Keeping Bordeaux Prices in Check

by Jim Clarke
November 2008

Bordeaux prices go up. A vintage is great, and prices skyrocket. A vintage is mediocre, or even poor…and prices still go up, if not as much. Forget any “what goes up, must come down” notions you might have; unless the growing markets in Asia and Russia suddenly change their mind about wine appreciation, Bordeaux’s output will be spread thinner and thinner across the globe, with top names racing each other into the stratosphere and beyond the reach of most of us. The weak dollar only makes it worse, of course.

However, if you like French Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot, and the like, don’t despair just yet. While the Left Bank’s old hands, in communes like Pauillac and Margaux, and leaders in the Right Bank appellations of St. Emilion and Pomerol are riding this wave of demand to the bank (in the financial sense), there are other parts of Bordeaux, less famous but not necessarily less worthy, that haven’t received the inflated attention that a long, long pedigree provides.

“There are a number of Right Bank, Merlot-driven appellations I like to work with,” says Ken Collura of Andina Restaurant in Portland, Oregon. The appellations scattered around St. Emilion and Pomerol on the Right Bank are getting more and more attention; Collura singles out the Côtes de Castillon, Ste.-Foy-Bordeaux, and the Côtes de Blaye. The Côtes de Castillon abuts St. Emilion to the east; many of the houses there are enjoying the expertise, investment, and technical advantages developed by their richer neighbors.

Bernie Sun, Beverage Director for the Jean-Georges Restaurant Group, agrees that “hidden gems” are out there, through they can take some finding.

Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux is farther southeast, at the edge of what could be called Bordeaux. “Chateau Hostens-Picant is a superb house form this region,” says Collura, “Rich and balanced, with a bit more heft than one would imagine. It’s age-worthy as well.” The Côtes de Blaye, on the other hand, would be in the heart of the Bordeaux if it weren’t on the far side of the river from the Medoc.

However, while the vineyards across the river are Cabernet Sauvignon heavy, the Côtes’ clay soils call for the earlier-ripening Merlot. Collura singles out Chateau Segonzac: “The Heritage labeling is their top-tier and the 2001 is off the charts for the money; tastes like a cru St. Emilion at half the price.”

Darius Allyn, MS, of Wineworks Consulting agrees that the so-called satellite appellations of the Right Bank offer value, but finds the good ones are not necessarily well-distributed, at least on the West Coast. Two that do have decent availability are Chateau D’Aiguilhe and Domaine Sabine, from the Côtes de Castillon and Lalande-de-Pomerol, respectively.

He also says that wines like these may be truer in style to classic Bordeaux than many of the expensive leaders, which have evolved toward a less terroir-driven, if opulent, “international style.” Want less Merlot and more Cabernet Sauvignon? Allyn says, “There’s great stuff coming out of Bergerac, more Left Bank in style, and more traditional.”

Bernie Sun is also enthusiastic about Bergerac, and points to Bernard Magrez’s recent vineyard purchases there, which Bernie says were prompted by tasting the wines of Magrez’s new neighbor, Chateau Thenac. But he says that not every Chateau in the heart of Bordeaux is priced through the roof, and that some Medoc and Haut-Medoc properties, scattered in and among St. Julien, Pauillac, and the other Right Bank communes, are still good values. He cites Chateaux Potensac and Cantemerle as examples.

“Even Molise and Listrac have some well-priced wines,” says Rory Gurland of the James Hotel in Chicago, naming the Left Bank’s most overlooked communes (I have a particular weakness for Listrac, as it’s home to Chateau Clarke…which I am unfortunately not even distantly related to, but...). And while convention says these wines should go up in value as they age, some have not kept pace with recent vintages: “There’s sometimes a better value in older Bordeaux; I’ve bought 96's that were not much more or even less than the current releases.”

He also points out that because of Bordeaux’s negociant system, a single wine may be available from multiple distributors, who may therefore have to price the wine competitively.

Even a year or two can make a big difference, according to the Wine Director at New York’s Porter House, Brad Nugent. ”A guest can walk into the restaurant and enjoyed a classified growth Bordeaux from 2004 that is excellent and approachable, for half if not quarter the price of a 2003 or 2005.”

Since those other, highly rated vintages are both still in the market, Nugent says that 2004 becomes a value just so distributors can move it, even though the wines are generally still quite good (and despite the fact that the Chateau itself probably didn’t lower prices on their end). In the high-end steakhouse market this allows a restaurant to stay in the classified growths without moving outside the classic Bordeaux appellations.

Given the state of the nation’s finances, affordability may become a greater and greater priority with restaurant guests and winedrinkers across the country, calling on every trick in the book, er, winelist. Still, when you want Bordeaux, you want Bordeaux. You just may have to think outside the “Banks” to get it.