The non-classified bottles from the region's Left Bank offer value, complexity and ageability.
Fact: Bordeaux makes some of the most respected and sought-after wines in the world. Another fact: A lot of it is out of reach for the average oenophile. But that doesn't mean that you need to pass over the region entirely. Skip the First through Fifth Growths (the Châteaux given status in the 1855 Classification) for wallet-friendly Cru Bourgeois, which offer a smattering of what makes Bordeaux great: namely structure, elegant fruit, and the ability to evolve over many years. As François Nony, vice president of Cru Bourgeois du Médoc puts it, "With our consistency and classic structure, we don’t see that many competitors who can offer the same for the price." In other words, these wines need to be part of any robust beverage program.
What are Cru Bourgeois wines?
Cru Bourgeois wines hail from the Left Bank of France's renowned Bordeaux region, and each is made up of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. What makes them especially sought after is that they have the pedigree of Bordeaux without the price tag. "These wines, secretly some of the best value in France, are more approachable and consumer friendly than that of the Grand Crus classé," points out Nony. Most of them are available from $15 to $50, a relative steal compared to the higher-end bottles of the region.
If Cru Bourgeois wines are value driven they must be mass produced, right?
Not at all. Firstly, producers are restricted to using grapes grown on a single château, and are not permitted to purchase grapes outside of the estate's vineyards. This may make the cost of production higher, but it also makes for more distinctive, terroir-driven wines. Nony points out that in other areas of the world, these wines could be listed as single vineyard and command up to ten times the price.
Can I drink them now or do they need to be cellared for years like other Bordeaux?
Both, and that's the beauty of these bottles. "Cru Bourgeois wines offer the dual characteristics of approachability and the ability to be cellared for the medium to longer terms," explains Nony. In other words, while top tier Bordeaux is bottled austere and tannic, requiring years of aging to mellow out, these wines can be uncorked and enjoyed right now. Or, if you have the patience to keep them in the cellar or on the rack, they'll reward you with interesting secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors, and oodles of complexity (think leather, tobacco and dried herbs, for starters).
What should I pair with Cru Bourgeois wines?
Classic Bordeaux pairings like beef, lamb, and wild boar are all winning partners with its restrained fruit, structure and earthiness, but some lighter style Cru Bourgeois also go nicely with pork, duck, charcuterie, cheese, and pasta dishes. And remember not to serve the wines too warm; about thirty minutes in the fridge gives you true "cellar temperature."
What's particularly interesting about winery ownership for Cru Bourgeois?
Around 20% of the 2013 vintage Cru Bourgeois wineries are either fully or partially owned by women. In June, a panel of women winemakers facilitated a virtual tasting of these wines and explained how they are giving the industry their own signature stamp. "They are not afraid, and tradition is combined with modernity," declares Armelle Cruse, winemaker from Château du Taillan. "Women winemakers are always precise in their wines, as in the past they often had to convince everybody of their skills." She adds that these pioneers are defined by their precision, willingness, ambitions, progress, efficiency and passion.
How should I get started with Cru Bourgeois wines?
Here are some bottles to try:
2012 Château La Cardonne Cru Bourgeois
Winemaker Magali Guyon only releases the wine when it's ready. She says this bottling, full of fruit and charming soft tannins, will age eight to ten years.
2012 Château du Taillan
Armelle Cruse's tasting philosophy is to use more Merlot in the blend to make the final product more accessible, with finesse, charm and (most important) balance.
2012 Château Cap Leon Veyrin
Age-worthiness but accessibility, and adapting to the terroir of your particular vineyards, are the hallmarks of winemaker's Nathalie Meyre's philosophy. This bottling is fresh and fruity, with nice structure and velvety tannins.
2012 Château Bellevue de Tayac
Melanie Fabre looks for typicity in her wines, and wants them to be easy-drinking and draw you back for another sip. The large percentage of Merlot in this wine (70%) gives it red and black fruit notes, a smoky aroma, and soft tannins.
2013 Château Fonbadet
Winemaker Pascale Peyronie describes this wine as having grippy tannins and restrained fruit; enjoy it with meat, chicken or pasta with truffles.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.