Bordeaux: Not Just for the High Rollers

Paul Blow

Last May, Eric Asimov of the Times wrote a brutally direct piece that articulated something I too had been pondering: that to a large portion of American wine drinkers Bordeaux, the world's most famous wine region, "is now largely irrelevant." But perhaps it's starting to change.

Chateau Arnauton Bordeaux wine

In support of his argument, Asimov pointed to statistics that showed that Bordeaux consumption had dropped. He cited sommeliers and wine shop owners who neither care about nor stock Bordeaux and who claimed that their customers never ask for it. This might seem a serious problem for Bordeaux, except for the fact that the 2009 vintage was hailed as another one of the greatest ever (2000 and 2005 were also so lauded).

As someone who didn't come into wine-drinking until my 20s in the mid-'90s, Bordeaux was never on my radar. The famous ones (Latour, Petrus, etc.) were too expensive, and the sea of lower-priced Bordeaux was downright confusing. Add to that the fact that Bordeaux producers seemed to do little to no marketing, and for me and many other young drinkers there was never a face or a personality to associate with the region. Furthermore, every Bordeaux was just a permutation of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cab Franc at a time when the fascinatingly diverse wines of Italy were coming into their own, and I was discovering the variety from other French regions (the Rhône, Burgundy) and Germany, as well as American wines from Oregon, Washington, and Santa Barbara.

But nowadays, I find my interest in Bordeaux growing—at least for its more humble wines. Yes, some of the prices are stratospheric. But over the years the region has become one of the most reliable sources for well-made inexpensive wines. While subregions like Pauillac and St. Julien get the most press, there are lesser areas like Entre-Deux-Mers, Listrac, Fronsac, Blaye, and Bourg that produce lots of wine for prices between $8 and $20. Something like the Saint Genès is a wonderfully balanced, complex table wine that even from a vintage as celebrated as 2005 is still available for $12.99. The 2009 vintage of Arnauton (typically a good value), from the much overlooked region of Fronsac, is preselling for just $13.95. Even a wine from the subregion of Bordeaux Supérieur like Château de Reignac, which once held its own against first growths in a blind tasting I attended, is available for just $18.

In decades past such wines would have been iffy at best. They would have suffered from the green flavors of underripeness, teeth-crunching tannins, and barnyard aromas coming from unclean cellars. But today, thanks to advances in winemaking and viticulture, these wines are almost always balanced and polished, with pure, well-defined fruit. What I like about these wines too is that they offer a side of Cabernet that we don't see too often in Californian wines: restrained, unjammy fruit that is well integrated with a host of spice, earth, and mineral aromas. These Cabernet- and Merlot-based wines are also modest enough to be paired with foods other than rib-eye steaks, something I value on a weeknight when the goal is just to drink something cheap and tasty. And while most of them are not built for long cellaring, some even do have a chance to improve with two to four years of short-term cellaring.

While I don't see Bordeaux ever becoming a passionate pursuit of mine, I'm happy to spend a little time with it every now and then.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.