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13 March 2019

Cheap Bordeaux seems an oxymoron, but there are varieties that won’t empty your bank account

The name Bordeaux, rather than being an indicator of quality, is used to befuddle the customer with unfulfillable promises of greatness.

By Nina Caplan

Three things strike me as I read the account by intrepid Hungarian-born nobleman Colonel Agoston Haraszthy, sometimes called the Father of Californian Winemaking, of his visit to Bordeaux, in 1861. The first is the tedium of travel, then. The second is his admiration for the beauty of the city itself: Bordeaux may have spent decades of the 20th century with its port disfigured by abandoned warehouses and its river views obstructed by ill-placed buildings, but in Haraszthy’s time it was still “a very fine city”. The botanic gardens were full of goldfish and white-necked swans and, this naturalised American was delighted to note, “many ships from our own country sweep the harbour with their airy forms”. That’s a city I recognise, although for American sloops I’ll substitute the Cité du Vin, the riverside wine museum that opened in 2016, its airy form designed to resemble a swirling wine glass.

The last is the depressing difference between drinking Bordeaux in its birthplace and elsewhere. Haraszthy warns readers in San Francisco that their city’s $5-a-case Bordeaux is actually no bargain. “No good wine can be sold even [in Bordeaux] at any such price. Where then is the cost of transportation, insurance, interest, and duty, to say nothing of profits?”

This, too, sounds familiar. The name Bordeaux, rather than being an indicator of quality, is used to befuddle the customer with unfulfillable promises of greatness.

The San Franciscans were cheated because they wanted contradictory things: fine Bordeaux and something reasonably cheap to drink with dinner ($5 a case is about £9.50 a bottle today). That is capitalism’s sales pitch: rare pearls at plastic prices. We all want to taste Pétrus 1961 but only those with several grand to drop on a single bottle ever will. This is how revolutions start.

And yet there are ways to enjoy Bordeaux if you resign yourself to spending at least £20, and look beyond the classed growths. Englishman Gavin Quinney at Château Bauduc makes great Sauvignon Blanc; Château Sociando-Mallet in the Haut-Médoc is good for Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy reds; on the Right Bank, tiny Château La Grave Figeac has terroir between far grander, and pricier, neighbours in Pomerol. There are Entre-Deux-Mers whites and Saint-Émilion reds that will delight your palate without (quite) emptying your bank account.

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Are these wines better than equivalents with a less hallowed history? That is a question of taste, which depends on experience. The more we try, the more we know. Which is an argument for adventure, as Colonel Haraszthy understood.

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Or emulate him and visit Bordeaux itself. The regenerated city is beautiful once again. Budget travellers can stay at Hotel Mama Shelter and educate themselves in Bordeaux’s wine bars; those with better-lined pockets should go to one of the Relais & Châteaux hotels dotted around the region, such as the Hostellerie de Plaisance in Saint-Émilion. They have fine dining, amazing wine lists and access to top vineyards. We pampered modern travellers travel in comfort and, unlike Haraszthy, can be anywhere in hours. Hype, branding and unjust pricing persist, but so does quality, and drinking well in an ancient region that has made a virtue (and a fortune) out of continuity is the reward for a little perseverance of our own. 

This article appears in the 13 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control