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mixed case: opinion and advice

How Do You Become an Expert in Bordeaux?

4 tips for getting a handle on this uber-famous, sort-of-complicated, not-always-pricey wine region
Photo by: Mark Weinberg

Posted: Nov 7, 2013 11:30am ET

By Jennifer Fiedler

It’s no secret that Bordeaux wines have a bit of a perception problem among U.S. consumers. In a 2012 blog post, senior editor James Molesworth, our lead taster for Bordeaux, said the Bordelais see the U.S. market “slipping away” on account of an “image issue, driven by the escalating prices of the top châteaus.”

A number of good reasons for exploring Bordeaux wines were outlined in that post, including a raft of under-$20 values, cellar-worthy wines at modest prices, stylistic diversity and a move to green farming and winemaking practices. But still, for many people just getting into wine, Bordeaux remains something of an unknown. How much does a consumer really need to know to buy a good bottle?

I asked Bernard Sun, corporate beverage director for Jean-Georges Restaurants, how he would recommend tackling the region. Here are his tips:

1. Forget memorizing the classified châteaus and instead concentrate on geography. Unless you have deep pockets, chasing the recognizable names is going to be too pricey, said Sun. Additionally, “with hundreds of châteaus to choose from, your local wine store or restaurant may not carry that one ‘name brand’ you are looking for.”

If you’re just starting out, it’s better to learn the subregions of Bordeaux and begin identifying what you like. Sun said, at the broadest, you can break the region into Left Bank (“robust, tannic and sometimes rustic style”) and Right Bank (“elegant and smoother”). From there, tease out the specific personalities in the major subregions: Margaux (“elegant”), St.-Estèphe (“tannic, rich and rustic”), Graves (“notes of tobacco, cedar and rocks”) and so on.

That way, Sun said, “if you like Pauillac wines, you can walk into a store or a restaurant and ask for wines from Pauillac. With a hundred-plus châteaus in each subregion to choose from, you will have a better chance to find something you like and maybe even in a price point that you like as well.”

2. Don't limit yourself to outstanding and classic-rated vintages. Those matter most when you’re looking to collect for pleasure or profit, but prices can be steep. “The so-called ‘off’ vintages often offer great value as the demand is not as high, and many times these wines are delicious, as they will reach their optimal drinking peak earlier rather than 20 years later,” said Sun. (Looking at the WineSpectator vintage charts, 2008 offers very good, fresh, early-drinking reds, while the great vintage of 2010 for example is stronger across the board but listed as "Hold.")

3. Look for value in lesser-known subregions. “On the Right Bank, the wines of St.-Emilion are often fairly expensive, with the wines of Pomerol even more so. The satellite [next-door] regions of these two great appellations, such as Lalande de Pomerol and Puisseguin St.-Emilion, can offer great value.”

4. If you’re interested in testing the waters in the name-brand experience, look for the second or third labels from respected châteaus. “They are usually much less expensive than the grand vin, and these secondary labels are made by the same winemaker with the same care,” said Sun. (WineSpectator.com subscribers: Here’s James Molesworth's list of eight of the best second wines.)

What do you think of these tips? What would you recommend for someone just getting into Bordeaux?

Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  November 7, 2013 1:13pm ET
I definitely agree with point number two. The great vineyards very rarely "have a bad year" and still produce great wines even in a so-called "off" vintage. My favorite Bordeaux examples are the 2004 Cos d'Estournel (which I was able to pick up for $79) and the 2006 Chateau Clinet (just $49!!). The price difference between what these cost, as opposed to the "better" vintages is absolutely ridiculous!
James Stevens
Kansas City, MO USA —  November 9, 2013 8:08pm ET
Wine growing is still farming. I grew up with farmers/ranchers and it is similar. In great vintages, the CB have great wine, just like in a great growing season, even marginal land grows 180 bushel corn. In great vintages I buy the better of the CB on the cheap. In worse vintages, the top ones are still pretty impressive, just cost less. Nonetheless, I still felt compelled to buy some 2010 Ponte Canet, just because.

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