I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the wines of Bordeaux, a category many sommeliers have placed on the back burner because of the exorbitant prices of the top wines and the cumbersome manner in which the wines are distributed.
But a recent tasting for the Omaha wine trade that I hosted, along with fellow master sommelier and former Omahan Matt Stamp, revealed a number of affordable and high-quality wines that are available locally.
The city of Bordeaux is located on the banks of the Gironde estuary in France’s southwestern corner. The Gironde River and the region’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean results in a maritime climate perfect for cultivating the red grape varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, along with their blending partners Malbec and Petit Verdot.
Nearly 90 percent of all wine produced in Bordeaux is red, though the region also produces high-quality dry white wines and arguably the world’s greatest sweet wines from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
Bordeaux is a large area and produces wine second in volume only to that of the vast Languedoc region in the south of France. It’s useful to learn some of its subregions to more quickly remember where to look for the best values.
The Medoc and Graves are located on the “left bank” of the Gironde where you’ll find the astronomically priced “classified” wines of Bordeaux. The famous 1855 classification which still stands today ranked the chateaux wineries of these areas into five tiers or “growths” of quality, with five chateaux being named in the top category, known as premier cru. If you remember any of the wines ordered by James Bond throughout the years, you’ll know the five premier crus: Mouton-Rothschild, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion.
These, along with wines like Petrus and Cheval-Blanc in Pomerol and St-Emilion on the Right Bank, make up the very elite of Bordeaux, and emerging markets like China and Russia have pushed the prices for these wines into the stratosphere. But I’ve started to look recently at the so-called satellite appellations of Bordeaux where good quality wine has been produced for centuries, and these wines were the focus of our recent Omaha tasting.
Two such satellite appellations are Bourg and Blaye. One can expect the wines here to be produced from the exact same mix of grapes as the more prestigious areas mentioned above, but the wines will differ in one very important and notable way: they’ll generally be much less oaky.
Bordeaux is one of the areas of the world where aging wine, both red and white, in oak barrels is de rigeur, the 59-gallon barrique bordelaise is, in fact, the standard issue barrel for aging wine throughout the world. But while the top chateau can afford to age wines in brand new oak barrels every year, resulting in an oakier taste, wineries from the less-known appellations tend to use very little new oak.
Affordable appellations for white wine, both dry and sweet, exist as well. Look to Entre-deux-Mers where you can expect to find dry white wines with very little to no oak, but the refreshing citrus taste of Sauvignon Blanc. And while sweet wines from Loupiac, Ste-Croix-du-Mont and Cadillac may not have the intensity and longevity of Sauternes, they can be absolutely delicious at a fraction of the price.
2010 Chateau Bonnet Entre-Deux-Mers Blanc
This is a dry and refreshing white wine from the Entre-Deux-Mers. The blend consists of 50 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 40 percent Semillon and 10 percent Muscadelle. A reliable white wine value from Bordeaux. Bottled under screwcap.
Available at The Winery, $14.99/bottle
2009 Chateau du Moines Lalande-de-Pomerol
The Lalande-de-Pomerol appellation produces wines just to the north of the more prestigious Pomerol area. It’s a typical red Bordeaux blend based on Merlot and shows red plum fruit, floral aromatics and soft tannins.
Available at Corkscrew Wine & Cheese, $19.50/bottle
2008 Chateau Roumieu-Lacoste Sauternes
One hundred percent Semillon that has been affected by botrytis mold (that’s a good thing). Botrytis grows on grapes in humid conditions, piercing the skin and dehydrating the grapes making them very sweet and concentrated. Flavors of honey, baked apple, cream soda and spices. An excellent value sweet wine from Sauternes.
Available at La Buvette, $32/375ml bottle