A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet the owner of a classed-growth château in the Médoc. Over lunch served by a slippered footman, with a bottle of the 1982 followed by the 1986, I asked him whether he ever thought it worth getting to know his customers, the people who drink his wine. He looked horrified at the prospect: “Why would I want to do that?”
Top Bordeaux is sold in a convoluted way. The châteaux make the wine, which is then sold via a middlemen known as courtiers who takes a 2 per cent commision to negociants, merchant houses usually located in the city of Bordeaux. These negociants sell the wine to wine merchants around the world like Berry Bros. in London. Joss Fowler, a wine merchant friend with a huge amount of experience buying, selling and most importantly drinking bordeaux, tried to explain it to me: “it’s a funny system but it works. A good courtier will spread the wine around.”
The upshot is that unlike say cult Californian producers, most Bordelais have no contact at all with the final customer. Which is just how my Médoc man likes it. Visit the famous communes of Bordeaux such as Pauillac or St Julien, and you’ll see the great châteaux with their beautiful grounds firmly locked behind gates. Visitors have traditionally not been welcome.
But that is now beginning to change. Château Lynch-Bages (lunch bags to its friends) in Pauillac has a hotel, restaurant and you can take a tour, just like you’re in Napa. It’s a similar story at Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan. This new friendlier face is being extended to journalists too. Previously most châteaux, didn’t go in for ‘le marketing’, they left that to the merchants. But last month two legendary estates, La Gaffelière in St. Emilion and Leoville Las Cases in St. Julien put on a press tasting in London where they brought out old vintages to try.
Joss Fowler disagreed that this marketing push is because of a decline in sales: “Léoville Las Cases don’t need to let people taste the wines. They can sell everything they produce.” He thinks that it’s about changing people’s perceptions of Bordeaux: “they are reminding people that it is wine, not a commodity, and it tastes nice.” I’ll drink to that especially when I get to try 1998 LéovilleLas – a single case of which will cost you about £2,000 excluding duty and VAT. It’s a bit out of my price range but thanks in part to a run of good vintages, 2014, 15 and 15, affordable claret is better than ever. Here are a few to try:
The Society’s Côtes de Bordeaux 2015 (£8.95 The Wine Society)
From a great vintage and made by Château de Pitray, this is the very definition of refreshing lunch time claret. I love the combination of ripe raspberry fruit with a nice tannic bite to it that comes into its own with red meat.
Jean-Pierre Moueix Bordeaux 2015 (9.95 The Wine Society)
The Wine Society really is fantastic for Bordeaux at all price points. This merlot-heavy little number has a fleshiness and a hedonism about it that reminded me a little of something fancy from Pomerol.
Château d’Abzac 2015 (£12.95 Yapp Bros)
100% merlot, and full of ripe plummy fruit this really is Bordeaux with a friendly face. It will appeal to people who like New World wines but it’s still got the all important refreshment factor.
Berry Bros. & Rudd Extra Ordinary Claret 2015 (£16.95 BBR)
Definitely worth splashing out for the Extra Ordinary Claret over the Ordinary. This is from Graves, the vineyards right by the city of Bordeaux, and it is all fragrance and elegance with just a little dark chocolate underneath.
Château Potensac 2014 (£25.99 House of Townend)
I sometimes find Potensac in its youth to be rather hard work but this is so lovely, you could easily drink it now especially with a nice bit of lamb. This is a serious wine at a bargain price. If you like a classic Medoc, you will love this.