Friday, November 30, 2018

Cru Who? The Lesser Known Bordeaux

When one thinks of Bordeaux, first-growth châteaux often come to mind: Lafite Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour, and the more recently added Mouton-Rothschild. Unless you have deep pockets, these are not your everyday wines. Many Bordeaux geeks seek to buy Grand Crus Classé futures to get some coveted Bordeaux at pre-release prices. That requires an incredible amount of patience and knowledge. If that is what you are into, you should check out My friend and wine-blogger, Amber LeBeau, shares extensive reviews of Bordeaux futures there.

Cru Classés tasting, compliments of Amber LeBeau

Bordeaux for the Rest of Us

If you have a modest bank account and/or limited patience like I do, finding quality Bordeaux at an affordable price point can be challenging. That is why I was thrilled when the West Seattle Wine Cellars hosted a free Bordeaux tasting last month. Now these are not your regular grocery store Bordeaux. Shop owner Tom DiStefano is particular about what he puts on the shelves and tends to seek out the less commercially known but incredibly delightful gems among wines. We knew we were in a for a treat!

A little snack to go with my red
The tasting line-up was poured by the Wine Trust, an importer with a strong focus on Bordeaux. The selection ranged from 2004 to 2013 vintages and included a couple of Crus Bourgeois from Haut-Médoc and a Grand Cru from Saint-Émilion. Sure there were no Grand Crus Classé in the mix, but none of the wines being tasted cost over $50 a bottle! And even I, with my perpetual self-imposed wine-buying moratorium in place, could hardly resist a half-case of these delicious deals.

Over the weekend, I decided to open the 2008 Château d'Agassac, Haut-Médoc Cru Bourgeois. On the nose, I got dark fruit with delicate floral scent, which both surprised and delighted me. The fruit carried through the palate with added layers of earthiness, spices, and nuts. The wine was medium to full-bodied and well-balanced, with ample acidity and fine elegant tannins. The finish was smooth and long-lasting.

For $30, this ten-year-old Bordeaux was delicious! I had it while snacking on some grapes and a piece of creamy blue Cambazola. But I could see see it pairing really well with a nice hearty beef and vegetable stew on a cold winter night.

Crus Bourgeois

Now, let's talk about Crus Bourgeois. As you know, the French like to rank and classify their wines. The most famous of which was the 1855 Classification of Grand Crus Classés requested by Napoleon III. Select châteaux in Bordeaux were assigned from first to fifth growths, with decreasing importance and price points. For châteaux in Medoc, there is another level added for high-quality wines that did not make Cru Classé. And that is Cru Bourgeois. Some would argue that there is a bit of overlap between Crus Bourgeois and the lower-level Crus Classé.

2008 Château d'Agassac
While they might be a good guide on the quality of wine, the different classification systems were and still are influenced by commercial and sometimes political interests. Wineries tirelessly lobby to be rated at the highest possible classification for both prestige and profit. Cru Classé and Cru Bourgeois rankings are no exception. In fact, the Cru Bourgeois ranking was annulled in 2007 and then re-introduced in 2010 with major revisions.

With a two-year lag in wine release, 2008 was the first vintage to be published under the new Cru Bourgeois rules in 2010. This Château d'Agassac was released just in time for that. Unlike Cru Classé, the recently revised Cru Bourgeois is a single level and is awarded annually to the wines rather than to châteaux. This kept the châteaux on their toes to produce high-quality wines.

2018 vintage will yet see another change in the rules of Cru Bourgeois, which will result in three tiers of quality and more stringent criteria. But we will not have to worry about that till 2020.

My Verdict: The 2008 Château d'Agassac was such a steal! It was delicious and sufficiently aged to display layers of complexity typical of a Bordeaux. I always recommend knowing your source with Bordeaux to ensure proper cellar condition before they get to the store. If you see a Cru Bourgeois in a trusted wine shop, scoop a couple up. Try one today and cellar the other for later. Santé!

Bonus Insider's Tip from Amber - Stock up on 2015/2016 Crus Bourgeois!

The recent 2015/2016 vintages offer oodles of great values among the Crus Bourgeois. Like 2009/2010, these are vintages where quality was stacked up and down the ladder. Most savvy Bordeaux buyers who regularly drink the Crus Classés often stock up on these gems to drink while waiting those classified growths to mature.

Unlike 2009/2010 though, 2015/2016 vintages are evident of how much the Bordelais have adjusted to the demands of the American and Asian markets. While traditional European markets that are accustomed to cellaring wines for many years, American and Asian consumers often open up their wines much younger and expect them to be drinking well soon after release. Even among the Cru Classés, many of these young Bordeaux wines are drinking shockingly well with only a little decanting. It remains to be seen if these wines will ultimately hold up in the cellar like their predecessors.

Bottom line is that there are tons of terrific 2015 and 2016 Bordeaux wines at all price points that are on the market now!