During my trek about Bordeaux last week I grew increasingly fond of the modestly priced wines designated "Bordeaux" and "Bordeaux Superieur." Numerous times, I was startled when a winemaker said the strikingly harmonious wine we were sampling cost just 5 or so euros in France, the equivalent of about $7 here, though shipping and distribution fees in the U.S. would boost the final price tag at least a few dollars. At the same time, however, I grew frustrated in hearing Bordeaux producers say that many of the wines we were enjoying were unavailable in the United States, or that their distribution pretty much was limited to regional markets keen on French wine, most notably the Eastern Seaboard and Texas.
Though the California wine market runs largely to California wines, understandably, the state's wine enthusiasts long have had a broadly eclectic palate, and today the sale of New Zealand, Italian, Spanish, French and other foreign wines remain strong in the state. It will take some looking, but wine consumers with a palate for distinctive wines at accessible prices should keep an eye out for the French wines simply labeled either Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur.
A few broad tips:
For one, when approaching Bordeaux wines be prepared to recalibrate your California palate to appreciate wines that generally are leaner, drier, sharper, less oaky and more subtle than what you are accustomed to. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines aren't fruit bombs. Fruit is there, but only occasionally is it bombastic. Often, oak won't be part of the equation at all. In their youth, they can be a bit more tannic than California wines of equal age. They aren't sipping wines, but are styled to go with food, which tempers the tannins.
Secondly, Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines most often are red wines, but don't ignore whites, roses and the category called "clairet," which customarily is a bit weightier and fruitier than roses but softer and less intense than more deeply colored releases. Also consider the Bordeaux style of sparkling wine called "cremant," made like Champagne and equally as vigorous and refreshing. While Bordeaux is recognized largely for its red wines, winemakers have made tremendous strides both in the vineyard and in the cellar to secure a market for these other styles.
Third, watch especially for reds from the 2005, 2007 and 2009 vintages, which over the past decade produced the most consistently balanced, lively and lengthy wines I tasted.
That said, here are a few specific Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines I can recommend without qualification:
- Chateau Recougne 2005 Bordeaux Superieur: What a marvelously elegant merlot-based wine, which long after the glass is empty continues to echo about cherries, plums and tobacco. In France, you can pick it up for just 10 euros.
- Chateau Penin 2007 Les Cailloux Bordeaux Superieur: Totally merlot, and not shy about saying it. This is an unusually dark, juicy and complex Bordeaux Superieur, with a texture delightfully supple and a whiff of smoke not often encountered in the region's wines.
- Chateau de la Vieille Chapelle 2007 Bordeaux Superieur: A blend of 80 percent merlot and 20 percent cabernet franc, this invitingly perfumey wine speaks of plums, anise and cherries, all draped on a sturdy frame.
- Chateau de Parenchere 2007 Bordeaux Superieur: Made in the "classic" style, meaning no oak influence whatever, this is all fresh fruit, mostly cherries wrapped around a minerally core. There's 1 percent malbec in the blend, evidence that Bordeaux's forgetten variety is staging something of a comeback. The rest of the wine is 65 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 4 percent cabernet franc.
- Chateau de Parenchere 2007 Cuvee Raphael Grand Vin de Bordeaux: While lean, this is a wine with which Californians easily can identify, given its 16 months in French oak casks and the brightness of its cabernet sauvignon and merlot fruit. Despite the ripeness of its fruit, it comes in at just 13.5 percent alcohol.
- Chateau Couronneau 2008 Bordeaux Superieur Cuvee Pierre de Cartier: An amazingly complex wine that sells in Europe for just 10 euros. It's at once frisky yet lush, its sweet fresh fruit running to blackberries and plums, with a dusting of cocoa. It's also warm, with 14.5 percent alcohol, unusually high for the style.
- Chateau Pierrail 2008 Bordeaux Superieur: Merlot and cabernet franc don't often come with this much power and grace, especially at less than 10 euros the bottle. But also keep an eye out for the Chateau Pierrail 2009 Bordeaux Superieur, a shade richer and spicier than the 2009.
- Chateau Lamothe Valentine Par Valentine 2009 Bordeaux: For a change of pace, a white, and one with enough weight, smoke and sweet fruit that chardonnay lovers could fall for it. It's a blend of 85 percent sauvignon gris and 15 percent muscadelle.
- Chateau Lamothe 2008 Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux: I'm a sap for eucalyptus and mint in my Bordeaux-inspired wines, and this is shot through with it. And with just 12 percent alcohol, it's a blend (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc) you could drink at lunch.
- Chateau de Brondeau 2007 Bordeaux Superieur: Sleek and spirited, with a merlot foundation that carries an undercurrent of herbalness to compliment the variety's red-fruit flavors.
- Chateau de Bel 2009 Bordeaux: One of the more exotic and more modestly priced wines we tasted (7 euros). While it is solely merlot it's both broad shouldered and almost feral in its attack of juicy fresh fruit.
- Chateau Le Grande Verdus 2007 Bordeaux Superieur: A brilliantly colored blend of 60 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent cabernet franc, here's a take at once forthright yet accessible, its fully ripe fruit presented in a package that is all about equilibrium and pleasure.
- Chateau Bellevue 2009 Bordeaux Rose: Looks, feels and tastes as if it could have come out of the South of France, it's that dry and refreshing, but it's all Bordeaux cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec.
- Chateau Ballan-Larquette 2007 Bordeaux: I had to do a double take in looking at the bottle, but the sticker on it did indeed say the wine won a gold medal at the Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition. Probably for its approachability, as well as its freshness, balance and intriguing notes of tobacco leaves still drying in the barn.
In the Sacramento area, the best bets for finding these or other Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines likely will be the BevMo chain of wine stores, Total Wine & More in Roseville, and Corti Brothers in Sacramento.