In the late 20th century, a common aphorism in wine circles was “Burgundy is just too hard to navigate.” For many of us, though, Bordeaux was more daunting, at least on the vin rouge side.
Fifty-plus appellations. More than 8,000 producers, many of them offering up more than one brand. Labels that all looked alike, and gave no clue about the grape composition. First growths and fourth growths and … arrggghhh. Make mine a familiar, friendly Napa cab, please.
You could pick up snippets that helped a little. The “Right Bank” of the Gironde River, especially St.-Emilion and Pomerol, specialized in merlot/cab-franc blends, while the rest was generally based on cabernet sauvignon. Wines from Medoc tended to have bitter, chewy edges. Vintages were important because the weather on the Atlantic coast varied, often mightily, from year to year.
But Bordeaux still required a great deal of work, and as wines emerged from many other corners of the globe, it became easy to just skip it.
Not anymore. Sort of.
The climate has gotten more consistently warm there, reducing vintage variation, and winemakers have moved toward a more approachable style. Consumers who have stayed with New World (non-European) reds no longer need to feel trepidation.
“I don’t think Bordeaux is outside the comfort zone of California lovers, and hasn’t been for several years,” said Mitch Zavada, wine buyer at South Lyndale Liquors in Minneapolis. “Bordeaux can be seen as stuffy or boring, and it really shouldn’t be. It will introduce some new flavors, especially where cab franc is involved, but the wines overall will seem familiar. Call it ‘safe excitement.’ ”
For today’s neophytes, Zavada added, “plain old Bordeaux can be an easy-to-love, refreshing and tasty red, and well-chosen Bordeaux can move into great value territory as quickly as anything. I would approach it as any unfamiliar wine — leave expectations aside and take it for what it is; try a few and see if it appeals to you. It won’t take long to get an idea whether or not you want to keep exploring.”
‘Get what you pay for’
That exploration needn’t be super-spendy, but it will not be bargain-basement, either.
“You’re going to get what you pay for, so every dollar counts,” said Peter Plaehn, a longtime restaurant buyer and now a wine specialist for the Wirtz Beverage Group. “There are certainly $11.99 Bordeaux out there, but if you want a good Bordeaux, be willing to spend at least $15 to $20. And if you can spend more, it will be worth it.”
More tips for those entering this realm:
Be one-sided: “There are two major styles,” Plaehn said. “Left Bank, based on cabernet sauvignon with more ‘muscle’ and body, and Right Bank, based on merlot with softer fruit and rounder edges. … In a broad generalization you can compare Left/Right to Napa and Sonoma: Napa tends to base blends on cabernet and blend things bolder with darker fruit flavors and more tannins on the finish, while Sonoma is a cooler area and the blends are typically softer with lush flavors.”
Find niches: Zavada recommends looking for “in-between” classifications such as Blaye, Bourg and Fronsac. “They are typically priced well and give a nice peek at where Bordeaux can go,” he said. Plaehn said to hunt for wines labeled “Bordeaux Superior” or “Cru Bourgeois” between $17 and $25 from the Left Bank or “satellite appellations” such as Lalande-de-Pomerol and the general “St. Emilion” designation on the Right Bank.
Don’t worry (much) about vintages: There already have been three “Vintages of the Century” (2000, ’05 and ’09). But those are mostly about ginormously priced higher-end wines. Less-renowned vintages still “require a little more care” in the under-$25 range, Zavada said. But as Plaehn noted, “a good winemaker can make a solid wine regardless of what a critic rates the vintage.”
Rely on others, both peers and pros: “Sorry for the stock answer,” Zavada said, “but find a merchant you trust and try a few out. Better yet, get four friends and buy a bottle or two each. You can get a good impression in a hurry.”
Follow Bill Ward on Twitter: @billward4