"People don't understand Bordeaux," said Margaux Arbo, whose family owns Chateau Godard Bellevue in Francs Côtes de Bordeaux. "Here, we have the same terroir as Saint-Émilion," Arbo said, refering to the famed AOC whose top wines fetch hundreds of dollars. "In Francs Côtes de Bordeaux, we're only seven kilometers from Saint-Émilion. It's only a ten-minute drive." The difference? Chateau Godard Bellevue Rouge 2010 only costs around $20.
Arbo's tiny geography lesson backs up a point I am always trying to teach: If you want to find wine value, get a map. Look at the top wine regions, and then at the lesser-known regions surrounding it. That is where you find great wine at good prices. Even in Bordeaux.
Yes, Bordeaux. Is there any wine that intimidates more than Bordeaux? Even among friends of mine who are serious wine drinkers, Bordeaux feels like the schoolyard bully that no one wants to stand up to.
"I am totally totally intimidated by Bordeaux wines," sheepishly admitted one friend, a woman who feels totally at ease with wines as obscure as Spanish mencía or teroldego from northern Italy or vranec from the Republic of Macedonia. "I walk past that shelf in the store and all the Bordeaux bottles look exactly the same. Same colors, same scripty fonts, same gold leaf, same illustration of the damn chateau. It's always Château du Something Something. Château du Blah Blah Blah. Château du Frenchy French. How do I even know where to begin?"
When I raised the topic of Bordeaux with another friend, a beverage manager at a fine restaurant, he got seriously angry. "Ugh, why do I even care about Bordeaux?" he nearly shouted. "Who is able to afford it? Why don't they just sell it all to Chinese billionaires so they can mix it with Coca-Cola! I'll stick with the wines I love from Italy and Spain and the Loire Valley and everywhere else!"
I feel people's frustration. Every year, we are beaten over the head by an insider wine press that seems intent on helping Bordeaux hype how awesome it is.
I took the wine media to task over their Bordeaux hyperbole at TableMatters.com back in December. At that time, I asked: Can we all just finally admit that wine people are in desperate need of a reality check on Bordeaux? The sooner we do, we will all be better off. Even Bordeaux itself—the entire region and its thousands of wine producers, not just the expensive First Growths—will be better off. By focusing so much on the top end, Bordeaux has become almost entirely irrelevant to two generations of wine drinkers.
Bordeaux is a vast wine region of 8,500 producers and 54 different appellations, who make wine at all price points. About half of all Bordeaux wine sells for less than $6 per bottle. Any region that produces this many wines should make a few bottles we can affordably enjoy, right? Since that time, I have made a point to seek out value Bordeaux, bottles around $20 and under.
Lately, I have been singing the praises of the lesser-known appellations in Bordeaux – in particular Côtes de Bordeaux. A few weeks ago, in fact, I attended a small tasting with a few producers from Côtes de Bordeaux who were seeking importers in the U.S. I came away super excited about the wines, which ranged from $15 to 25. For the first time in a long time, I was actually excited about Bordeaux again.
For years, these regions have had a confusing mishmash of names: Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Francs, Côtes de Cadillac, Castillon – each one its own AOC. "People haven't understood that these wines were from Bordeaux," said Patrica Zabalza, director of the Unions Des Côtes de Bordeaux. "People thought, for instance, that Castillon was in Spain!"
This confusion played itself out in the marketplace, and outside of France there was little demand. While Bordeaux as a whole exports 40 percent of its wines, only 20 percent of wines from Côtes de Bordeaux are exported, and only seven percent to the U.S.
To clear up the confusion, four Côtes — Blaye, Francs, Cadillac and Castillon— joined together as a union in 2007. As of the 2009 vintage, all bottles must bear the general region name of Côtes de Bordeaux, in addition to the subregion. (Côtes, by the way, simply means "slope" in French).
Côtes de Bordeaux, like other Bordeaux reds, can be produced by blending merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and even malbec. I tasted a number of Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux, for instance, that had a significant amount of malbec in the blend. This blending, of course, is another reason why Bordeaux confounds Americans, who prefer wines produced from single grapes. "In Burgundy, it's easy: Pinot noir. But here, they don't understand the blend of grapes," Arbo said.
Once you begin to understand Bordeaux – the whole region -- there is plenty of value to be found. "People think Bordeaux is very expensive.," said Cyril Noel, sales manager for Chateau Tour Saint-Germain. "But when I meet people, I tell them, 'Mine is only twenty dollars," and they're surprised. They don't know they can buy a bottle of Bordeaux at $20."
Here are some Côtes de Bordeaux you can find locally:
Château Puygueraud Francs Côtes de Bordeaux 2009. $28.99 in Pennsylvania.
Dark, meaty, full of tobacco and leather, and with plum and cherry, with a dry, graphite finish. Soft and rich, and feels way more expensive than it is. 70% merlot, 25% cabernet franc and 5% malbec
Château Cabredon Côtes de Bordeaux 2009. $9.99 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill.
This cozy, velvet smoking jacket of a wine has a savory nose, with tobacco and cedar notes. Rich and silky, with lots of cherry, balanced by good acidity. 80% Merlot. 15% cabernet sauvignon, 5% cabernet franc. This is true value Bordeaux.
Château de Paillet-Quancard Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux 2009. $12.99 in Pennsylvania, $14.99 at Total Wine in Cherry Hill.
Balanced, bright, and savory. This is a Bordeaux you can drink with pizza. 80% merlot, 15% cabernet sauvignon, and 5% cabernet franc.
Château du Juge Premieres Côtes de Bordeaux 2010. $14 at Moore Brothers in Pennsauken, NJ.
Takes a while to open up, but once it does, this is subtle and balanced wine.
70% merlot, 30% cabernet sauvignon.
Château de L'Estang Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux 2009. $19.99 at Total Wine in New Jersey.
Rich, with ripe fruit and tobacco, and chewy tannins. 70% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon
Château La Rame "La Charmille" Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux 2009. $19.99 online from Jersey Wine Merchants.
65% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon