Let’s face it, a little part of every one of us would like to get our noses deep into a glass of Lafite, Latour or Mouton. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us would receive a rather prompt phone call from our bank managers if we were to even think about purchasing a bottle. Even the worst vintages fetch well over £250 a bottle and if you want a wine which is both of drinkable age and from a decent vintage, you can part with the best of a grand for the privilege.
My first advice to anyone who wants to try affordable wine from Pauillac is to look at the vastly more-reasonable neighbouring AOCs: Saint-Estèphe or Saint-Julien…the appeal with Pauillac though is the word itself, not necessarily the taste of the wine.
There are however Pauillac clarets out there though that, whilst far from being reasonable, might just be within your budget.
Firstly don’t expect massive value for money: Pauillac, Margaux, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol are, by far and away, the most expensive Bordeaux appellations (being the most famous) and wines that receive a Parker score of over 90 Points are quick to reach the £100 mark (if not more) – a comparable wine in terms of quality and score from Italy or another Bordeaux AOC might cost less than half of that rather hefty sum.
Here they are then: five wines that you might be able to afford that offer typical Pauillac character at untypical Pauillac prices, two of them are even related to the most famous family name in the town: Rothschild.
Château Lynch-Bages (Pre 2005 (excl. 2000))
Châteaux Lynch-Bages continues to ridicule the 1855 Médoc and Graves classification act. This fifth-Cru Pauillac estate has been offering stiff competition to the biggest names of Bordeaux for the best part of two decades now and Jean Michel-Cazes' winemaking skills are the key to the turnaround of the company’s fortunes.
Whereas the 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010 wines are priced to compete with the upper echelon, wines from average vintages are affordable. Particularly 2001, 2002 and 2003 are especially affordable and offer fantastic drinking.
My notes (2003 Vintage)
Château Clerc-Milon (2008, 2007, 2003, 2002, 2001)
As one of the only Bordelaise wineries still using the lush varietal Carménère, Château Clerc-Milon is the sister estate of d’Armailhac. Baroness Phillipine de Rothschild, owner of the mighty Mouton-Rothschild estate is the driving force behind this delicious claret.
2007 and 2008 offer the best value-for-money but earlier wines (2002, 2003) are serving up some fantastic drinking at the moment.
My notes (2007 Vintage)
Château d’Armailhac (2008, 2007, 2002, 2001, 1999)
Another Baroness de Rothschild estate, Château d’Armailhac has some pretty impressive neighbours : Pontet-Canet and Mouton-Rothschild to name but two. Slightly spicier than the racy Clerc-Milon, the wine is a favourite amongst restaurateurs: elite wines at affordable prices (with lots of words people have heard of).
2008 and 2007 are for me the best tips to pass on although I found the earlier wines very enjoyable: particularly 1999.
Château Pedesclaux (2008, 2007, 2003, 2002, 2001)
A rather small player in terms of big names, Château Pedesclaux might sound to the inexperienced like an also-existing option when buying Pauillac wine. The winery's discreet heritage is key to its ability to produce excellent and affordable wine though.
Although the 2009 and 2010 vintages weren’t particularly what you might call cheap, Pedesclaux is one of the few Châteaux of Bordeaux which offers consistent value-for-money. 2002 and 2003 were decent wines and priced between 20 and £30 a bottle, they offer some of the best Pauillac per pound there is. 2007 and 2008 were also fantastic wines but the 2005 is probably the best value-for-money 2005 out there – if you can find some!
My notes (2002 Vintage)
Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste (2008, 2007, 2003, 2002, 2001)
Probably the most high-profile winery on this list and, for many, Pauillac’s secret beating heart, Grand-Puy Lacoste offers some fantastically priced claret during otherwise mediocre vintages – whereas the majority of other producers are unable to turn an average vintage into a decent wine, the know-how at Puy-Lacoste ensures a fabulous drop every year.
2003 and 2007 are the best options here, 2002 and 2001 offer wonderful drinking though and, at less than £50 a bottle, you might not be able to say cheap but, once you’ve tried it, you won't be disappointed.
Also look out for the big winery’s second wine : Lynch Bages’ Echo is a treat, as is Latour’s Pauillac de Latour. I’d like to recommend Lafite’s Carruades but a) I’ve never tried it and b) I’d recommend packing a couple of notes on top and going for the first wine. As a general rule, avoid the vintages 2004 and 2006 – I find most wines very flat and 2004 in particular rarely offers that essential Pauillac style – still if you’re looking for a bargain: you’ll be able to pick up of a bottle of Mouton, Lafite or Latour from 2004 for about the same price as one of the above-listed winery’s 2005 vintages – that’s how Bordeaux pricing works, just don’t expect to be impressed. Only a handful of vintners achieved high-quality wine in 2004 and 2006 and most of that is gone now: Pichon-Loungueville 2004 is one of the best value-for-money clarets from 2004 but priced at roundabout £80 a bottle, it’s far from being a bargain.
