Imagine a wine cellar containing one bottle from each of the 4,160 chateaus of Bordeaux. Such a cellar would hold nearly 350 standard 12-bottle cases and would occupy more than 280 cubic feet of storage. At the rate of one bottle per day, it would take more than 11 1/2 years before the cork was popped on the very last bottle.
Of those 350 cases, fewer than five would hold all of the classified growths of the Me'doc, such as Lafite-Rothschild and Latour. Another five would easily contain the major growths of Pomerol, St. Emilion and Graves, such as Pe'trus, Cheval Blanc and Haut-Brion.
But here's the rub. The wines that make up these 10 cases -- representing 3 percent of all the chateaus -- attract 99 percent of all the writing, reviewing, frenzied collecting and speculation that is the most visible part of the Bordeaux scene.
Such an imbalance is inexcusable. Bordeaux's true claim to greatness is not simply the extraordinary quality of its best wines. Just as importantly, Bordeaux is unique in its ability to produce world class wine in lavish abundance and at low cost. Don't be misled. Fine Bordeaux is not a rarity for the privileged few. It's Everyman's birthright.
These days, with run-of-the-mill classified growths commanding $20 a bottle, and with great ones fetching far more, it's high time to challenge that assumption that all of the best Bordeaux be shoehorned into 10 small cases. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of the remaining 4,000 plus properties, known as petit cha~teaux, still sell for less than $8 a bottle. Rest assured, the difference between them and their aristocratic classified cousins is not commensurate with price -- provided one chooses with some care.
Listed below in order of preference are my top picks based on extensive tastings of chateau-bottled petit chateaux (such wines are labeled mis en bouteuille au cha~teau, which guarantees authenticity).
Like the classified growths, the petit chateaux benefit immensely from aging. But unlike the classified growths, which may need decades to reach their peaks, the petit chateaux are ready from three to five years after the vintage. Thus, virtually all of the 1986 and '87 petits listed are ready now and have developed genuine bottle bouquet. The '88s and and '89s can be drunk pleasurably now, but are still displaying the decidedly sauvage notes of young cabernet and merlot. It's no crime to drink them now, but you'll be richly rewarded if you hold them for a few years. (Prices are approximate. Except where noted, District retailers can order from the wholesaler listed in brackets. Maryland and Virginia distribution may differ from that of the District.) The wines:
Cha~teau Mayne-Vieil 1986 ($8; Fronsac): Heady, ripe, opulent bouquet. On the palate, warm, fleshy fruit with hints of chocolate and exotic spice. This 80-percent merlot, 20-percent cabernet blend has a warmth and richness reminiscent of a good Pomerol (stocked in D.C. at MacArthur Beverages).
Cha~teau de Pitray 1988 ($6; Co~tes de Castillon): Big mouthful of husky, fleshy, red fruit flavors. Shocking concentration and depth; though still some tannins to resolve, the fruit is so strong the wine can be drunk now with pleasure, though two more years in the cellar is advised (various importers).
Cha~teau Tayac 1986 "Rubis du Prince Noir" ($8; Co~tes de Bourg): Polished and delicate, with cherry and berry-like fruit; silky texture on the palate, never harsh; round, long finish. Modest oak adds finesse (Hand Picked Selections).
Chateau Jonqueyres 1988 "Vielle Vignes" ($6; St. Germain du Puch): Made from low-yielding old merlot vines from the estate of Jean-Michel Arcaut, the owner of Pomerol's hot Chateau Clinet, this wine shows much breed. Subtle notes of toasty oak (20 percent new barrels) combine with the floral perfume of merlot. On the palate, the wine is medium bodied, subtle and complex, but still a bit tight. Should be superb in six to 12 months (stocked in D.C. at Calvert Woodley).
Cha~teau Toumalin 1987 ($6; Canon-Fronsac): One of the surprises of this tasting was the strong showing of a number of right-bank wines from the unheralded 1987 vintage. Such wines tend to use a high percentage of merlot, which came in at good ripeness before the rains. Now fully mature, this wine has an appealing spiciness and robust charm (Laurent Selections).
Chateau Quentin 1986 ($8; St. Emilion): Absolutely at its peak, this wine lacks the rough tannins found in many '86 Bordeaux. Complex flavors are light and gentle, almost sweet as in old claret (John Gross & Co.).
Cha~teau Se'gur 1986 ($8; Haut Me'doc): Though there is still some tannin to resolve, this wine is developing extremely well; dark, healthy color; concentrated cabernet fruit, impressive strength on the finish. Better in a year (MacArthur Beverages).
Chateau Clos de la Borie 1987 ($8; Co~tes de Francs): This property's conscientious owners, the Thienponts of Vieux Cha~teau Certan and Le Pin in Pomerol, decided to bottle all of '87 production from Chateau Puygueraud, their Co~tes de Francs estate, under this second label at a bargain price. Smooth, harmonious flavors, excellent weight on middle palate (stocked in D.C. at Pearsons).
Chateau La Tour Seguy 1988; Clos du Pain de Sucre (Both are $5.50; Co~tes de Bourg): Both are palate pleasers, with light, fresh fruit flavors jumping from the glass; obviously vinified for early consumption; best consumed now, at peak freshness (La Tour Seguy stocked at MacArthur Beverages; Clos du Pain de Sucre from Hand Picked Selections).
Chateau La Faviere 1987 ($6; St. Seurin sur L' Isle): From just outside of Lussac-St. Emilion; firm base of cabernet fruit gives way to impressive spicy maturity on the palate; a real sleeper (International).
Chateau de Cornemps 1988 ($8; Petit-Palais): This property's vineyards are located within the boundaries of Lussac-St. Emilion, but can be sold only as Bordeaux Superior because its vines are planted on alluvial soils (palais) not entitled to the St. Emilion appellation. Not terribly complex, but the generous, lush, soft fruit more than compensates (Wines Limited).
Chateau La Bergere 1986 ($8; Montagne St. Emilion): A bit closed-in at first, opened up after 30 minutes to reveal good red fruit and spice notes on the bouquet and on the palate. Dry tannins suggest pairing with beef (Forman).
Chateau Damase 1988; Chateau Recougne 1988 (Both $6-$8; Galgon): Both of these wines are from the stable of negociant Jean Milhade, but they are quite different. The Damase is loaded with round, open, fruit and is best drunk now. The Recougne is more classically structured and exceedingly well put-together. Having sampled outstanding bottles of Recougne from the early 1950s, I would predict years of evolution for the '88. The '86 is still in the market, but lacks the quality of the 1988 (Hand Picked Selections)
Cha~teau Pe'connet 1988 ($8; Premie`res Co~tes de Bordeaux): Fine color; bold, cedary cabernet franc fruit on the palate. Mouth-filling, rustic flavors need about a year to smooth out; will be a good bottle of sturdy claret (International)
Cha~teau Peroutet 1988 ($6; Co~tes de Francs): Attractive garnet red color; ripe merlot bouquet; smooth and stylish, in a St. Emilion style (Hand Picked Selections).
Ben Giliberti is Washington-based freelancer who writes regularly about wine.