Bordeaux may be big business, but this most influential of wine regions exists far outside today’s currents. At times, with its baked-in sense of superiority, it can come across as a visitor time-warped in from the 19th century. Put differently: It reeks of the past at a time when everyone is thinking more democratically about the future.
Is this an image problem, or something deeper? Bordeaux—at least the distorted version we think of, when we think of it at all—constitutes but a small handful of top properties, along with a few overachieving upstarts and the patrician business framework that surrounds them. They labor under a now obsolete 1855 classification, which set out the so-called first growth properties, second, third and so on, of the Left Bank of Bordeaux’s home, the Gironde estuary in southwest France. (The Right Bank has a separate and messier ranking.)
It’s hard not to find the whole thing a bit unseemly and classist, like a post-revolutionary remnant of the Versailles court—enough so, in fact, that all the bickering and backstabbing among the middle ranks could make a marquise choke on her cake. Everyone wants to be better than history has dictated, especially rich new owners who see a château as another luxury bauble. Everyone wants to step up. All the hierarchy and social climbing are why Bordeaux feels especially dissonant from today’s more egalitarian wine world.
Of course, I’m indulging in what the French today like to bitch about as “Bordeaux-bashing,” and to be fair, that vision of Bordeaux is caricature. For one thing, the status obsession tends to leave in shadow the vast majority of the region, its thousands of small estates. (There are more than 7,300 properties in Bordeaux.) Many were once the source of modest, inexpensive and often interesting wines. But that was a world bygone, whence Bordeaux and its enablers controlled the wine trade. Today, we turn to Argentina or California’s San Joaquin Valley or a dozen other places for cheap, everyday wine.
So, yes, Bordeaux deserves a lot of its bad press. But there’s also something a little bit prejudicial in how dimly it’s viewed today. I particularly feel complicit because I’ve made the same dismissive jokes, despite the fact I grew up in a household with a deep love of everyday Bordeaux, red and white. My father was on the tail end of a generation that considered modest Bordeaux, even many classed growths, something a middle-class wine drinker could enjoy. You could even buy most of the region’s nicer wines, something most of us no longer can.
All of which made clear to us at PUNCH that the time was right for some real talk about red Bordeaux. A growing roster of wines has been evident for several years now that defies easy narratives. Some, like the Planquette wines of Didier Michaud, are willfully plugged into today’s less-is-more wine ethos, and some, like the beautiful bottles from Bruno Rey’s Moulin de Tricot, simply reflect the more modest and utilitarian place Bordeaux once was. As I said not long ago, hope springs eternal—and I believe that’s true for Bordeaux.
At the same time, an equally reasonable question: Why bother?
For one thing, while there’s intellectual charm in trousseau and qvevri wines and all the shiny new toys, there’s also a worthwhile (if maybe more obvious) beauty to grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and of course cabernet franc, which in its Loire drapery is living a charmed life. What I’m trying to say is: People like Bordeaux. They like its innate flavors—the herbal twinge that was a defining characteristic of wines before the overkill era of the 1990s and 2000s; the brooding dark fruit of cabernet and the plushness of merlot; the savoriness and mineral edge.
Yes, too many of its wines in the mid-20th century suffered from under-ripeness and overcropping, which set Bordeaux on a path to overcorrection; most of the industry’s silly technocratic tricks, like must concentrators, were popularized in its cellars. In fact, you could blame Bordeaux’s tendency to attack the symptoms but not the disease (greed, as much as anything else) as the cause of its current schizoid reputation. But there remains a reason Bordeaux has been cherished since the 12th century. Step back from infighting over blind ambition and classified growths, and you see that the history along the banks of the Gironde and its tributary rivers, the Dordogne and Garonne, dictates a long and reliable track record. So yes, Bordeaux has been a yardstick for self-importance. But it is also still a place with a lot of people who want to make good wine.
And the resurfacing of earnest, small châteaux—versus the pretentious vins de garage of 15 years ago—is cause for celebration. So too the expanding rise of organics and biodynamics in the region, which has been embraced by top properties like Pontet-Canet and Château Palmer, but also by less famous holdings, like the Clauzel family’s Château La Grave Figeac. Their commitment throws overdue shade on the specious argument that organics aren’t possible in Bordeaux’s humid climate.
Today it’s possible, with a little hunting, to find wines that show those charming aspects of the region’s native grapes, without undue manipulation, new oak or any of those marks of last season’s fashion. Dozens of wines today are grown and made in ways that defy artifice and show the best of what the English used to call “claret.” (Which, Jura fans, really was more dark rosé than red. But that’s a tale for another time.)
And defying artifice is just what the world seems to want today in its wines. The selections we’ve made are meant to be everyday pleasures, most of them under $30. They’re a small sampling of what Bordeaux is achieving today—and what could be found there far more broadly, if only Bordeaux could stop trading on the past. That’s why my hope springs eternal.