There exists a wonderful phrase in the German language ‘wenn schon, denn schon’ – roughly ‘if you’re going to do it, do it properly’. I find this can be implied to wine and food better than anywhere else and I sometimes avoid buying cheap, average wine every day so that I can drink something a little better every other day.
Whereas we’re all aware of large-brand superfluous Champagne, this way of life fits in well here too. If you’re going to celebrate something properly, ditch the Moët and go for something from a smaller producer or even a vintage wine.
However, I find this phrase much more appropriate when it comes down to the world’s favourite red wine region: the Bordelaise.
I first got into Bordeaux with poor generic cuvees and when a friend of mine said that real Bordeaux started at 25-30€ a pop, I rejected this and carried on in my consumption of bland wines named after non-existent Châteaux. Thankfully, I decided to go down the route of appellation-specific Bordelaise wines a few years ago and will never go back – Bordeaux AOC is, and I’m sorry for saying it, a complete waste of time and usually money as well.
If you’re interested in buying something for a quiet night in and want to spend around 8-10€, stick with Italy, Spain, the new-world or the less complicated wines of the Southern French coast. Bordeaux AOC priced at 8-10€ is usually hideously overpriced and you’ll find yourself drinking generic wine with very little unique character. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one with a bit more Cabernet than Merlot and Cabernet in its cheaper formats is usually a little better. This advice includes wines like Mouton Cadet, which is always a safe (if not dull) purchase.
Although, come to think of it, I’m not even suggesting that you have to spend much more. Recently a string of St. Émilion Grand Crus have been available for well under the 10€ barrier and whilst none of these of world-moving wines, you at least get something authentic for your money. You’ll find some definite St. Émilion characteristics and a crafted taste to the wine even if it isn’t close to some of the more expensive produce that most of us will never be able to afford.
I’ve also seen Haut-Médoc wines priced at around 6€. Again, don’t expect perfection but, after half an hour in the decanter, you’ll find that these wines contain the driving factors behind the popularity of such wines. A really lucky purchase from Médoc or Haut-Médoc might find you enjoying a wine with some real Cabernet structure, some tobacco and leather notes – something that usually first appears in wines priced at 20€. I recently bought six bottles of a fairly well-known Haut-Médoc for 30€ and, whilst it definitely wasn’t the best wine I’ve enjoyed in the last few weeks, for a fiver a bottle: Chateau Larose Trintaudon (08) is a fantastic wine for the price, full of authentic Left-bank aroma, albeit a bit unrefined but nonetheless a real Bordeaux.
There are hundreds of Médoc and Haut-Médoc wines out there priced between six and ten euros and nearly all of them are considerably better than the Bordeaux AOC wines priced at a similar level.
It doesn’t even have to be Médoc though. If you’re more of a Merlot person, I’ve already mentioned St. Émilion. However there are other alternatives. Premier Côtes de Bordeaux, Cadillac and even Côtes de Blaye offer decent wines that are affordable and considerably better than those carrying the Bordeaux AOC declaration.
When it comes down to white Bordeaux or rosé Bordeaux, I tend to find that the Bordeaux Blanc AOC or Bordeaux Rosé AOC classifications rarely command high asking prices and therefore don't need to be avoided. The best white is however also smaller appellation-specific and sometimes I don’t understand the use of Bordeaux Blanc AOC when nearly all of the white grapes making dry wine are grown in Entre-Deux-Mers anyway – so are most of the red ones for Bordeaux AOC too though.
I don’t see the attraction in buying Bordeaux AOC wine, there really isn’t one. I can understand that an inexperienced consumer might not know the difference and the labels of the mass-produced wines are often a little more attractive (lots of colour and gold print). If you’ve read this and you're a casual consumer, now you know. Either buy similarly-priced smaller AOC wines or spend more and buy more expensive specific AOC wines – Bordeaux AOC doesn’t represent good value and isn't a fair representation of the region it comes from.
What do you think?
Although it hasn’t been the main intention of the challenge, I’ve been staining my lips red on a regular basis throughout 2011. In late 2010 I decided that, although I knew a fair bit about Bordeaux, I know literally nothing about most of the individual appellations dotted all over the region. Of course, I’d heard of Pauillac, Margaux and Pomerol but the amount of funny Euro notes in my wallet rarely allowed me to reach up so high in the wine rack, often having to settle for something much cheaper and much lower down.
But I started to put a bit of money aside and started, in January of 2011, to experiment with some of Bordeaux’s 57 appellations. I substituted a few of the generic ones because I’ve been drinking such wines for years: Bordeaux Blanc, Bordeaux AOC, Bordeaux Rosé and Bordeaux Superior AOC are to name but a few.
