On the cheap – Bordeaux for £6. Sure, it can be done

I’ve heard it time and time again: cheap Bordeaux just doesn’t exist. And if it does, it tastes like paint thinner mixed with marked gasoline.

Bordeaux is home to some of the world’s most expensive wines, they say. There is very little value there, they shout.

But I’m one of those people who says this whole “Bordeaux is a ripoff” thing is a bit of a myth.

After all, there are more than 120,000 hectares under vine in the Bordeaux region, producing about 700 million bottles each year. That’s a lot.

It would stand to reason, then, that a few bargains can be found from time to time. So I have a made it something of a mission of mine to find cheap Bordeaux that doesn’t taste like acetone.

How hard can it be? I can buy a bottle of 15-year-old claret for just €8 at the Maison du Vin in Montagne, France, so why can’t I find something similar here?

This week I found myself drinking something for £5.99 that was apparently rather savoury, was displaying great fruit and came complete with cedar notes. There was more to the blurb but most of the time I find wine labels rather forgettable and misleading, so I didn’t think to memorise it.

This is Waitrose’s Reserve Claret 2010 I’m talking about and, despite its already cheap price, is actually a step up from their most basic option, their Good Ordinary Claret, which sells for less than £5.

For that money, it’s probably better than most wine you’ll ever find in a late-night off-licence, but how many late-night wine-drinking decisions are made during the day anyway?

Anyway, a grand wine this was not, but that was always going to be obvious. But was it drinkable, was my main question?

Sure, but it had some negatives. For a penny less than £6 the first thing I noticed when I opened the bottle was an overwhelming aroma of rubber.

Thinking a bit of air would sort things out I left it in the glass and shifted over to the 18-year-old bottle of Chateau Potensac I’d been working on that weekend.

The difference between the two, of course, was palpable. One had pedigree, age, class and complexity; the other had a supermarket’s name on the bottle, a clear misuse of the word ‘reserve’ on the label and not much of anything to show for it.

Ah, except for price. At £5.99, it sells for about a quarter what the Chateau Potensac costs. For weekday drinking where you just want to get spannered, dump something neutral into a spaghetti sauce or maybe mull some wine, this wouldn’t be offensive at all.

To give this poor wine credit where due, it has a lot going for it. It was drinkable for one. It was showing the right amount of fruit and, unlike some other cheap red wines I’ve had, it wasn’t so tannic that it was tight-as-a-rusted-nut.

As I was buying this bottle during my weekly trip to the supermarket, I was reminded of other ‘value’ Bordeaux wines I’ve tried in the past. Front of mind was a 2009 sold by Virgin Wines under what they call a ‘cleanskin’ label. The marketing spiel made bold statements about its origins and how it was “the vintage of a lifetime” – all for just £7.50 a bottle.

One sip of that wine told me that, under no circumstances, was it a fine example of a vintage of a lifetime, even if 2009 was a great year in Bordeaux.

That brings me back to Waitrose’s Reserve Claret. For less than £6, what do we really expect from this wine, even if 2010 was a great vintage? I expect it to be drinkable, to be pleasant, to give me the confidence that I’ve not been duped.

So, has this wine delivered? Yes and no. Yes insofar as it was a drinkable wine that didn’t really cause much offence, particularly after it was allowed to breathe so the funky burnt rubber smell would dissipate.

No insofar as I couldn’t get over the burnt rubber smell in this wine. I know £6 is pushing the price/quality ratio a bit, but I’m sure it can be done.

How do you like your 2010s? With a little Gavroche

Not long ago I found myself at a dinner where I had to double-check the place names to make sure I was, er, in the right place.

Was that email sent to me on purpose? Check. When I got to the door were they expecting me? Check. When you sat down at the table was that your name on the place card? Check.


Well, hey, I’ve seen it happen to other people before.

These thoughts ran through my head because I found myself at London’s Le Gavroche one evening to taste the 2010 vintage from the Bordeaux properties owned by CA Grands Crus, the vineyard management arm of Credit Agricole run by Thierry Budin. Full disclosure: CA Grands Crus supplied the wine and paid for the dinner, which was attended by a few wine writers.

It gave me a chance to notice something I’ve not noticed before. Even though the wines on show came from different vineyard sites across the Médoc, and even though they spanned several different quality levels, there was a consistency in style and flavor all the way from the humblest offering to the grand vin from its best vineyard.

You know how family members all tend to have common traits that are easy to pick out in a crowd, and how you can often find out if someone is related to that family because they bear a resemblance to someone you know? This is what this wine tasting was like.

So, anyway, the restaurant was cozy, the food was spectacular and, well, few faults could be found in the wine.

Thierry could have hosted this tasting in a body shop under a railway arch in Tower Hamlets and I’d have gone. That he chose a two-Michelin-star restaurant was an appreciated convenience, although I’d probably have settled on Byron in a pinch.

Now, to the wine. First up was the firm’s entry-level wine, Château Blaignan Cru Bourgeois Médoc. It wasn’t the most complex wine I’ve had, but given its position in the portfolio I wasn’t expecting it either.

This was an honest everyday wine that displayed spice, cherries and black fruits, and that was just fine for me. My notes on this wine contain several scribbled words I can’t read now, but I’m fairly sure they were positive descriptions.

Oh yeah, and there was a firm grip of tannins here, which is a theme across all of the wines. Mr Budin said all of the wines are made in a traditional style, which is to say they won’t be adopting a New World style like many other French producers have done recently.

I think he made the right decision.

Next up was another cru bourgeois, this time from Margaux in the shape of Château La Tour de Mons.This has medium tannins, a light scent of oak on the nose, some spice, cassis, more dark fruits.

My notes tell me this was a little light on the finish, so I’m going to trust them in this instance and say while this was again fairly enjoyable, it left me wanting something more (as I always do).

So, what’s next? Ah, yes, the Château Meyney from Saint-Estephe, that’s what.

I’m not going to get too repetitive here. This was once again all dark fruits and vanilla, but it had a vegetal quality, perhaps green pepper, with wet stones, spice and medium tannin.

Next up, Château Grand-Puy Ducasse in Pauillac, the big one of the night. This, too, was displaying those dark fruits, that light oaky nose, that traditional Bordeaux style.

It took time to open up in the glass and therefore wasn’t showing as much complexity because it was still a bit closed. Either that or my nose was closed, since I distinctly recall having to give my sinuses a shot of Sudafed before the tasting began.

Ah, perhaps that was it.

Topping it all off was the Sauternes. Oh, Sauternes, what a wine. A lot of people approach sweet wines with trepidation. Admittedly, I did the same when I was new to wine. I didn’t know what to make of it, I didn’t know when I’d ever drink it and I was worried it would be, well, too sweet.

Château de Rayne Vigneau was acquired by CA Grands Crus in 2004 and seemingly has had a great deal of investment in the past decade or so. The wine in 2010 has 135g/litre of residual sugar and has a fresh, light flavour. It’s definitely still a bit young. But for me, it was wonderful all the same.

If the wines from CA Grands Crus are a sign of what we can expect from the rest of the 2010 vintage in Bordeaux, I’m looking forward to drinking a whole lot more.