The Old School
Château Moulin de Tricot Haut-Médoc
The appellation of Margaux deceives on its name alone, which implies grandeur. But the towns that make up Margaux are far more low key, especially the unfussy hamlet of Arsac, a few minutes by car from the famous Château Margaux. That’s where you’ll find Bruno Rey and his family, and this property they’ve farmed since the 1800s. They have no use for Bordeaux’s fancier airs, and their wines are just as unprepossessing—pure in their cabernet flavors, and unmarked by new oak. While I love their Margaux, their humble Haut-Médoc is everything a Bordeaux should be: forceful, just ripe enough, with a decidedly savory side of cured tea leaves and celery seeds. This is Bordeaux that makes no apologies for not being a dedicated follower of fashion.
See also: Château Falfas, Château Peybonhomme Les Tours, Château La Grave Figeac
- Price: $29
- Vintage: 2013
- From: Rosenthal Wine Merchant
The Dissident | Tie
Maison Blanche Montagne Saint-Émilion
Nicolas Despagne’s property sits due east of Pomerol, in that part of the Right Bank where Bordeaux gets hilly, the clay-limestone starting to roll into rural backwater. If his big old white house—the name’s literal—is touched by a Dickensian sense of disrepair, this is, after all, the area of Montagne, which has the Saint-Émilion name but little of its pocket money. Despagne makes biodynamically farmed wines that reflect the family’s memory of a far humbler Bordeaux, which is why he also makes an Old French Claret—basically unsulfured rosé (clairet, technically). His benchmark red, a blend of merlot and cabernet franc, is always a bit tight in its flavors: a touch funky, bright and almost citric, with smoke and aniseed, subtle tannins and a need for air. It’s what the Right Bank can offer those who like energy in their wines.
- Price: $36
- Vintage: 2013
- From: Selection Massale
Château Auney L'Hermitage Graves Red
If “Graves” similarly implies old mansions and tradition, a trip to the cheery farmhouse of Sylvie and Christian Auney will quickly undo that. (Do mind the garden hose!) Their wines can be marked by new oak, but the red is a full-fleshed, silken, quiet take on this esteemed appellation south of Bordeaux city. Full of violets and blueberry and sandalwood, it’s softened by merlot but never lacks the bark-like herbal side of cabernet. This is the sort of Bordeaux that some age will make even better.
See also: Château La Fleur Garderose, Clos du Jaugueyron, Château de Grandchamp
- Price: $30
- Vintage: 2013
- From: Rosenthal Wine Merchant
The Minimalist | Tie
Planquette Vin de France Red
Fighting for natural wine in Bordeaux isn’t easy, for sure, which is why someone like Didier Michaud deserves extra credit. He’s located far up the Left Bank in what used to be called the Bas-Médoc, with up to 100-year-old vines of cabernet and a subvariety known as merlot à queue rouge. In another time, this would have been bottled as straightforward Médoc (and priced that way) but in these appellation-skeptic times, vin de France it is. Either way, it’s a big and mouth-filling effort, with ripe cherry fruit and intense tannins, musk and a ferrous tang.
- Price: $17
- Vintage: 2015
- From: Fruit of the Vines
Château Tire Pé Diem Bordeaux Red
Pretty much on the other end of Bordeaux, far to the southeast near the Marmandais, Hélène and David Barrault make charmingly straightforward wines—again in a corner of the region that’s been overlooked by poobahs enough for the couple to work without pretense. Diem is all merlot, de-stemmed and aged in concrete. While it’s not as complex as some, there’s luscious fruit, leathery funk and the smoke of pu-erh tea, and an juicy twinge at the end to enliven a meal.
See also: Château La Grave (Paul Barre)
- Price: $14
- Vintage: 2016
- From: Jenny & Francois Selections
Château du Champ des Treilles Le Petit Champ Bordeaux Red
There was a time not so long ago, before every wine was a special snowflake, when wine stores made their money with stacked cases of inexpensive Bordeaux from small properties. Not fancy—just honest and drinkable, usually from less posh corners of the region. Champ des Treilles makes me think of those wines, in the best way, and if only we had more wines like it. Jean-Michel Comme, a veteran of Paulliac’s Pontet-Canet, and his wife, Corinne, organically farm five hectares in Sainte-Foy, in the far east near Bergerac, to make this merlot- and franc-dominant wine, which is aged in steel. It’s fleshy and pleasantly earthy, with celery root and cumin and a dark mineral side—nothing more than it needs to be, but endlessly pleasurable.
See also: Château Sainte-Marie Vieilles Vignes
- Price: $19
- Vintage: 2016
- From: Savio Soares Selections