Bargains in Bordeaux

Regional gems under $30


On a warm June day I was lost on the winding roads of Canon-Fronsac, an appellation on Bordeaux’s Right Bank. When I finally turn up more than an hour late at Château Moulin-Pey-Labrie, owner Grégoire Hubau makes a few witty digs about wine critics rarely finding their way to this little-known region. We head for his cellar, hung with amusing portraits painted by an artist friend, where I taste my way through a line up of a half dozen surprisingly delicious, savory, plush vintages from his two chateaux. Their prices? A mere $20 to $30.

His 2006 Chateau Haut Lariveau is everything Merlot should be, darkly fruity, soft, and round, while the 1988, 2003, and 2008 Moulin-Pey-Labrie (Merlot with a dash of Malbec) are bigger, richer, more concentrated. I’d happily drink all with dinner.

As we wander out to a grassy area dotted with sculptures overlooking his hillside vineyard, Hubau says, “Here in Bordeaux you have big business wine and pleasure wine. I want to make pleasure wine.”

Photo: A vineyard in Bourdeaux. Credit: Anyka / istockphoto
That’s the story of the Other Bordeaux, a world of family-owned properties I explored for two weeks, frequently losing my way when my rental car’s GPS system failed.

Affordable choices under the radar

People moan about the prices of the region’s 40-plus investment-grade labels from famous appellations – the futures price for Château Lafite-Rothschild is now $1650 a bottle, and it’s still in the barrel. But most ignore wines from under-the-radar spots like Canon-Fronsac, whose small châteaux produce delicious reds with elegance, balance, and classic character that cost a tiny fraction of that.

Sadly, too often convinced that Bordeaux means greedy château owners making wines for billionaires, wine lovers now often bypass the region altogether, chasing value in Argentina’s Malbec. The CIVB, the Bordeaux trade organization, admits the region is losing market share in the U.S.

But my recent tour reminded me why people shouldn’t give up on the world’s largest fine wine region. Bordeaux is still the benchmark for stylish, complex Cabernet and Merlot, with 8500 growers in more than 60 appellations making over 600 million bottles. In the past decade, the best producers, aiming for quality, have embraced winemaking improvements, and warmer weather (thanks to climate change) and better vineyard practices help grapes ripen more fully. Many, like Moulin-Pey-Labrie, now farm their vineyards organically.

Wines grounded in history

Fronsac and tinier Canon-Fronsac have a long and illustrious history making ageworthy reds – Hubau tells me one of the first fans was Louis XIV. Its soil, a bedrock of limestone and chalk, are similar to more celebrated Saint-Emilion, and excellent for Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the main grape varieties. Names to look for include Château de la Rivière, Château La Vieille Cure, Château La Fleur Cailleau.

In Lussac Saint-Emilion, one of the so-called ``satellites’’ of Saint-Emilion, André Chatenoud of Château de Bellevue insists, ``Organic is the future for Bordeaux’s small producers.’’ After we explore part of his acres of underground limestone caves, where World War II American G.I.’s carved their names, we taste his fresh, fruity white made from Sauvignon Gris – the 2010 tastes of minerals, citrus and pear. His 2007 Les Griottes red is a light, easy-drinking quaffer ($20) while the 2008 Château de Bellevue is elegant and structured, the not-yet- bottled 2009 super plummy and rich.
To the north, in the hilly Côtes de Bourg, dotted with medieval fort ruins and grand views over the Gironde river, I find wonderfully fruity reds at châteaux practicing biodynamic viticulture. After his family bought Chateau La Grôlet in 1997, Jean-Luc Hubert tells me as we watch dwarf goats eat vineyard weeds, :a catastrophic storm inspired me to begin.” He adds, “Now, we no longer have bad vintages.” We’re tasting barrel samples of a certain great vintage, 2009, so it’s hard to disagree; both the “Classique” and the more serious “Tête de Cuvée” are concentrated and rich, with layers of cassis and raspberry fruit.

It’s almost dark when I arrive at pretty Château Fougas, one of the appellation’s oldest properties. "Half the Cote de Bourg is for sale, because the prices for wines are so low,’’ owner Jean Yves Bechet tells me over dinner. Certified organic, they turned to biodynamics in 2010.

Both their 2006 and 2008 Maldoror ($25), with aromas of violets and notes of roasted coffee and chocolate, seem bargains to me, but the 2009 ($17 as futures) is even better.

Perhaps the most fashionable Saint-Emilion satellite is Côtes de Castillon, where I catch up at Clos Puy Arnaud with owner Thierry Valette, who’s wearing Bordeaux-colored Nikes. A former saxophone player, singer, and dancer, he reminds me that this appellation is part of the same limestone plateau as its famous neighbor. Politics separated the two. Valette, too, has turned to biodynamics to lift the quality of his fruity, plummy, savory Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend.

These are just a few of my trip’s highlights. If you’ve given up Bordeaux, just try one.
Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of "The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste."

Mentioned in this article


  • I have NEVER given up on Bordeaux! And I am a firm believer that if you do your homework, you can find great values (under $20) in Bordeaux even in the great vintage years -- in fact, my cellar is full of them!

