Bordeaux from the world's most famous wine makers can cost a fortune, but you can buy magnificent wine at a fraction of the price from lesser-known neighbouring vineyards. Harry Eyres picks out six favourites under £20.
Bordeaux is the world’s largest fine wine region. You may associate it above all with some of the grandest names in wine – Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Pétrus – but the vast majority of the châteaux of Bordeaux are relatively down-to-earth operations. The word ‘château’ may conjure up a pompous edifice with pinnacles, but your average example is a dwelling place with a cuverie – a shed or hall which houses a press and fermentation tanks – and a chai, or big airy room, for barrels.
Most of these are not in the famous appellations such as Pauillac, Margaux and Pomerol, but in the backwoods and outlying areas such as the northern Médoc, the southern Graves, Bourg and Blaye on the north bank of the Gironde and the wider Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations.
From these sub-regions, come a host of excellent and affordable wines, ranging from truly humble petits châteaux to the upper-middle-class crus bourgeois, which are often quite hard to distinguish from the crus classés – the 61 wines ranked in five classes in 1855 – and can offer much better value for money.
Two areas especially worth looking out for, if you like the earthier, juicier style of claret associated with a highish percentage of Merlot, are the Montagne Saint-Emilion and Lalande de Pomerol. Top Saint-Emilion and, especially, Pomerol wines are expensive indeed, but these satellite areas produce wines very similar in style, a little more forward and drinkable young.
This wine comes from Saint Estèphe, the northernmost of the top Médoc appellations and perhaps the most underrated. Made from 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, in a fine, warm vintage, this is deep-coloured traditional claret, firm and iron-flavoured.
This wine is much better than you might expect from a standard ‘club’ claret: it’s fragrant and fresh on the nose, a characteristic of the 2015 vintage and there’s good precision on the palate.
Possibly even more of a bargain than the Corney & Barrow above. There’s good depth of colour and a gamey, mature nose, with the tertiary aromas of bottle age, leather and spice, predominating over primary fruit. This confirms my view that the overlooked 2011 vintage is drinking beautifully right now and it could pass for something grander. Why not decant it and keep your guests guessing?
Montagne Saint-Emilion is the source of what has become my own personal go-to affordable claret, Château Montaiguillon. The current vintage is the 2014, riper and more blackcurranty than the soft and charming 2012, and needing an hour in the decanter, but full of character and thoroughly satisfying.
This comes from the younger vines of one of my very favourite Bordeaux châteaux, the distinguished and somehow understated Château Haut-Bailly. This blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot shows real cedary refinement and the elegance which is an Haut-Bailly hallmark.
You can even (just) find a Bordeaux grand cru for under £20; in this case it’s the Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Château Grand Faurie La Rose 2012). I picked up an attractive leafiness on the nose, which I guessed (correctly it turned out) might come from Cabernet Franc, the main variety planted here as also at the great Château Cheval Blanc. There’s also evolved leathery ripeness on the palate.
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