It may sound ludicrous or “let them eat cake” to say that Bordeaux wine is generally inexpensive and that it is for everyday drinking, given how much attention is paid to its most prestigious appellations such as Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux from the Left Bank; Pomerol and Saint-Émilion from the Right Bank; and Graves, Barsac and Sauternes in the south. It is a peculiar phenomenon that in East Asia, perhaps more than anywhere else, many oenophiles are more familiar with the Grand Cru Classé wines than Bordeaux wine in general.
Bordeaux wine has not always been expensive, for its meteoric rise only began in the late 70s and early 80s of the last century, then further propelled by globalisation, and not least parkerisation. Bordeaux wine is not expensive across the board either. A vast wine-producing region, indeed the second largest of France by production, Bordeaux is home to more than 7,000 producers and has just over 60 appellations. The Grand Cru Classé wines are but the tip of the iceberg, albeit the most prominent, and there are many, many gems of good value to be discovered.
Seasoned oenophiles would understand that there is a marginal diminishing return with regards to a wine’s price-quality ratio, and the radically shrewd ones might even consider the premium price of many of the Grand Cru Classé wines more related to investment value and social prestige than justifiable qualitative increment, i.e. Veblen goods. When the price of many Grand Cru Classé wines goes through the roof, the wines actually become an untouchable niche. This is not because of greedy châteaux and courtiers and négociants, but due to the market demand we create.
True oenophiles see wine as a daily necessity, no different from staple food that provides carbohydrates. Since the land of Cockaigne does not exist, within the realm of budgetary possibility, sensible ones would want maximum value for minimum cost. As Warren Buffett famously put it, “price is what you pay, value is what you get.”
In hunting Bordeaux bargains, there are perhaps three rules of thumb. First, lesser producers often make wines that punch above their weight in good vintages, e.g. 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010, but due to limited recognition, their prices remain relatively stable regardless of vintages. Second, rather than chasing Grand Cru Classé, try Saint-Émilion’s Grand Cru (NB: unrelated to Grand Cru Classé), or Médoc’s time-honoured Cru Bourgeois and its new Cru Artisan (established in 2012). Third, certain producers from lesser appellations adjacent to illustrious ones often offer comparable quality at a fraction of the price, e.g. Saint-Émilion’s satellites – Montagne-Saint-Émilion, Saint-Georges-Saint-Émilion, Lussac-Saint-Émilion and Puisseguin-Saint-
Émilion – as opposed Saint-Émilion proper, or Médoc, Haut-Médoc and Listrac-Médoc rather than the “Big Four” from the Left Bank.
Although not immediately apparent in its name, Fronsac is extremely close to Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, both geographically and stylistically. As is the case with the Right Bank, Fronsac mainly uses Merlot, complemented by Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Even in ordinary vintages such as 2006 and 2003, a well-made Fronsac can comfortably age for 15 years or so.
Château Villars 2006
AOC Fronsac, a blend of 84% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, matured in Allier oak barrels – 30% new – for 12 months. Reddish black with cardinal-carmine rim, the lush nose offers crème de cassis, clove, tobacco and forest mushroom. With copious acidity and juicy tannins, the plump palate delivers confit de cassis, vanilla spice, dark chocolate and sous bois. Medium-full bodied at 13.5%, the dense entry continues through a fleshy mid-palate, leading to a smoky finish.
Château Villars 2003
AOC Fronsac, a blend of 79% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, matured in Allier oak barrels – 30% new – for 13 months. Dark garnet with maroon-rosewood rim, the aromatic nose presents dried blackberry, crème de cassis, Christmas spice and forest floor. With generous acidity and supple tannins, the suave palate supplies damson, prune, coffea arabica and camphor. Medium-full bodied at 13.5%, the poised entry continues through a nuanced mid-palate, leading to a lingering finish.
Good value Bordeaux wines by petits châteaux are available in various wine shops and supermarkets.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain,
France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages