Browsing runs in my family. For my father, it was hard to resist the chance to comb through the shelves of a used bookstore or just about any library, big or small. He was always on the hunt for a choice work of fiction or travel writing, usually early 20th century, more often than not English. For the son, of course, the attraction is the wine store and the excitement of coming across interesting values that perhaps have been overlooked by the wine-drinking masses.
I found myself in such a store not long ago, a place in the country where, to my surprise, I discovered a rather impressive collection (for the area) of well-priced Bordeaux sitting toward the back of the place. The location of the wines wasn’t surprising. When I asked a salesman if many of his customers bought Bordeaux he replied that “those in the know” did, adding that “most head right over there, to the Yellowtail.” He pointed to the ubiquitous Australian brand displayed near the front of the store.
Bordeaux, the most famous wine region in France, and arguably the world, has let itself be eclipsed in recent years by more aggressively marketed New World areas like Australia, California and New Zealand. Mention cabernet sauvignon, merlot or sauvignon blanc and I doubt most people would think of Bordeaux first.
And yet the Bordelais, as Bordeaux’s winemakers are known, wrote the book on these varieties going back hundreds of years. The wines, even at the lower end, can show subtlety and some complexity. They are “lean” wines, generally 12.5 or 13 percent alcohol, as mandated by French wine laws. They often don’t so much shout out their fruit as they do suggest it, especially when young (in contrast to the fruitier, higher-alcohol styles of California and Australia). Oak aging tends to round them off nicely without dominating. There are many hundreds of Bordeaux at all prices from which to choose, which makes it fun to pick up a bottle or two or three and compare them.
That’s exactly what I did in anticipation of a simple steak dinner. I chose two wines - the 2000 Graves from Château Tourteau Chollet, at $10, and the 2001 Château Gloria St. Julien, for $20. Now, if there is one problem with Bordeaux, you have just read it. It’s that you have to know (or ask) what the label means and what’s in the bottle.
Graves, for example, is a large area in the south of Bordeaux known for both reds and whites, more or less for everyday drinking. Château Tourteau Chollet’s red Graves is a blend of 55 percent cabernet and 45 percent merlot (most Bordeaux are blends). This is an attractive, charming wine that suggests spicy cherry and a bit of vanilla. Estate bottled, it’s a real bargain at $10.
The much more well-known Château Gloria, by contrast, lies in the Médoc region in the north of Bordeaux, in the small and prestigious commune of St. Julien on the left bank of the Gironde River. The wine is mainly cabernet, the dominant variety in the Médoc. The aromas and tastes are concentrated and complex with notes of ripe raspberry and blackberry, coffee, cedar, spice and black pepper. This may not be a Bordeaux for the ages, but it, too, is an excellent value at $20. The larger point here is that the French are among the best at making very good, relatively inexpensive estate wines (California take note of what the French offer for $10 to $15).
It’s important to realize that there is a great deal of Bordeaux out there, so available vintages and prices will vary. The way to approach these wines is to go browsing, pick up a few bottles in your price range, and have fun exploring them over the course of a leisurely dinner and watching them evolve. Once you do, I have little doubt that you’ll make a point of getting to know the Bordeaux section of your wine store, even if you have to walk to the back, even if you have to do a little work to learn the lingo of Bordeaux.
Edward Deitch's wine column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at EdwardDeitch