Cheap Bordeaux for everyday drinking

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 8:56am

When people look for affordable, everyday drinking wines, they often overlook Bordeaux. In supermarkets, New World wines dominate with their strong branding, easy-to-understand labels and consistency in quality.

Locally, Bordeaux is often associated with the exorbitant prices fetched at auctions and media attention that focuses on the mainland's seemingly insatiable demand for luxury brands.

It is easy to forget that first growth producers represent only a tiny percentage of Bordeaux's production. This is France's largest wine region, with about 8,500 producers putting out 700 million bottles a year. British wine author Hugh Johnson says: "Twenty-four bottles of Bordeaux are now bought every second around the world."

But most of the volume is in lower-end wines. Selecting high-quality Bordeaux is a relatively simple task if money is no object. But finding the region's good-value wine for everyday drinking requires more time and effort. Here are a few tips for selecting "bargain" Bordeaux.

Bear the complex appellation system in mind when buying. There are 57 Bordeaux appellations. Adding to the complexity are multiple classification systems, which will have an impact on pricing depending on how the wine is classified. The first growths are some of the most expensive wines and include Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild. But for entry-level wines, look for labels marked "Bordeaux", which is generic Bordeaux and includes half the region's producers.

The designation "Bordeaux Superieur" is considered to be higher in quality to basic "Bordeaux", with higher minimum alcohol levels, lower yields and longer ageing requirements.

An appellation to look for is Cotes de Bordeaux. This was launched in 2009 and replaces four former appellations. The consolidation aims to simplify and help in promotion of a single appellation. Frederic Martin from the organisation Univitis, which represents Bordeaux producers, adds this to his other preferred appellations of Cotes de Bourg, Graves de Vayres and Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux.

Try wines from what Jancis Robinson calls the "unglamorous appellations". As with real estate, lesser-known areas offer better value than blue-chip names. If you prefer Bordeaux with a higher component of cabernet sauvignon in the blend, then try wines from Haut-Medoc, Medoc, Listrac and Moulis. For wines that are more, approachable and softer, try those from the "right bank", with a higher component of merlot in the blend. Stephen Spurrier of Decanter describes Fronsac as "the most underrated appellation in Bordeaux with the exception of Cerons".

Bordeaux is famous for its dessert wines from Sauternes. Better value alternatives include wines from Loupiac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont.

Second wines offer better value for money. Many of the top chateaux make several wines. For example, Chateau Latour's second wine is Les Forts de Latour, and its third wine is labelled Pauillac de Latour. Second wines may be made from younger vines, which are deemed to produce complex wines. They are fermented separately and differ in how long they are matured and the age of the barrel used.

At Chateau Lagrange in Saint-Julien, the top wine is aged for 21 months in oak, of which 60 per cent is new. This compares with the second wine, Les Fiefs de Lagrange, which is matured in oak for 13 months, 25 per cent in new oak. In terms of style, second wines may be more approachable, and have a shorter cellaring potential. They offer a more affordable option.

Weather and vintage conditions will affect the quality of Bordeaux wines. This is reflected in the pricing of some of the top wines. Wines from 2000, 2005 and 2009 have fetched stellar pricing. At the lower end, prices are less affected by the quality of the vintage.

In good vintages, wines from less illustrious regions and producers will deliver better quality wines at a lower price. For current releases, 2009 is a vintage worth trying. Robinson says: "The great appeal of the super ripe 2009 vintage is that it is so consistent, and there are great finds." Vintage 2010 is another classic, but the wines have firmer tannins and will require more time to open up.

Knowledge of the producer, its background and outlook on winemaking also helps in understanding the wines and to identify good value choices. Leoville-Barton is classified as a second growth whose wines are exceptionally high quality. It also has an excellent reputation for keeping wines reasonably priced.

Another well-established name is Francois Thienpont, whose family owns Le Pin, Vieux Chateaux Certan and Puygueraud and is a partner in Terra Burdigala, producing wines retailing from HK$100 to HK$200.

The good news is that with more competition from the New World, Bordeaux wines are improving even in the lower price range.

  • Terra Burdigala La Vigne d'Argent Bordeaux (white), HK$96,
  • Les Fiefs Lagrange 2007, Saint-Julien, HK$269, ParknShop