For the past eleven years I have been spending three months out of each year in the northeast of France. If I travel for an hour an a half I can be in Dijon. Another hour and I will be in Beaune. For those of you who love burgundy you will know what one finds in those two cities. On the other hand, if I travel an hour north I am in the independent champagne producers country and I must tell you that these champagnes are mighty fine, mighty fine. The taste is a bit different from the large houses. But if I want Bordeaux, then I would need to take a long eight hour trip to that area and stay overnight. I haven’t done that as yet, it’s a bit on the expensive side for me. However I am fortunate that the local food stores carry various wines. If you want the largest selection then go to E.Leclerc of one of the other big box stores. Carrefour and Intermarche do a very good job of providing very decent selections although they usually do not carry the top end chateaux. By the way, chateau is singular and chateaux is plural, for those of you who never had high school French.
Most of the wine I buy is bordeaux simply because the champagnes and the burgundies are about double the price. That is, what I can buy for ten euros from bordeaux is usually of very good quality. A good burgundy would cost me at least double that and the same for champagne. Of course I could travel to Dijon and dine at a very nice place called fLunch. Not sure what the f stands for, but this is one of those places where you can pick up a tray and place selections from the cold counter, items such as salads, cheese plates, and so on. If you want a hot meal then there are usually half a dozen from which to choose and those are made while you wait (meat course) while you can pick through the hot side dishes. The prices are very reasonable and if you travel to a city in France which has one of these restaurants I would suggest that you take advantage of the savings on meals. Perhaps the best part of fLunch is that they have bulk wines. You can buy the small bottles of local stuff, but they buy the local wines and these are very good. In Dijon, they obtain very good bulk burgundy, and I mean very good. If I had to guess, the wine would be from a local village or commune and is superior to the bottled stuff you see in the screw cap small bottles.
There are two chains of small food stores in France and Europe in general. Aldi is a German chain and there wine selection is about two dozen, most of which are between the three and eight euro price range. The “cheap” stuff is decent wine, usually a bit on the thin side when it comes to mouth filling flavor and tends to have a raggedy acid edge and a few tannins (reds). The whites on the low end are at least wet. Well, it’s not like everyone in France knows anything about wine. The jug or box wines are a bit ugly yet they are big sellers. In general, the French are not as sophisticated and very cosmopolitan, far from it. But I did find in Aldi a few years back a remarkable treasure. The lurton family owns Brane-Cantenac (son Henri), Durfort-Vivens (son Gonzague), Ferrere (Clair Villars-Lurton), Climens (Sauternes), and Chateau Margaux. Henri Lurton vinifies and bottles the secondary label of Chateau Notton in the cellars of Brane-Cantenac. Chateau Brane-Cantenac is a second growth in the Margaux community. Now 2007 was not a great year for Bordeaux, overall an 86 out of 100 rating. So I saw the bottle and gave it a try, right. You pays your money and takes a chance, as the carny man says. Needless to say I went back to that store and bought up what was left, eight bottles for nine euros each. This is the wonder of Bordeaux, that in off years small chateaux and even some of the larger houses can make some very excellent wines. Not that this particular bottle would rate a 98. But I expect it might do about 90-91 and that is a good wine for nine euros. The aromas are typical of the Margaux commune and the wine fills your mouth with flavor. A soft and silky fell with that quiet undercurrent of backbone from the tannins and little acid edge when first open. It is a vey nicely balanced wine. It’s the quality of the wine that knocks your socks off, not over blown aromas or the huge tannin structures so characteristic of Napa. The funny thing about Napa and the rest of California is that they have never understood finesse and balance in a wine. They want wine that smacks you in the face, glad-hands your tongue, leaves splinters in between your teeth, and generally, like a big friendly dog, tries to knock you down with its attention. By the way, don’t bother to look for this bottle, you’ll never see it in America.
