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Get to Know Bordeaux

People are saying that Bordeaux is losing its prestige, but there's a whole new world of inexpensive and interesting Bordeaux wines

Posted: May 19, 2010 12:00pm ET

I read with interest Eric Asimov's well-reported story in today's edition of the New York Times, "Bordeaux Loses Prestige Among Young Wine Lovers," and I felt sad that so many wine lovers in my country don't appreciate the good value that exists in Bordeaux. Moreover, most of these well-priced reds and whites are almost all made by people with dirt on their boots and wine stains on their hands. They are not suits. They are ragged jeans and t-shirts.

I understand many people's perception that Bordeaux is expensive. So much information on France's premier wine region is focused on the very top echelon producers. Many of them sell their wines for astronomical prices. So very few of us can afford to buy them.

I always tell the Bordelais that when I started visiting Bordeaux as a young reporter in the 1980s, they all said that the top estates of the region were the locomotives that pulled the train carriages. In other words, the top wines of Bordeaux grew the prestige of the region, enabling the lesser wines to be sold.

This has all changed. I argue that the top wines actually diminish the reputation of the region by giving the perception that all Bordeaux wines are expensive. Or looking at it another way, the top estates no longer promote the region as a whole, but only a tiny segment, maybe 2 or 3 percent of the total. In other words, the train left the carriage at the station a long time ago.

I am, of course, not talking about quality. The top names in Bordeaux are some of the best viticulturists and winemakers in the world. They have the knowledge and the resources to do just about everything to perfection. And they are examples to all premium winemakers in the world.

But it's a very small reality of Bordeaux. Most wine producers are struggling to make and to sell their wines, as prices for their simple reds and whites are at an all-time low. Something like 50 percent of all Bordeaux sells for $6, or less, a bottle from the cellar. Bulk wine is less, about $1 or $1.50 a liter. Bottles of French water cost more in the States. It's crazy.

Whatever the case, I am going to do my best to bring you closer to the reality of  family-run, down-and-dirty winemakers from Bordeaux, and most of their wines cost from $20 to $40 a bottle. They are in areas such as St.-Emilion, its satellites, and a number of other less-known appellations such as Côte de Blaye and Côte de Bourg. I think these wines are worth knowing and worth drinking.

There's a whole new world in Bordeaux that's fun, interesting and making delicious wines, and they don't have to cost you a fortune.

Thomas Matthews
New York City —  May 19, 2010 5:38pm ET
A well-known blogger, commenting on Asimov's article, wrote that "Frankly, Bordeaux has a problem, which I can sum up as follows: there's not enough really good wine being made there, the really good stuff is so unbelievably expensive that it's out of reach for most people, and the affordable stuff that is good really isn't great without a number of years on it. All of which is a bit of a non-starter for entry level, attention-deficit wine lovers..."

It makes me sad to think that someone who calls himself a "wine lover" would fail to find the interest in a wine region that claimed the loyalty of Samuel Pepys, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. But frankly, I think the problem doesn't really lie in the wines. Yes, it takes time and effort to appreciate Bordeaux. That's true of many of the best things in life.
Sergio Gonzalez
Los Angeles, CA USA —  May 19, 2010 6:52pm ET
James,
thank you for giving this subject a real authoritive voice.

I've had this same discussion, with friends, whenever I present an inexpensive young bordeaux at our gatherings. They all have the preconception that all bordeaux are very expensive and overhyped.

I agree, with you, that there are many lesser known bordeaux producers making excellent wines. I've been sampling quite a few of these lately, based on your reviews and the recommendations on your online postings.

James, do you see believe that the cru classifications might be in need of a re-classification?
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  May 19, 2010 8:44pm ET
Oh the blasphemy!

"Bordeaux, some young wine enthusiasts say, is stodgy and unattractive. They see it as an expensive wine for wealthy collectors, investors and point-chasers, people who seek critically approved wines for the luxury and status they convey rather than for excitement in a glass."

I'm in my early 30's and have not had as profound of an experience like I do when drinking Bordeaux. The chicken skin I get off a '89 Haut-Brion is priceless. The empyrean feeling I get off of a ’70 Palmer actually left me speechless. Those are moments that I’ll never forget and feel very passionate about . There are great values, prestigious bottlings and off vintages where second and third growth wines are affordable and a pleasure to consume at a younger age.

Mr. Asimov's article is very slanted and lacks any historical significance. Bordeaux epitomizes class in a glass along with value. Whichever you are looking for, you can find in Bordeaux.
Lyle Kumasaka
Arlington, VA —  May 19, 2010 9:58pm ET
Part of the problem, at least in my area, is that value at wholesale does not translate to value at retail.

