smoky finish.

What Jess said: Gentle on the nose, longer finish than the others, easy on the tannins, nice but not awesome. Maybe at $20 a bottle I'd feel differently.

What Mitch said: Medicinal nose, bright, crisp flavor, smooth.

2006 Ancient Peaks Petit Verdot, $35 per bottle

ancient-peaks-2006-pv-smallWhat they say: The 2006 Petit Verdot offers warm black fruit aromas with accents of lavender and pencil shavings. The palate bursts with fresh flavors of wild cherry, black currant, cola, and coffee with hints of peppercorn. Firm tannins are balanced with bright acidity for a clean, focused finish.

What Jess said: It's kind of like sour cranberry juice. A little acidic to my nose, maybe it just needs to be aged?

What Mitch said: Burnt berry nose. Smoky flavor all around.

2006 Ancient Peaks Petite Sirah, $35 per bottle

ancient-peaks-2006-ps-smallWhat they say: The 2006 Petite Sirah is loaded with exotic aromas of blueberry, cigar box, anise, white pepper and pomgegranate. Luscious flavors of blackberry, black cherry, vanilla bean, and cinnamon spice unfold along a big, chewy texture. Dusty tannins add structure to a long, juicy finish.

What Jess said: Blueberry and sesame on the nose. Chalky and sweet in the mouth. Another wine showing the strong Central Coast terroir.

What Mitch said: Pedestrian nose, like a dry Vina Santurnia

2006 Ancient Peaks Oyster Ridge, $50 per bottle

ancient-peaks-2006-or-small What they say: The 2006 Oyster Ridge is an artful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Zinfandel, and was crafted to exemplify our finest winemaking efforts. The bouquet brims with accents of black fruit, rose petal, toasty oak and graphite. A complex tapestry of flavors includes blueberry, blackberry, vanilla, mocha, and anise. Firm tannins and exquisite balance ensure that this wine will reward careful cellaring.

What Jess said: Smoky, like barbecue sauce. Smooth finish. We liked this one but without a cellar (or even proper wine refrigerator), we don't invest in wines this expensive. And we're not sure it was worth the $50 price tag.

What Mitch said: Mild nose, spicy finish. Hits at the back of mouth but is light on the tongue.