Bordeaux Bargains - almost an oxymoron? The current issue of the Wine Spectator features "50 Best Bordeaux Below $50." James Suckling considers these "Great Value Reds" - maybe for Microsoft millionaires. Think of what you can get from Washington State for the same money. Think of what you can get in Washington for less money. Think of the Bordeaux you can get for less money. Suckling says " don't hesitate to request reasonably priced Bordeaux in your favorite restaurants." Where? The French Laundry? I don't think so! If you are lucky you will spring for a minimum of a hundred bucks, if not $150, in a restaurant for one of his fifty dollar bargains. And most of the wines he recommends are no longer available at the prices he lists. Imagine Matt Kramer complaining that wine bloggers recommend wines that are not available (check out Alder Yarrow's recent piece on Kramer and the Wine Spectator at: http://www.vinography.com/
This is the problem with French wines. They are either too expensive or too bad, sometimes both. And many are made in a style many Americans don't like - too much tannin, too much acid, too much "structure", too much "backbone", not fruit-forward, not smooth, round and voluptuous. When they are made fruit forward, with the help of such luminaries as Michel Rolland, they seem to lose character, witness the 2000 Reignac I reported on a while back. Mon Dieu, what's a person to do?
Well, in fact, there are some good values among Bordeaux including some on Suckling's list. The problem with buying Bordeaux is that most of us can't just fly 3000 -6000 miles to go to the wineries to taste the wines before we buy them forcing us to depend on tasting notes from the likes of Suckling and Robert Parker. And even if we did fly to Bordeaux some of the snouty wineries there wouldn't give us the time of day let alone a taste of their precious nectar. In my experience, by the way, Parker is way more reliable and he has come up with many good recommendations of great values in Bordeaux. The problem is that as soon as he recommends them the price goes up and they are no longer bargains. The other option is, if you see a bottle of Bordeaux that looks like a good value, buy a bottle, take it home and taste it that night, if you like it order a case the next day as it will probably disappear quickly.
Vintage matters much more with Bordeaux wines than with American wines. In Bordeaux, there is typically one great vintage per decade, one or two excellent vintages, four good vintages and three poor vintages. In the U.S. it tends to be just the opposite! There is usually only one bad vintage in a decade and the rest are usually quite good with some real standouts.Unusually, in Bordeaux, for example, 2000, 2003, and 2005 were great vintages pretty much across the board. In years such as these, sometimes many Cru Bourgeois are well made and relatively inexpensive. In "off" years such as 1999 and 2001, wines tend to be less expensive wines and some are well made. These lesser vintages can be a great source of good inexpensive wines. The French are not so hung up on great vintages, but then they don't have to order wine blind without tasting it first.
Most of the 2000 and 2003 wines recommended by the Spectator are no longer available except possibly through auctions and many of them are just not that good. Suckling touts the 2004 vintage, but the results still remain to be seen. So often a vintage is hyped as maybe not the greatest, but "classic" or a "value" vintage, only to end up on the slag heap of vintages as soon as the wine merchants have managed to unload it. When I was a poor student, I tried all the "lesser" appellations - Bordeaux, Bordeaux Superior, the St. Emilion satellites, the Pomerol satellites, the Cotes de Blaye, The Cotes de Bourg, etc,. They worked, sort of, for a poor student, but frankly, they lacked pizazz and interest. These wines have improved along with the rest of the wine world , but they are still not that exciting. In those days, the fantastic alternatives from the New World and Down Under were not available, so one made do. I mean, really, now if Michel Rolland manages to come up with a fruit forward wine from, say, the Cotes de Castillon, it's treated as God's gift to humanity when in fact there are hundreds of such wines from the new world.
Still there are relatively inexpensive winners in Bordeaux. Among Suckling's picks, many of which overlap with Parker's "sleepers", Bernadotte, Chasse Spleen, Fombrauge, Haut Batailley and Pipeau are usually winners. Pipeau, btw, is a pun - officially it means the musical instrument we call a recorder, but it has a slang meaning that can't be repeated here. Among my most reliable favorites are La Tour de By, Fourcas Hosten, Labedegorce Zede. Look for the 2005 vintage which will be available soon. These should still be priced in the twenties. Alternatively, you can buy delicious wines such as Fall Line, Cadence or Januik from Washington for thirty dollars a bottle. Much as I love these wines, I must admit that a good Bordeaux still has an edge for me. Yes, there are Bordeaux bargains, but it takes quite a search and the Wine Spectator may not really be the place to look.