In the DC metro area, even the "value" Bordeaux in the $20-$40 (release price) range seems to be priced at a large premium to wines of similar quality from other areas. It is rare to find anything at the prices shown in the WS reviews.
Timothy C Mooney
Arlington, Virginia —  May 19, 2010 10:22pm ET
I was on of the buyers driving the mid 80s, early 90s Bordeaux surge Asimov referenced. While cellaring for 5+ years paid rich dividends on several bottles, more resulted in frustration over either not maturing sufficiently or ruination through inadequate cellar conditions.

Furthermore Bordeaux veritably cries out for the accompaniment of large slabs of undercooked red meat. With the dramatic changes in most American diets evidenced by the rise in vegetarianism, ethnic and fusion cuisine seen in recent years occasions for a claret pairing have diminished considerably.

The Bottom line is that Americans having the globe's most open wine market with seemingly exponentially increasing consumer choice are in an unprecedented position to find their optimal personal palate profile. The fact that for most young oenophiles, this profile has little to do with the structure and balance provided by Bordeaux should not be surprising.

However, that said I appreciate James commitment to evangilizing the virtues of the smaller (more affordable) unknown producers and look forward to tasting some clarets that don't require a long term financial and emotional investment.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  May 20, 2010 2:42am ET
Timothy brought up some good points which makes me wonder about vegetarianism and the rise of ethnic cuisine in the US. I have not had red meat or pork since last millennium and am in fact mostly vegetarian (I do eat some fish and poultry). Am I one in a million in that regard; to love Bordeaux and not eat red meat? Are there others like myself?

I believe that an enjoyable Bordeaux, or other heavier reds, can stand on it's own.
Marchello Chacchia
Connecticut —  May 20, 2010 8:06am ET
For this vintage, my plan is to explore several of James' $20-$40 recommendations, in addition to the small handful of better known chateaux that I have enjoyed in the past. I hope I am able to source these wines and find myself in agreement with him in a few years when I am finally able to taste for myself. Thank you James for your insight and sensitivity to the consumer's reality.
Scott Oneil
Denver, CO —  May 20, 2010 10:03am ET
It's an interesting notion that the First Growths and company (Cheval Blanc, Petrus, etc.) USED to drive the train but no longer do. Perhaps if the train is to speed along once again, it will have to be driven by the apparent top-level quality of lower-priced lower growths. I'm very interested to see Mr. Suckling's recommendations for high-quality, artisanal Bordeaux at the affordable prices he mentions above.

With all due respect to Mr. Matthews (and others), however, the attitude that we - the wine lovers not worshipping at the Bordeaux altar - should love Bordeaux because far greater men than ourselves (who lived centuries ago) loved it is EXACTLY what so many of us find off-putting. Shame on us blasphemous fools. Our opinions are slanted and lack historical significance. Just ask Thomas Jefferson. This is the age of, "Show me the goods, and I'll form my own opinion," not "I'll like it because I'm SUPPOSED to like it." If Bordeaux is to win a wider, younger audience, it won't be by relying on that attitude.
Stephen Stewart
new mexico  —  May 20, 2010 3:15pm ET
Well said james,its time people understood some of the great wines you can get from Bordeaux that don't cost an arm and a leg. Most of my american friends only want to drink california wines. I feel sorry for them because they don't know what they are missing.
Cheers
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  May 20, 2010 3:54pm ET
I own a small wine shop in Nashville, TN, and I have already sold almost 150 cases of 2009 Bordeaux futures, so, at least in my little corner of the world, the perception that people are no longer interested in Bordeaux is inaccurate.

And, the majority of the sales is highly-rated wines in the $25-$50 range. These seem like very good values to me.

