POSHNESS has been part of the political artillery before – notably when Roy Jenkins was lampooned over his love of claret (red Bordeaux).
Recently, however, the region has worked hard to disentangle its wines from any elitism. Since it has several thousand modestly-sized producers, the strategists there are right to raise the profile of ‘Everyday Bordeaux’.
Despite this welcome thrust towards accessibility, claret will never be mundane. For sure, at its simplest it is an embellished blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon, but there always seems to be a distinctive flavour characteristic that language alone cannot reflect. Indeed, some of the descriptors sound quite unpleasant (austere, woody, graphite, etc) whereas the wine itself is frequently captivating and sometimes stunningly brilliant.
Part of the reason for that success lies in the skills of assemblage – the synergistic blending of grape varieties. Such skills are vital in a region where climate does not always allow all varieties to ripen to the required level and, to understand the process, I spent an afternoon – armed with pipette and measuring cylinder – experimenting at the excellent Bordeaux Wine School. There I discovered just how many cubic centimetres of merlot soften a blend or make it fruitier and what proportion of cabernet sauvignon is needed for tannic structure – or what a dollop of cabernet franc will do. Their Ecole du Vin provides several courses to show visitors to Bordeaux just how the region has developed world-class wines with longevity and complexity.
If the wine itself is complex so, too, are the structures behind Bordeaux’s wine trade. The status and price of wines being sold centres around a classification system – unchanged in parts for 150 years – and a network of 400 or so négociants. Rather than rail against that system’s iniquities, many switch focus from, say, classed growths on to the value wines under the Cru Bourgeois umbrella – a name originally created to describe properties acquired by Bordeaux city’s merchant class and craftsmen. At a recent tasting of 2010 Cru Bourgeois wines, I was particularly impressed by the bottles from Château Fonréaud and Chateau Tour des Termes but they are by no means alone.
Although they will never be ‘under a fiver’ bargains, nicely made wines need not cost a fortune, so here are a few more that offer reliable quality and Bordeaux typicity. From Tesco’s Finest range, 2009 Chateau Fonguillon (£7.99) provides an approachable wine with a fair degree of richness but relatively little tannin to obscure its clean damson fruit, hints of bramble and vanilla finish. From the same vintage comes 2009 Corney & Barrow Company Reserve Bordeaux (£9.58, down from £10.95) which does have a well-balanced tannic twist at the end but demonstrates its youthfulness by fresh acidity behind the cherry and blackcurrant fruit and touch of menthol.
Black cherry flavours (presumably from its sizeable merlot content) also come through on 2008 Chateau Pey La Tour (£9.95, The Wine Society) but that, too, is enlivened with good acidity, although it finishes on spice and a suggestion of that graphite minerality the region does so well.
Online outfit From Vineyards Direct takes a slightly different tack by acquiring wines from chateaux that have exceeded production limits. The surplus is sold under the village name although it will be of much higher quality than that humble label implies. One such offering is 2009 Pessac-Léognan (£14.95) which has softened enough to be ready now and delivers delightful cherry and clove flavours, vibrant acidity and an appealing mineral backdrop. At a fifth of the price of its illustrious parent, 2006 Margaux (£19.95) is a great buy but needs a little more ageing. Suitably decanted though, it can already deliver beautifully concentrated bramble flavours tempered with fine (but not aggressive) tannins.
Although Bordeaux’s pricing policies and inflexible classification systems can irritate, it is hugely impressive to see how they have fine-tuned wine production over two centuries to optimise what the climate, position and terroir provide. Few wine enthusiasts prepared to stump up an extra pound or two will fail to see how the region put a smile on Roy Jenkins’ face.
2011 Cono Sur Bicicleta Carmenere Colchagua Valley, Chile, 13 per cent Another lovely version of carmenere – the grape Chile has made its own – with the chocolate finish but also providing structured plum and soft fruit flavours, giving the balanced acidity and tannin that helps its happy marriage with food.
£5 (down from £7.49 until mid January) Asda (www.asda.com)
2011 The Best Vermentino Sicily, 12.5 per cent Often associated with Sardinia, this delightfully fresh vermentino is from further south. It delivers appealing juicy flavours of orange and pineapple, kept lively with grapefruit-based acidity. It may lack minerality, but is a better bet than similarly priced pinot grigios. £6 (down from £7.99 until 6 January), Morrisons (www.morrisons.co.uk)