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The basics of buying Bordeaux

November 30, 2023

Even if you didn’t pay attention during history class, just about everybody has heard the name Napoleon. For me, more interesting than what he did for the French at large, is what he did for French wine.

The path to today’s Bordeaux vineyards is one that covers laws, wars, economic cycles, changes in attitude, and even changes in climate. These are obviously not the only events that have influenced today’s Bordeaux winemaking, but the seminal one, is that of law. Specifically, the Napoleonic Code.

Part of the legal changes implemented under Napoleon’s rule was that children became “protected heirs.” This means that children inherit part of an estate on the death of the parent, regardless of the parent’s residency (French or otherwise). The portion of the estate they inherit has certain dependencies, but that’s a discussion for a podcast later. What is most interesting is the difference between what happened in Bordeaux, how it differs from the impacts in Burgundy, and its impact in Bordeaux then and now.

Read Also: Banking on Bordeaux – examining both sides of the world’s most famous wine region

Napoleon could not have known that the Burgundians would physically divide up their land and pass on rows of vines to their heirs. Nor could he have guessed that the Bordelais would give shares of their property rather than splitting up the vineyards into physically small parcels. The net effect over time is that the larger parcels in Bordeaux have allowed vignerons to produce wines that are not so limited in supply that they are astronomically priced. That is not to say that Bordeaux has no expensive wine. Quite the opposite. The best vintages on some of Bordeaux’s prime real estate are out of price reach for the average consumer. But in Bordeaux, price is a better reflection of the quality of the wine than its scarcity.

Bordeaux

One does not need to spend a fortune to get good quality wine from Bordeaux.

The advent of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system led to the creation of seven regional AOC and many individual AOCs by location. Some of the most famous names can only be bought at auction. Today’s prices for wines from some estates can vary from hundreds to thousands of dollars, euros, or pounds!

The location of the estates relative to the main rivers in Bordeaux led to the phase “right or left bank” to describe the grape varieties in the wine. On the left bank of the Gironde River, in the Medoc region, Chateaux such as Margaux, Latour, and Lafite Rothschild are found. On the right bank of the Dordogne River, in the Libournais region, you will find Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. The commercial wine trade along these and other interlaced rivers across Bordeaux has flourished for generations. So much so, that the growth in vineyard diversity has led to more affordable, high-quality wines from vineyards across the entire region.

Bordeaux

Bordeaux wines are consistently some of the most sought after wines the world over.

Bordeaux has changed dramatically over the past 40 to 50 years. Vineyard owners are using technology to examine soil type to help determine grape varietal distribution. Rather than replacing entire vineyards with new varieties, a focus on the type of soil allows planting for the optimal result for each variety. Planting cover crops and ploughing rather than leaving the soils untilled, allows better soil aeration and reduction in pest infiltration. Organic and sustainable practices are fast becoming the norm in much of Bordeaux as consumer demand pushes the wine world to reduce chemical use. Value Bordeaux increasingly exists where vineyard understanding leads to better quality grapes and easier harvesting.

Stepping outside the most well-known AOCs offers a terrific opportunity to try excellent wines at approachable prices. Regions such as the Côtes de Bordeaux, Entre deux Mers, Fronsac, Saint-Emilion and its (four) Satellites, and Lalande de Pomerol offer an enormous variety at very reasonable pricing. These are not the only AOCs producing excellent quality wines at reasonable prices, but many are available in Canada and the US, and even with importation taxes can still be accessible.

The following is a small sample of options to look for, and as always, your personal preferences for style and flavour will influence your choice:


Côtes de Bordeaux

Formed in 2008, there are five Cotes de Bordeaux; Cadillac, Castillon, Blaye, Francs, and Saint Foy. Castillon and Francs are close to Saint-Emilion. Gravel predominates in Cadillac making it a location more suited to cabernet sauvignon. Merlot, cabernet franc and malbec can be found in the various communes as well as the white varietals sauvignon blanc, sémillon and muscadelle.