And the really sexy wines haven't been offered yet!
John Brody
Montreal Canada —  May 20, 2010 5:55pm ET
Bordeaux wines need to be aged. Very few if any are good upon release. I don't mind cellering wines for years to come but I think most want to drink what they buy right away. The quality of modern winemaking has led to a bevy of fine wines from Argentina Sothern Rhone and yes California,to name a few,that are ready to drink upon release yet age well. If Bordeaux wants to compete for this market the styles of the $20-$50 are going to have to be more accessable upon release. The style seem to be shifting that way but very slowly.
John C Winkelmann
Cincinnai —  May 20, 2010 8:00pm ET
I also found Asimov's article a little dismaying. But it is impossible to deny that the barrier to Bordeaux appreciation is very high. The shadow cast by the unaffordable top tier wines blots out the sun for all the smaller, value producers in Bordeaux. I agree with JS that the train linking them to First Growths must be uncoupled if high quality value Bordeaux wine makers are going to thrive in the 21st century.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  May 20, 2010 9:07pm ET
James i would love to read about your experiences visiting these smaller estates, much as the other editors do for their beats. JM does a great job giving us, the readers, background on some of the estates he visits.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  May 20, 2010 9:43pm ET
With regard to Asimov's article I have a few ideas to win over the younger generation. In addition to making the wines of Bordeaux drinkable in their youth I would suggest every bottle come with 3 free music downloads, scratch and sniff cologne or perfume, changing all the labels to the color black, instead of pictures of Chateau's they could have pics of Ford Mustangs, couples kissing, cute fuzzy animals, some hot babes, and maybe with every case purchase you could win some prize, like a guest appearance on dancing with the stars....hey if Pamela can do it so can you! Those old French names are boring as well. La Mission Haut who cares....how about something fun like those Marilyn Monroe or Old Maid bottles you see. There has to be some French word similiar to those Bitch! bottles I see on every endcap. La Tour de Generation X....sounds great. OK, rant over.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  May 21, 2010 12:38am ET
Karl,
your "rant" was classic and so true.
Cheers!
William Delaney
Arlington VA —  May 21, 2010 1:47pm ET
Great post and reader comments. The one thing I would add is that I am surprised at those Americans who find the Bordeaux labeling confusing or the French classification system daunting. Have you ever tried to decipher the lineup at a good American winery like Turley or Marcassin? There are a bewildering number of single vineyard bottlings that require at least as much specialized knowledge as does figuring out the Bordeaux classification system. And good luck finding a decent California cabernet under $30. James, please continue to do your part to publicize those smaller Bordeaux producers who are making great wine. Cheers all. Bill
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  May 21, 2010 1:48pm ET
Scott,

I'm not suggesting you should like Bordeaux because Thomas Jefferson liked it. Of course you should explore your own palate and make up your own mind. But do you completely dismiss the ability of friends, teachers and role models to help you learn? Is there no value in history? I'm suggesting that when a wine region has commanded the interest of people like Jefferson, it perhaps has something to offer people like us.
Jason Carey
willow, ny usa —  May 21, 2010 6:04pm ET
I spent a year living in Paris, and I used to buy the Chateau Lamartine Cotes du Castillion constantly It was about 6 bucks at Cave des Abbesses. Maybe its 10 now, but that was a wonderful soft easy to drink wine yet that actually tasted like real wine. Not all Bordeaux is overpriced that is good.
Marc Hall
Los Angeles, CA —  May 21, 2010 6:29pm ET
I consider myself a relatively young wine drinker at the age of 29. I began purchasing Bordeaux starting with the 2000 vintage when I right was out of college and barely had 2 nickels to rub together. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to experience aged Bordeaux at a young age because of my father's generosity. I don't think it is so much an issue of young people not appreciating Bordeaux as it is an issue of young people not appreciating wine in general. I find that many of my peers knowledge of wine does not extend beyond red or white. Many seek something out which is simple and "chuggable". I have tried exposing my friends to great wines at dinner parties in hope of giving just one person their epiphany wine experience, only to see ice cubes put into their glass of $100 a bottle Cabernet. I think wine appreciation requires too much thought for some people. In an age where most people spend half their life on the internet, to spend a few minutes learning the difference between Margaux and Pomerol is an unthinkable waste of time. Another major obstacle that Bordeaux faces is, in general, they don't drink as well young as their California counterparts. Cellaring wine is an inconvenience for individuals with limited income or limited living space. Even I get frustated by the amount of room taken up in my wine refrigerator by Bordeaux which I don't intend to drink for several years. Although, I must admit this hasn't swayed me from purchasing '09 futures. There seems to be more value than ever before based on early reviews and the offers I have been receiving.
James B Morgan Jr
Cleveland, Ohio —  May 22, 2010 10:12am ET
James - your comments come at an intriguing time. I have been reviewing futures offers for several weeks now of the "lesser" wines of bordeaux. I find myself wondering if I'm over spending for the big names each year when there may be a lot of quality in the smaller, value producers. I look forward to your reports on the lesser names. I hope they come soon!
Sergio Gonzalez
Los Angeles, CA USA —  May 22, 2010 11:23am ET
Marc Hall:

Very well put. I also present wine to friends in an attempt to give them their wine epiphany.

You might want to re-consider your method of preserving your bordeaux. Your refridgerator's temperature fluctuations may damage your wine. For myself, I have a small home wine refridgerator for wine to be consumed now. And, I have an off-site wine storage facility where I keep wines for long term storage. There are several inexpensive sites in the Los Angeles area for about $10-$30 per month.
Scott Oneil
Denver, CO —  May 22, 2010 1:43pm ET
Thomas,
I appreciate your response, both for the fact that you bothered to offer an explanation and because I believe that this is a worthwhile argument. Of course friends, mentors, historical figures, critics – really any informed opinions – are all worthwhile sources of guidance and education in any subject, but your argument sounded to me more like the ‘history proves our greatness’ argument, which is the attitude I think they need to shed. As I stated in Bottmfishr’s thread in ‘Wine Conversations,’ the image that Bordeaux (or at least the headliners) has relied on – the establishment, wealth, displays of wealth, exclusivity (through both pricing and artificial scarcity) – is seen as unappealing, even distasteful, to the younger American market. There's a much stronger counter-culture, don't-follow-the-crowd impulse in younger generations that see Bordeaux as 'the establishment'... of our parents. Now it's far more attractive to seem savvy (finding unique, artisanal wines made by the owner) than wealthy (drinking big-business wines defined by an 1855 classification, or chasing scores of an international guru-critic).

