Years ago, during an evening of urban carousing with two friends, the three of us found ourselves in the lobby of a swanky hotel. It was almost as if we had just landed there or had been somehow teleported. We were profoundly underdressed (it’s possible that I was wearing cut-off shorts), but the energy of the city and the special effects of our chosen elixirs convinced us that we belonged in that place.
So we strolled through the lobby and into the gallery of boutiques, marveling at the Other Half. And then, again as if it had fallen out of the sky and landed directly in front of us, it appeared — a chocolate shop. After a quick survey from a safe distance, I recoiled and averted my eyes. I got the impression that just peeking into that little nook might set me back $40.
My friends sauntered into the shop while I waited in the hallway, and when they emerged with little bags of handmade chocolates, they had mercy on me. One of them offered me a piece — and a message from the clerk: “Your friend needs to come in here and get educated.” The point she was conveying, via my cohorts, was: Not all candy in the shop costs as much as a watch.
This brings us to Bordeaux, arguably the most storied and prestigious wine region in the world, with prices to match. But not every bottle costs as much as a watch. If all of Bordeaux were a single piece of chocolate, that little swirl on top would represent the classified wines — the famous premier cru, or “first growth” wines (Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, et al.), along with the second- through fifth-growths. The rest of the Bordeaux wines — white, red and sweet, in the same general styles as the trophy wines — descend in price, allowing all of us, at some price point, to get a taste, and perhaps an education too.
Bordeaux sits in the southwestern corner of France and is the country’s largest AOC (appellation d’origine controlee) region with about 275,000 acres of vines. That’s more than a quarter of all AOC vineyard area in France. The region enjoys a moderate maritime climate because of its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde estuary, which is fed by the snaking Garonne and Dordogne rivers. These rivers create the famous Left Bank and Right Bank, plus the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation between them.
There are 64 other appellations in Bordeaux, most famously Margaux, Medoc, Pauillac, Pomerol, Saint-Emilion and Sauternes. But again, the sublime, world-famous collector wines from these places and others in Bordeaux are not the whole story.
Red wine is tops in Bordeaux, accounting for more than 85 percent of the area’s wine production, and about two-thirds of all red grapes grown there are merlot. After that, comes cabernet sauvignon, followed distantly by cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot.
Semillon and sauvignon blanc are the big white grapes (each accounting for roughly 45 percent of white grapes grown), and they, along with varying amounts of muscadelle and some other grape varieties, contribute to the region’s sought-after dry white blends. But semillon is the key grape variety in the sweet wines of Bordeaux. To make them, grapes are left on the vine longer, developing Botrytis cinerea, the fungus known as “noble rot.” This condition produces viscous, sweet wines, with enough acidity to make them a pleasure to drink either as part of a dessert pairing or simply as dessert itself. They’re also a fine and classic accompaniment to foie gras toward the beginning of a meal.
The reds of Bordeaux can range anywhere from fruity and lighter in style to much more substantial, structured and long-aging, or even life-changing. If you’ve been on your wine journey for a while, you’re well-acquainted with the legendary wines of Bordeaux. If you are newer to the journey, or have been intimidated by even the mention of this famous region, this is your way in, without having to make a huge investment.
Below is a selection of affordable wines from Bordeaux in a range of styles. They are listed in ascending order, according to price: whites followed by reds followed by sweet.
2014 Chateau Marjosse Entre-Deux-Mers. Passion fruit, zingy acidity, light body and a crisp finish characterized this wine, which clocks in at 12.5 percent alcohol. $16
2014 Clos des Lunes Lune Blanche Bordeaux. This blend of 70 percent semillon and 30 percent sauvignon blanc offered grapefruit, minerality, peach, apricot and anise. $20
2014 Chateau Les Charmes-Godard Francs Cotes de Bordeaux. Opening with funky, earthy aromas, this one led to citrus and herbs, with a tart and nutty finish. $20
2013 Chateau de Cerons Graves. Citrus, spice, minerality and ripe stone fruits commingled in a wine that was all at once luscious and refreshing. $28
2014 Chateau Tire Pe Diem Bordeaux. Here is a wine that was full of raspberry, blackberry, coffee, cedar, tobacco and leather. $15
2012 Chateau Mauvesin Barton Moulis en Medoc. This one started with raspberry, coffee and caramel, and led to dark fruits, cherry and nutmeg. $21
2013 La Cuvee Bistrot de Puy Arnaud Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux. Exploding with raspberry-strawberry jam, this lighter-bodied red had a refreshing finish and 12 percent alcohol. $25
2011 Chateau La Grave Fronsac. Earthiness, raspberry, herbs, a touch of sweet cherry, forest floor, spice, cedar and grippy tannins sum up this one. $32
2012 Clos du Jaugueyron Haut-Medoc. Classic earthy, barnyard aromas led to luscious dark fruits balanced by bright acidity in this beauty, which longs for hearty fare. $36
2010 Grand Vin de Reignac Bordeaux Superieur. A 75/25 percent blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon, this formidable wine offered dark fruits, vanilla and leather. $43
2014 Chateau du Seuil Cerons. Made of 100 percent semillon, this lovely wine offered ripe pear and stone fruits, plus a refreshing citrus wave on the finish. $34/500-milliliter bottle