Menus & Entertaining

How to pick up a bargain Bordeaux

By: Anne Martin, Sommelier

Author: Canadian Living

Menus & Entertaining

How to pick up a bargain Bordeaux

By: Anne Martin, Sommelier
Picture the Bordeaux region: what do you see?
• Grand chateaux

• One-in-a-million vintages

• Fat wallets

If that's your image of this renowned French wine region, you may have a pleasant surprise coming.

True, the Bordeaux region does make some of the best and most expensive wines in the world, but luxury bottles account for only 5 per cent of the wines produced. Total production can, in good vintages, be enough to fill more than 900 million bottles. That's a lot of wine to sell. Plus, the wine world is getting crowded, and global competition means the region's producers are struggling to get noticed. All this means that there are great Bordeaux wines to be found for under $25.

What makes Bordeaux great?

Climate. The mild maritime climate creates wines that are subtle, refreshing and food-friendly – not in-your-face fruity blockbusters.

Great grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon may be the most famous of the region's grapes, but it's Merlot that accounts for most (40 per cent) of all vineyard plantings. These two red grapes complement each other: Merlot ripens earlier and gives the wines flesh, while Cabernet takes its time and provides the structure and aging potential. Cabernet Franc is the third most important red grape, followed (in much smaller quantities) by Petit Verdot and Malbec.

Blending. Bordeaux wines are almost always blended – 80 per cent of them reds – to ensure a consistent product despite the region's variable weather conditions. The blend will depend on which part of the region the wine hails from. On the left bank of the Gironde River (in places such as Margaux, Saint-Julien and Pauillac within the Médoc), wines are made mainly from Cabernet Sauvignon, which gives them firm tannins and a black currant flavour. On the right bank of the Gironde (in places such as Saint-Émilion and Pomerol), the emphasis is on Merlot, which makes for rounder, softer wines with plumlike flavours. Good-quality red Bordeaux wines age beautifully, becoming more harmonious and well-composed as time goes by.

Page 1 of 2 – Learn how to decode a Bordeaux wine label on page 2.Bargain Bordeaux bottles: Sweet and white varietals
Bordeaux also produces excellent dry white wines. They're worth seeking out. They are balanced, crisp and just as food-friendly as the region's reds. For the best bargains, look for bottles from Entre-Deux-Mers; for richer styles, try wines from Pessac-Léognan.

Bordeaux's sweet wines are also world famous – the best are Sauternes and Barsac. They are richly layered and thickly sweet without being cloying. This delicate balance is achieved by using grapes affected by Botrytis fungus (also called noble rot, which concentrates the grape sugars), aging the wines in oak casks, and the naturally high acidity of the grapes.

The grapes used to make both dry and sweet white wines are the same. They are mainly Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, with smaller amounts of Muscatelle and Ugni Blanc.

How to read a Bordeaux label
Bordeaux wine labels rarely tell you what kind of grapes are inside. Instead, they are labelled by their appellation (where they come from) and their classification. This can be confusing. But there's no need to fear. Simply look for these appellations to find good-value bottles.

AOC Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur. These wines make up 55 per cent of the region's total production. Supérieur must be a half a per cent higher in alcohol than regular AOC Bordeaux, and both can come from anywhere in the region. They used to have a bad reputation – people described them as thin and acidic – but this has changed due to more foreign investment in the area and the introduction of better winemaking techniques. That means you can still scoop up a bargain.

Wines from the "Côtes" (hillsides). These lesser known appellations were planted with vines in Roman times. The wines they produce don't have the finesse of fancy Haut-Médoc wines, but they offer great value and are ready to drink at a younger age. Look for names like Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Premières Côtes de Blaye and Côtes de Bourg.

Wines from around the Gironde River. These satellite regions, such as Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion on the right bank and Listrac-Médoc on the left bank, offer fine value at lower prices.

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How to pick up a bargain Bordeaux