I do, in fact, want to learn what I can about wine from Thomas Jefferson. What I’ve learned is that after he left the white house, Jefferson’s financial situation demanded that he be more sensible with his wine purchases, so he, “…replaced his Chateau Margaux with more affordable wines from southern France and Italy…” Hey, that’s just what I do! :D ;) My question is: If Bordeaux pricing were as exorbitant in the late 1700s as it is today, would Jefferson have ever known a Margaux at all (2005 release price was $1080!)? The product Jefferson bought, both in its character and in its economic relationship to society, was QUITE different from the Margaux and Haut Brion of today. To be sure, they were considered expensive to him as well, but I’m not convinced that Jefferson would have ever purchased them if they priced their wine then as they have since the 2000 vintage, so there’s more than a little irony in mentioning Jefferson as further evidence of why they should hold our interest as well.
Scott Oneil
Denver, CO —  May 22, 2010 6:11pm ET
[edit] My apologies: my above list of attributes of the image Bordeaux (IMO) has promoted should read " the establishment, displays of wealth, exclusivity...", not "...wealth, displays of wealth..." I didn't edit my own post very well, but I'm not nearly as critical of wealth as the post might suggest. :D
Morgan Dawson
Rochester, NY —  May 23, 2010 8:55am ET
I spoke to half a dozen wine-loving friends, all in their 30s. They offered an interesting take on the matter.

First, they don't drink much Bordeaux. Second, they all offered roughly the same reasoning: They don't need to drink the top producer's wine all the time, but they like being able to afford some solid, mid-level producers, while knowing that on certain occasions they can step up and buy the best of that region. They simply don't feel like this scenario is possible with Bordeaux. (For what it's worth, they offered the same concerns about Burgundy.)

It makes sense to me. High-end Bordeaux is out of reach for me. But high end CdP, or Cote-Rotie, or Piedmont... and that's before we even get to the tremendous value of regions like Loire.

Put more simply: I'll take a $50 Barbaresco or Cote-Rotie over a $50 Bordeaux most days. But that doesn't mean it's the right mentality to have. Tom's points about historical figures falling in love with Bordeaux is important, but remember, those historical figures were drinking the First Growths, generally.

Cheers on a thoughtful post.

Evan Dawson
Finger Lakes, New York
Joel Wenger
Cincinnati, OH —  May 24, 2010 8:33pm ET
To Matt Scott:

The point of Mr. Suckling's article is not that first growth Bordeaux is not glorious, but rather affordable Bordeaux's inability to capture the young palate. Your comment references legendary first growth Bordeaux (89 Haut Brion, 70 Palmer). Given it's exclusivity, whether availability or price, its not a typical wine drinkers experience. You are very fortunate to experience aged, first growth Bordeaux. For myself, I am waiting on my 2000 Lafite Rothschild and Margaux to age for that "chicken skin" experience. Those are rare bottles. Given the pricing climate, I seek out relative values such as Chateau Pontet-Canet, Gloria, Lascombes, or Leoville Barton. Even those wines do not speak to the quandary that Suckling postulates. There is a real danger to top wines, not now, but several years out, if entry level wines do not capture the hearts of
young afficianados. There is plenty of competition for the discriminating wine taster. If Bordeaux loses the hearts and minds of the younger, growing population, it risks the danger of diminished influence in the wine community and marketplace. On one hand, I hope this evolution comes to be, as I may be able to grab coveted Bordeaux at a fire sale price.
Mark Kurz
Yokohama, Japan —  May 25, 2010 10:04am ET
James - Interesting that your post comes just after an adulation of an Haut Brion vertical in your previous blog...wines that sell at such premiums that they've been priced out of reach of most of us: "Wine Spectator" couldn't be a more appropriate name, as most of us can only watch from the outside looking in. If you truly will be bringing more attention to these small struggling (but quality) producers, I'm all for it so we can be knowledgeable Drinkers instead of Spectators. In fact, how 'bout keeping yourself honest in the blog by posting not only your scores but also a typical market price for the wine that you're referencing. If you spend too much time commenting about >$100 bottles, then maybe it's time to go "down market" a bit with your selections. It may be less glamorous, but it'll provide more balance and better serve a larger percentage of your readers. Check out CarAndDriver, they've interspersed their test drives of BMW, Porsche, and RollsRoyce with downhome products like Ford, Chrysler, and Kia.

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