Bordeaux can too expensive, too intimidating and too clichéd. But there’s another side to the region. Look a little deeper and you will find beautiful and easier-on-the-pocket wines from less “fashionable” areas and boutique wine-makers.
Bordeaux, the celebrity of the wine world: a trading commodity, a status symbol, the Chanel of wine. It easily accounts for 15% of France’s vast production, which flips annually from first to second in the world (versus Italy). Bordeaux is also the world’s largest fine wine region and home to the luxury brands of Châteaux Margaux, Petrus and Lafite-Rothschild.
All of this shine has attracted huge interest – and huge prices with it – mainly from global billionaire buyers flashing their Château Latours as they would a Rolex.
But there is a downside to all this bling. Firstly, Bordeaux is one of the most intimidating of wine groups. Majestic châteaux and white-gloved handlers provide pomp and spectacle at regal levels, and it’s as if the wines themselves are looking down at you – “You do not deserve to drink me” – while turning a nose up at your admission that you like a Californian red.
That is not its only image problem. Bordeaux feels both crammed and antique in its style and approach. Walk past the Bordeaux shelf in your supermarket and you will find an abundance of similar-looking bottles with similar-sounding names and samey labels, finished off with a samey-looking château in the background. The belief is that quality here can be distinguished only by price.
A lot of these top-end wines need laying down for a hibernation period practically unheard of – “Yes, this will really be wonderful in eight or ten years” – when all you want is something to go with dinner. Tonight. At a push, next week. Not that we have the budget.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good Bordeaux. Intense dark fruits, leather, earth and cigars all have a place in my world. But there is a lot of focus on the top end. Others further down the supermarket price scale can be harder to distinguish, and many that I have tried were immediately forgettable.
But this shouldn’t put us off. Between the premium, the clichéd and the unremarkable, there’s another side to the region. Look a little deeper and you will find beautiful and easier-on-the-pocket wines from less “fashionable” areas – Bourg, Blaye, Fronsac, Castillon – and small, boutique wine-makers hidden among the giants.
With a cheap hire car, a hesitant sat-nav, and basic level French, we drove straight past those famous châteaux and took a trip around the region.
Blaye and Bourg
Two small, neighbouring, fairy-tale towns sitting on the right side of the estuary. Often overlooked in favour of the superstar Medoc across the Gironde, or the idyllic Saint Émilion, the Blaye and Bourg areas have to work that bit harder to get their wines known. This means the quality is often very high, while prices remain sensible.
Château Bel-Air La Royère, Blaye
Standing out in a crowd of over 200 producers is not easy, but team Château Bel-Air La Royère did just that at the Blaye Pays Temps annual wine festival. Run by Xavier and Corinne Loriaud, the boutique operation of Bel-Air La Royère is set in a charming farmhouse perched on Blaye’s rolling hills, and the romantic in me feels this is a production of love, over and above making a living.
In addition to the love, the quarter of Malbec added to their blends ensures you take notice. Malbec usually doesn’t get much of an airing in Bordeaux, although Blaye’s limestone soils are ideal for this grape, forcing the vine roots to work harder, helping to deliver a more concentrated style.
Château Falfas, Bourg
Château Falfas is no newbie. In the 15th century its wines were being exported to the Royal Courts. But in recent years (well, 1989), they took up the biodynamic reins and introduced a rigorous selection process to make sure their wines are just right. They too add a touch of Malbec to their reds for added punch.
Yes, it may have a samey style here, but Falfas proves you don’t have to pay the high prices if you want a great, age-worthy Bordeaux.
Located on the outskirts of the famously beautiful St. Émilion is Fronsac, with its equally breathtaking landscape, but minus the medieval town.
After starting out as top-wine gun in the mid-18th century, a devastating bout of phylloxera (that nasty bug) wiped out most of its vines. Since then and up to the 1980s, Fronsac was overlooked for its famous neighbours – the other being Pomerol – losing out on talent and investment. This meant that the gap in quality between the bordering towns only grew with the years. But a few (mainly foreign) investors went against the grain, realised the area’s potential, and are now seeing the benefits of their beliefs, efforts, and wine-gentrification.
Château Cassagne, Canon-Fronsac
Châteaux La Vieille Cure, La Dauphine and Gaby are some of the better-known names from this area, but we also came across Château Cassagne, a family farmhouse perched high on a hill and run by Jean-Jacques Dubois, the third generation to take the reins.
Merlot is the dominant grape in these parts and is usually paired with Cabernet Franc, much like the desired St. Émilion. Fronsac can come across as slightly more rustic than its plushy neighbour’s offerings, but that all adds to the charm (when you find the right one).
We were particularly taken with Cassagne’s “La Truffière”, named after the truffles that sprinkle the vineyard. These wines take some time to open up, so we were grateful that Jean had a sample ready to go. Plummy fruits followed by a savoury feel, slightly tight – and did we taste… truffle? This would go perfectly with lamb.
Verac – Les Monicord
In the green and hilly postcard village of Verac, eight miles north-west of Fronsac, we came across French-Dutch winemaking duo Joep and Mireille Bakx. Joep moved to France for love, and in 2000 they followed their dreams and opened their vineyard.
Gone, finally, is the samey-Bordeaux labelling. In its place is something far more modern and chic, with daughter and artist designing all their labels (and in a good way, not like your proud parent mate who shows you little Nathan’s scribbles). These guys have also moved away from the Bordeaux sales structure, in a brave move that throws out the chubby middle-man.
We liked their wine so much they made it into our virtual cellar
Lussac-Saint-Émilion – Château de Bellevue
Bellevue was another find during the spring festivals. Lussac is 10 miles east of St. Émilion and is considered a satellite appellation – meaning it’s a high-quality producing area, but at surprisingly good value.
The vines of Bellevue’s small estate are all organically farmed, and it is not just their reds that stand out. The Sauvignon Gris is lighter than your usual Bordeaux white, delivering a freshness suitable for daytime drinking without much food.
Their classic reds are all worthy of enjoying now or stashing under the stairs and ageing well – more proof that there is no need to pay the premium.
In Part 2 we discover boutique wine-makers hidden among the giants of the left bank of the Gironde.