I recently attended the Society of Wine Educators Conference – completely virtual of course. One of the sessions was a dive into the Bordeaux region. In preparation, I had planned to go on a little shopping trip and buy a right bank, a left bank, a blanc, a Sauternes, etc. As fate would have it, my Dad would pass away in the weeks before the conference, and between travelling back and forth to Ohio, funeral preparations in a pandemic, and grieving, I ended up looking in my wine closet to see what I could throw together. I found three bottles, on varying ends of the price and quality spectrum.
It’s not really fair to compare these bottles when you consider that one comes in around $125, one around $22, and the other at $9. But I did anyway, curious how the range in prices would compare. Before we get to that, let’s take a quick, and incredibly basic, overview of the region.
Bordeaux is divided into two basic regions, the Left Bank and the Right Bank, separated by the Gironde River. There is a southern region called Entre-Deux-Mer, known for Bordeaux’s dry white wines. That is a very general overview, as each region has several sub-regions – please see the map below. We could spend a long time breaking down each region, and the 1855 Classification system, but this post is about my three wines, so I’m not going to go very deep here. A red Bordeaux wine is always a blend, of some combination of the following grapes:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Cabernet Franc
- Petit Verdot
The Right Bank is where the “traditional” Bordeaux wines hail from. All of the most highly revered wines (First Growths) come from this area. The soil is gravel and the wines are Cabernet Sauvignon dominant. Don’t count the Left Bank out on your hunt for quality Bordeaux wine – like Cinderella – completely ignored at first, it is now known for some of the region’s best wine. The Right Bank has soil that is more clay like and the wines are Merlot dominant, with Cabernet Franc playing a huge role in the blends.
You could spend many thousands of dollars on one bottle of a First Growth Bordeaux wine. Most of us won’t ever get the chance to taste a Lafitte, or a Latour, or a Margaux. It makes me sad to think about, so let’s talk about what I do have.
Cheateau du Ballandreau|2015 Bordeaux Supérieur|13.5% ABV|$8.99
Look, this wine is $9 and it is perfectly drinkable. That might be enough said right there. This wine is not a Left Bank, or Right Bank, it carries the Bordeaux Supérieur quality level which means the grapes come from all over of the region. The addition of Supérieur on the label adds a few quality requirements like 12 months of oak aging, and is one step up from the very general designation of Bordeaux.
A blend of 40% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 22% Cabernet Franc, it does not have a ton of complexity, and the tannins are slightly grippy, but over all this wine is one that makes me wonder how they produce a wine at such a low cost – with organic grapes that spent 12 months in French oak. Seriously. How do they do it?
Expressive aromas of blackberry, cherry, vanilla, menthol, and a hint of something savory. All of these notes carried over to the palate. As noted above, the tannins might have been slightly grippy but there was great acidity and nice medium body mouthfeel.
The wine could be better integrated, but again, I’m not sure what more you could expect from a wine that comes in at this price point. I did pick this wine up at Costco, so it might be a few dollars more at other retail locations.
Vignnobles Lagardere|Chateau Rocher-Calon|2017 Montagne-Saint-Emilion|13.5%|$21.99
This wine hails from the Right Bank, from Saint-Emilion, and perhaps the most surprising thing to me was that this wine never saw oak aging. Not to be mistaken for low quality production methods, the grapes are both hand and mechanically harvested and undergo a 20-25 day maceration prior to fermentation. A blend of 90% Merlot and %10 Cabernet Franc the wine is aged for 18 months in stainless steel and cement vats.
Currently run by the third and fourth generation of Lagarderes, the winery was modernized with the state of the art equipment in 1999, and they continue to embrace modern wine making while adhering to traditional principles.
Punching above it’s weight class, this wine is a steal at $22! Amazing aromas of red berries, cherry, anise, floral notes, and somehow I got vanilla despite no oak aging. This wine felt a little lighter bodied mid palate , with great acidity, but then returned for a bold finish that had just a hint of the barnyard notes that I love on a Bordeaux.
Chateau Gruaud Larose|2005|Saint-Julien|13.1%|approx. $125.00
Saint-Julien is one of Bordeaux’s premier sub-regions, located within the Medoc, on the left bank. Chateau Gruaud Larose was founded in 1725, and is currently under it’s fourth set of owners since that time, the Merlaut family. This wine is a pricey little number, and certainly not an every day wine for most people, but I feel like I found another gem here, even if only for special occasions.
The blend on this wine is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, and 1% Malbec. The grapes were fermented in in cement and oak, with final aging for 18 months in French oak (30% new).
It was plainly evident that this wine was superior to the other 2 wines I tasted. That earthy “Bordeaux funk” that I love so much when done well, was evident on aromas and on the finish. There were also notes of red fruit, rose petals, leather, menthol, and even a savory herbal note. The most pleasurable difference however, was the mouthfeel of this wine. The flavors, acidity, tannins were all so well integrated and smooth. Juicy. Velvety. Lush.
So what was my take away from this tasting that covered every price point? I think that all three of these wines were an excellent representation of Bordeaux at the respective prices. I can see all of these bottles making their way into my wine closet again.
I have a 23 year old daughter who loves wine and the $9 Ballandreau would be a great choice if she and friends were getting together, or if you needed to take a bottle of wine to a function what was non wine focused.
The Rocher-Calon would hold it’s own in any setting, and for $22, perhaps it is the best of both worlds.
If you are getting together with other wine people and need a real stunner, or you need a really special gift, then the Gruaud Larose is a wine that you won’t be sorry you splurged on.