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A Value Bordeaux and a Little About the 1855 Bordeaux Classification

There is nothing we like better than finding a value wine that delivers way beyond its price point.  They are all around us, you just have to ferret them out.  For me, Bordeaux in great vintage years offers a very fertile field for finding killer values, since all of the properties tend to make at least good wines and a lot of them make great wines.  If you don’t like Bordeaux then the same types of values abound elsewhere.  Spain (especially Rioja and Priorat for my money), Italy (numerous examples – see the blog about the Aglianico), California (yes- some great deals in Cabernet land, and try some of the others like Petite Syrah), South America etc, etc.  But this blog is about Bordeaux.

The particular wine is the 2006 Chateau Malmaison De Rothschild, from Moulis en Medoc.  So it’s not from a “great” vintage.  Those would be 2000, 2003 (I think), 2005, 2009 and 2010 (In the last decade or so).  This is 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet, a little high on the Merlot for a left bank wine.  More medium bodied, it has good fruit, still a lot of tannins, complexity and great length.  It drinks like a $30 bottle easy.  This is a great value, and we plan to buy more.  At around $15 online, we should be able to find this in our once or twice a week price range.  Tasting notes can be found here.

Even in good vintages there are a lot of good wines in Bordeuax – not just in great vintages.  When I say great I mean those universally acclaimed as such – I certainly haven’t had enough of any wine in a certain year to hazard an expert opinion on the overall quality of the year (but after sampling 6 or 7 of my 2003’s I’m calling it a great vintage).  If the Wine Spectator, Advocate, Enthusiast, International Wine Cellar, all major retailers and the Bordeaulais (who are of course somewhat biased) all declare it is a great vintage, it probably is.  So hearing that it’s a “great” vintage where do you look?  I tend to look at the Third to Fifth growths and the Cru Bourgeois.  Areas like Fronsac, Listrac, Moulis, Cotes de Castillon provide a lot of excellent values.  These are not the big names that carry the $100+ price tags.  For that matter, in these kind of vintages the First Growths are in the $1000 per bottle range.  These are the world’s elitist wines.  Think Romanee-Conti in Burgundy, Screaming Eagle in Napa and the like (not that there are too many like these).  The first growths are even surpassed in price in Bordeaux by a handful of Chateaus from Pomerol.   Specifically Petrus, Lafluer and Le Pin come to mind.  And then you’ve got Cheval Blanc in St. Emillion.  Is any bottle worth this?  I strongly tend to doubt it – but I have no personal experience to draw from.  If anyone would like to run an experiment with any of these please let me know and I’ll be there.

So what exactly is a growth?   For a more in depth explanation I suggest reading this (from Wine Spectator), but – to summarize:

Here’s a map of Bordeaux from Wikipedia (get the file here):

Hint – to keep right and left bank clear, picture yourself standing in the middle of the Gironde River (or better yet on one of the islands) and look toward the ocean.  The left bank is on your left, the right bank on your right.  See the map below.

In 1855 the French were hosting a Universal Exposition in Paris.  Naturally wine needed to be a centerpiece so the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce was asked to put together a display.  They responded with the now famous 1855 classification of the wine makers in the Medoc, a large region on the left bank of the Gironde River.  Five levels of designation were created, with the first, or Premiers Crus, being the most prestigious.  The second, or Deuxiemes Crus followed, and then in order were the Troisiemes Crus, Quatriemes Crus, and the fifth growths, or Cinquiemes Crus.  If you weren’t named you were kind of out of luck.  They also did a ranking of the famous sweet white wines of Sauternes and Barsac at the same time.  They did not rank the Right Bank wines, which include Pomerol, Saint Emilion, Fronsac and Cotes de Castilon.  This hasn’t stopped Pomerol from having the most expensive wines in Bordeaux.

St. Emilion waited a hundred years until they were finally fed up enough with the left bank being ranked that they did their own ranking in 1955.  Unlike the Medoc, they update it periodically.  Also they now bring in professionals from outside their area to do the rankings.  More on St. Emilion another time.

The Premiers Crus are iconic: Latour, Margaux, Haut Brion, Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild.  Mouton was added in 1973 to the Premiers Crus after what must have been one hell of a campaign.  These wines are big bucks.  They get 100 point ratings in great vintages (and the rating scale is also a topic for another day).  Are they worth it?  I don’t know, though the answer is a resounding NO based on my budget.  But I doubt I would ever spend this kind of money even if I had it.  I actually did own a bottle of Latour.  It was a 1993, by all accounts not a very good vintage.  I had the choice of opening it and drinking a mediocre, $400 wine or of selling it and keeping the mystique intact.  I chose the latter, and got a very fair price for it.  From the Deuxuemes down you can get some deals sometimes.  I have (or have recently had prior to drinking) Ducru-Beaucaillou, Gruard-Larose, Lagrange, Cantenac-Brown, Boyd Cantenac, Talbot, Duhart-Milon and Pontet Canet in my cellar.  Nothing was more than $45.  To be fair you could not buy most of these for that now.  Also, I bought the Ducru from someone for $40.  It was worth much more than that, but it was a 1989 and depending on how it was stored it might not have been good.  Fortunately for me it was excellent and I drank it at dinner on my 25th anniversary with my lovely wife.

The classification is also old.  Things change.  Duhart-Milon is a fourth growth that by all accounts is now in kind of a second growth area.  The prices reflect that.  My bottles of 2005 Duhart-Milon now retail for over $100.  Another Chateau, Pontet Canet, is considered of more Premiers Crus status, consistently ranking with the big boys (yes, multiple 100 pointers).  It has climbed to $200+.  I bought some 2002 a few years ago for $27.  It is amazing.  It is also nowhere near ready.  They make big, unbelievably tannic wines.  I’m thinking I open the next one about 2015 and see where it’s at.  Aging wines is another topic for another day as well.

And don’t forget they didn’t rank the Right Bank.  Plenty of great wines there at reasonable prices.  Biggest thing to remember about the two banks is that the Left Bank is more Cabernet Sauvignon blended with other grapes and the Right Bank is primarily Merlot, usually blended with Cabernet Franc but sometimes all on its own.  They are both excellent generally.  I tend to prefer the Cabernet Sauvignon blends of the Left Bank a bit more, but for some reason drink a little more of the Right Bank offerings.  Probably some price implications there.

Bottom line is you’ve got to do your homework.  I can tell you that I opened a bottle of 2003 Chateau Faugeres two months ago.  It was fabulous.  It was every reason I love Bordeaux.  I can’t think of how a wine could be that much better.  Yet this cost $30.  How can something be worth fifty times that, or more?

I actually can think of a wine that I like a lot better.  That’s the 2001 Louis Martini Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.  If you know anyone who has any for sale please let me know.  I want all of it.

A votre sante!

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