The Left Bank
I started with Médoc and Haut-Médoc as it seemed a price category that was almost immediately affordable and enjoyed a few decent wines along the way. Although the word Médoc seems to grace hundreds of bottles in my local shops, I soon found a few wines that I could safely come back to. Château des Granges d’Or 2005 was a decent surprise and at less than 12€ a bottle, quite good value as well. I also discovered a supermarket Médoc AOC wine: Château la Pirouette which, albeit not excellent, was a seriously drinkable claret for just over a fiver – I have since enjoyed many more evenings with said wine. 2011 saw me drinking several wines from Haut-Médoc although, to be honest, my general feeling towards this appellation is one of moderate quality wines for quite a high price. One exception was a lovely Château du Camensac 2002 that I enjoyed – a great wine and at less than 20€, quite a good buy!
But the smaller appellations of Médoc were the ones that interested me most. In October I enjoyed an excellent (but unfinished) Moulis-en-Médoc 2005 claret with lashings of structured Cabernet and deep closed senses of tobacco and coffee which would’ve opened had I left the bottle in the rack for a few more years.
Pauillac was the most expensive appellation I covered in 2011. I drank two separate wines from there: one good, one not so good but I have also invested in several bottles for the future. My first experience with The Appellation was a modest but delicious Château Pédesclaux 2002. I immediately loved it and was quick to declare Pauillac as my favourite Bordeaux appellation. In December 2011 however, I had a fairly poor experience from a little known Château called Bellegrave. It’s 2003 was not unpleasant but seemed to carry all of the notes about aged Bordeaux I like to be covered up with red fruit and Cabernet: too much vanilla, too much oak – not enough spice and not enough tart red fruits, no cassis. At more than 20€ a bottle, I was a tad annoyed and hope that the rest of the wines in my rack offer a bit more jazz.
Pauillac served as my favourite appellation of Bordeaux for less than a month. I tried my luck and bought a 14 year old St. Estèphe from a supermarket that had only been only for one year. The 1997 Lafon-Rochet was at its turning point and only after an insanely long amount of time in the decanter, did it open up and stop smelling strange. The wine was however immense and it opened my eyes to the potential of storing wine for a long time. Its Cabernet skeleton was much more robust that that of the Pauillac wine I’d tried and its red fruit was a lot fresher. Late in 2011 saw me trying a young but affordable St. Estèphe from a supermarket: Château Commanderie 2006 which was a very enjoyable experience and one that I hope to repeat sometime soon (a second bottle is in my possession). It offered most of the experience of the more expensive wine (Lafon-Rochet) but with half of the guilt – it costs less than 15€ a bottle.
Margaux let me down though in 2011. I’d heard a great deal about how great its wine were but after trying two, I wasn’t much impressed. The wines seemed like buffed-up Haut-Médoc wines with doubly buffed-up price tags. I plan to experiment with a bit more Margaux in 2012.
2012 will also see me wander into Graves and get started with Pessac-Léognan, Sauternes and Barsac. I’ll also be finishing off Médoc with, aside from a few more bottles of Margaux and Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Listrac.
Over the Gironde
Most of the bigger appellations of the right bank are still to come in 2012, I’ve still not tasted Pomerol, nor have I enjoyed anything from Fronsac, Bourg or Lalande-de-Pomerol.
In 2011, I enjoyed a lot of Saint-Émilion. Many supermarkets in Germany have increased their range and, whilst I know that the proper stuff isn’t affordable to people like me, was impressed by the mid-range wines. All of them were priced between 6-12€ and all of them were pleasantly drinkable.
Côtes-de-Blaye was a big surprise though. Whilst living in Münster, a wine store next door recommended I take a bottle of Merlot from old vines, which I did and enjoyed immensely. I’ll be looking at trying some more wines from here in the coming year alongside the neighbouring appellation of Bourg as well.
South of Bordeaux
In 2011 I enjoyed many a Premier-Côtes-de-Bordeaux wine. A young but excellent Croix-Mouton 2009 opened my eyes to this small and barely-respected Entre-deux-Mers appellation and this quality was reflected in another wine I’ve enjoyed on a regular basis that sources its grapes only from 1er Côtes and neighbouring Cadillac. Château Grimont retails at just over 5€ in a nearby supermarket and it serves as one of my house wines.
Entre-deux-Mers white was briefly hit upon by me in 2011 with a simple 2010 bottle opened and enjoyed with a seafood dinner. In 2012 I hope to experiment with Bordeaux’s dry white wines a little more.
As above mentioned, I’m looking forward to expanding my knowledge of Bordeaux even further in 2012. Hopefully, in a year’s time I’ll be able to complete my guide to Bordeaux wines and, if I’m lucky, summer 2012 might even see my visit the region. I’ll keep you up to date.