    Sep 27, 2011 at 6:23 PM

  • If you like Bordeaux, buy Bordeaux. If you don't, then don't buy. If you don't care, but want to spend the same or less money? There are thousands of wines that offer more balance, more lenght, definitely more intensity and more complexity. Having said this, please be aware that the price of a bottle of wine does not only depend on its quality. Labour costs, property costs, availability on the market, and demand are all factors that play a role in price setting. Nevertheless, most Bordeaux wines do not offer adequate quality and satisfaction considering their prices.

    Sep 27, 2011 at 6:51 PM

  • That is categorically NOT TRUE. If there is a wine region that consistently provides better wines than Bordeaux across all measures of quality, you wouldn't have to read it first here or from a single wine importer. That news would be splashed across the New York Times.

    The article is about affordable Bordeaux. Not affordable malbec, etc.

    Sep 27, 2011 at 7:18 PM

  • The truth is that both Saffredi and heartsleev are right, which is why Bordeaux can be a minefield for the unititiated, It is all very fine to be able to tour the regions winemakers, and then, in practically any region of France, you will sample good and occasionallly great wines. But too often the bordeaux in the shops has been thin and disappointing, or, if you get the good stuff, you have to store it for a decade to get the best out of it. During that decade there will be phases where it "closes down". Why pay for that?
    The article is right to spotlight the "lesser" appelations as a way around this - but Im not convinced that the investment in research time, bottle ageing and prices - which can be high outside France - is a satisfactory alternative to buying a Spanish or Australian bottle at the same price point and being guaranteed a wine that is enjoyable to drink now.

    Sep 28, 2011 at 4:38 AM

  • Good to see that more producers are turning to biodynamic viticulture, results of which are living wines that will make the thin clarets of the past a bad memory
    Another tip is to look for the motif of a person carrying a barrel, which signifies an independent vigneron, working in accordance with the traditions of the region to make typical wine, but make it well.

    Sep 28, 2011 at 4:41 AM

  • The problem is relative value for the contents. A few years back the Phila Inquirer wrote an excellent article on NJ wines which usually start at $ 15-16 for Viniferas. They go up from there and are very good on almost all counts. But, at that same time, I could buy a non-vineyard designated Californian varietal or blend 15 -40 % less (from the same retail store). I DO like NJ wines and both bank Bordeaux's but, unless, there's a good reason to buy the geography, it is hard to part company with the Californians (or those from Chile etc).

    Sep 28, 2011 at 3:01 PM

  • Snooth User: duncan 906
    Hand of Snooth
    425274 2,829

    I have had some beautiful Bordeaux wines and I have not paid a fortune and many of them I have reviewed for Snooth.In Calais you could buy some quality Bordeaux for 5 to 10 Euros especially if you looked at the less fashionable appellations such as Cotes de Castillon,Cotes de Blaye and Entre deux Mers etc.

    Sep 30, 2011 at 7:10 AM

  • Snooth User: topherg3
    921880 75

    It is my life's ambition to search out and explore all Bordeaux has offer. I don't care about any other wine region. From the tiny appellations of Canon-Fronsac and Moulis to the deep dark current of St. Julien.

    Sep 30, 2011 at 9:24 AM

  • Snooth User: schellbe
    Hand of Snooth
    247770 225

    But the problem is that most red wines are NOT enjoyable when young. Even the fruit forward internationally styled new world wines need at least five years to soften up. So might as well buy Bordeaux, which has better prices than CA cab for equivalent quality, and are ultimately more balanced.

    Sep 30, 2011 at 3:55 PM

  • Snooth User: duncan 906
    Hand of Snooth
    425274 2,829

    I think Mr Topberg3 is going to havehis work cut out.There are nearly 60 appellations within Bordeaux and only a few are well known.Have you tied Loupiac and Cadillac?

    Oct 02, 2011 at 3:38 AM

  • Snooth User: duncan 906
    Hand of Snooth
    425274 2,829

    I thinkMr Topherg3 is going to have his work cut out.There are nearly 60 appellations within Bordeaux and only a few are well known.Has he tried a Loupiac or a Cadillac?

    Oct 02, 2011 at 3:40 AM

  • Snooth User: topherg3
    921880 75

    That's my point, I'm going to buy and explore all appellations and vintages that my budget will allow of Bordeaux. I want to collect and cellar wines for the rest of my life. I just bought a Chateau Lagrange 03, I'll put it away for a few years and on some special occasion I'm looking forward to popping it.

    Oct 02, 2011 at 11:44 AM

  • Snooth User: schellbe
    Hand of Snooth
    247770 225


    Cellaring is well worth it. I just had a bottle of 86 Montrose which was so smooth and elegant. I have one bottle left of this case. I have to step down to third and fourth growths now, e.g. Lagrange, but there are still some good ageworthy bottles to be had for $30 - $50/bottle. And equivalent quality is definitely cheaper that CA Cabernet.

    Oct 02, 2011 at 7:55 PM

  • Snooth User: topherg3
    921880 75

    I feel sorry that you have to "step down" to 3rd and 4th growths. Some day I will step up to $100 to $200 bottle but now I'm saving to buy more of the '09 and '10 futures. And I'll put those away for the next decade. Even though the wine god himself RP promotes drinking wine in their youthfull age.

    Oct 03, 2011 at 8:41 AM

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