Columnist, Food

Vineyards show late-season colors near St-Émilion, one of the principal red-wine areas of Bordeaux. (Bob Edme/Associated Press)

When we think of the world’s best bargain wines, we seldom think of Bordeaux. Bordeaux is the elite, expensive wine, with prices in the three digits or higher. We talk of first growths and historic chateaux, the history of the British wine trade and the glamour that is luxury wine.

The Bordeaux we see written about in wine magazines is what we might today call wines for “the 1-percenters” — or at least the upper-upper middle class. The famous Bordeaux classification of 1855, which I wrote about in December for its 150th anniversary, established a hierarchy of quality in a region that set the worldwide benchmark for wines blended from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec.

Bordeaux is stratified into several rankings based mostly on geography. The Cru Classé wines of the Médoc on the left bank of the Gironde River (cabernet country) give us the familiar appellation names of Pauillac, St-Estèphe, Margaux, St-Julien, Graves and Pessac-Léognan, along with the lesser Médoc and Haut-Médoc. On the right bank, we have Pomerol and St-Émilion and other “satellite” appellations, their wines dominated by merlot and cabernet franc.

Even for those who can afford to buy these wines by the bottle or by the case, price consigns them to special occasions. Yet Bordeaux can be an everyday style of wine, if you’re willing and adventurous enough to sift through the lower appellations. Just over half of the Bordeaux region produces wines labeled Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur, according to Planet Bordeaux, the winery association representing those levels. And with the wines typically costing $20 or less, Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur can be terrific values.

“At the restaurants I buy for, we sell a lot of expensive Bordeaux,” says Michael Madrigale, who is the U.S. brand ambassador for Planet Bordeaux and oversees the wine programs for three of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants in New York. “We think of Haut-Brion and Château Margaux,” Madrigale says, naming two of the five first growths of Bordeaux.

“But the wines of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur have an underdog appeal, and this huge region is not understood. I’m always looking for values, and these wines often taste better than their price.”

Madrigale then turns all somm. “The wines have a sense of place,” he says. “Taste one blind” — meaning you don’t know what it is — “and you can tell it’s Bordeaux.”

Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur are two broad AOCs, or appellations, designating wines that don’t qualify for Bordeaux’s smaller, more prestigious and pricier appellations. Reds typically are blends with a majority of merlot, along with varying amounts of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec. Bordeaux Supérieur reds are made with lower grape yields in the vineyards and longer aging in the cellar before bottling.

Bordeaux white wines usually are blends of Sémillon and various clones of sauvignon blanc. (Some may be entirely one or the other.) White Bordeaux from the Graves appellation can be among the world’s most delicious and age-worthy wines. Most white Bordeaux, however, are light, crisp and refreshing, as well as inexpensive. You will see the designation “Entre-Deux-Mers” on many labels, marking wines grown in the region between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. (Reds from this area are simply labeled Bordeaux.)

Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur are easy to drink when young and can improve for a few years. But they are not collector’s items for you to store in expensive wine racks, pulling them out once a year to dust them off and admire the labels while waiting for some mythical window of maturity to open. These are Bordeaux for immediate gratification.