Sainte Foy – Côtes de Bordeaux – Château Pre La Lande Cuvee des Fontenelles

A cabernet franc dominant blend that adds merlot, this wine grower is biodynamic and vegan. Its price has dropped over the past seven plus years and it is a bargain at $15. The red fruits of cabernet franc are sharp raspberry and red currant, and the fact that they produce a wine with no sulfites makes this a must try for those who enjoy red wine with a softer profile.

Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux – Cheval Quancard

Château Paillet Quancard was founded in 1844 by Pierre Quancard. The château has expanded, and also produces wines in Saint-Emilion and the Médoc. At a decent entry level price point of $22, the Bordeaux blend offers a dry merlot and cabernet sauvignon dominant blend with some cabernet franc. A beef, poultry dish, or some sharp hard cheeses are a great accompaniment for this wine.


Entre-Deux-Mers

Sitting between the Dordogne and Garrone Rivers, Entre-Deux-Mers offers dry red and dry white wines and some sweet white wines. There are a variety of terroirs here due to the forested landscape and the lower minerality. Sauvignon blanc, sémillon and muscadelle grow well in Entre-Deux-Mers, as do the red varieties merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

Château Puyfromage Blanc – Entre-Deux Mers

A blend of sauvignon blanc and sémillon, this wine is a citrus, floral and green apple mélange. Refreshing and light with a lower abv in the range of 12 percent and some minerality, this wine offers excellent value at around $19 a bottle. Currently, the 2021 vintage is getting the highest critical reviews. It pairs well with almost any dish, and it complements vegetarian food, pork, and fish especially well.


Saint-Emilion Satellites

Lebegue Lussac, Saint-Emilion

A merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc blend that shows juicy black fruits like plum and black cherry and kicks in with some red fruit and cedar and vanilla as it bottle-ages. Any of the 2020 and newer vintages are a great buy. This wine does have some good acidity because there is limestone throughout Saint-Emilion so you will find a fresh minerality as part of this wine’s character. It pairs well with most beef and poultry dishes. Typically, priced at less than $25.

Château Bel-Air – Lussac, Saint-Emilion

Merlot (70%), cabernet franc (15%) and cabernet sauvignon (15%). Depending on the vintage, the dark fruits (black plum, blackberry) begin to lessen and will develop a backbone of vanilla, leather and tobacco that increases in strength. Cabernet franc favours the cooler clay soils here. Excellent value for money is typically less than $25 per bottle.


Fronsac

Château la Vieille Cure

This wine is now exclusively estate bottled. It is sold regionally and across more than 25 countries. Because the vineyards penetrate the clay subsoils on the limestone hills, the wines are complex and show red fruits such as red cherry and raspberry, and dark fruits such as blackberry and black plum. Aging introduces tobacco and earthiness. Wine has been produced on the property since the 17th Century but in recent times replanting and renovations have made this a modern vineyard. The wine pairs well with most beef, game, and poultry dishes and is very good value at around $44 per bottle.

Château du Bergey

Merlot is predominant in this Bordeaux blend. The 2019 vintage is getting particularly good reviews. The chalk and clay combination offers minerality and brings a roundness to the dark fruit of plums and blackberries. The proximity to Saint-Emilion and Pomerol cannot be ignored. The soil allows for water retention, but because the vintner leaves grasses between the rows of vines, in wet years the grass absorbs the water and stops the ground from becoming sodden and the grapes from being watery. Coming in at less than $45, this has a super quality to price ratio.


Lalande de Pomerol

Château Vieux Chevrol

Cabernet franc in a blend with merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Dark fruits dominate and the smooth tannins are rounded out by an almost creamy texture. Bottle-age adds some tobacco and leather with the 2020 vintage garnering some very good reviews from renowned critics. Its price has increased over 30 percent in the past 10 years, but it is still a good buy at approximately $34 per bottle.

 

– Gillian Marks, PhD is a French Wine Scholar and a contributing editor with VineRoutes

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