Saint-Emilion has not had a great year since 2005, but the 2008, 2009, and 2010 vintages in the 92 to 95 range. Actually, there are three different areas in the general category of Saint-Emilion and the one I have chosen is Montagne Saint-Emilion. Chateau Les Rochers made a very nice bottle of wine in 2009. Now depending on the property, the wines from this sub area and this Chateau tend to use a higher percentage of Merlot to Cabernet Sauvignon or Franc. So the wine has a much softer texture and feeling on the tongue and in the mouth. The aromas are a little different from the other areas in Bordeaux. How shall I describe them? It’s like the different in aroma between a Cerrise and Montmorency cherry. I am sure most of you Americans know only Bing and Queen Anne cherries. When one drinks Saint-Emilion one thinks mellow, one thinks Camembert and Saint-Andre and Brilliant Saverin cheeses. A little baguette, if one doesn’t mind the carbohydrates, and a bit of Breakfast Radish and a smear of soft cheese. The typical American radish is far too sharp for most of these wines. By the way, did you know that there are at least a dozen different varieties of radish? The property is Chateau Garderos, another bottle you’ll never see n american stores. the price on this was only eight euros but a very good bottle, a most enjoyable wine.
Chateau Maillard is a Graves, a wine that tends to be characterized by the gravely nature of the soil, it has a bit of that grout de terroir. The 2008 vintage was so-so for this wine. It suffers from what I call a thinness in spirit. The aromas are decent, the tannins nice, and the acid gives it a fair amount of backbone but it feels thin in the mouth. It is not so much that balance is lacking as it is that the wine is a waif, an underweight child. This wine leaves one longing for fulfilment. Yes, it is still pleasant sipping but one would be satisfied with .less than half a bottle. Well, one can’t have everything in life.
The last wine I shall examine is Chateau Dasvin-Bel-Air, a Cru Bourgeois from Haut-Medoc. One of the general areas in Bordeaux is Medoc and that has a further sub classification of Haut-Medoc. You can look all of this up on a wine map, if you like. All the first growth chateaux are Medoc and Haut-Medoc, but their communes are significantly smaller and delineated graphically. Within Pauillac where Chateau Latour and Lafite live are many smaller properties that may carry the appellation of Pauillac. But those properties that do not lie within the boundaries of these four great communes but are delineated by the appellation of Haut-Medoc are still produce very good wines. And those that are designated Crus Bourgeois tend to be better still and those that are Cru Superior are usually a shade better. Funny thing is, you won’t find a vintage chart for Medoc and Haut-Medoc. So goes Latour and Lafite, so goes Medoc and Haut-Medoc. Now this chateau is another one of those ten euros wines that really surprises you. A gold medal winner in its class and very deserving of that medal. Napa should make wine this good for twice the price, but is doesn’t. Not that it couldn’t, but its current attitude is still over-the-top wines are best. This cru Bourgeois has wonderful flavors, nich bit of cherry, red current, the typical French style cabernet. The tannins are under control, the acids have soften in the six years it has aged (two in the barrel and four in the bottle), the wine glides on the tongue and one can swirl it around in the mouth like it was still in the glass. It has beautiful legs with out that feeling of oiliness. As I reached the end of the bottle I savored the velvet feeling it left in my mouth. It was a most beautiful wine, wish I had a case of it. Every once in a wine these very minor chateaux produce wine of such an excellent nature that one is surprised at the beauty and quality that has been bottled. This is why I love my three months if France.
Now I should make one final comment. I have been lucky enough to have drunk some of the best chateaux and many of their best years. One does not forget the taste of Latour or Lafite after many bottles are consumed. But I can no longer afford those wines. Inflation and demand have placed them far above my reach. But sometimes I can find a fifth growth Pauillac for twenty euros in a very good or even a great year. When I do I try to buy at least half a case if not a full one. Compared to the first growth, well, they are several steps below. If 2009 Latour is 97 points then the fifth growth may only rate 91. That is at least two quantum leaps difference. But the fifth growth reminds me of the first growths. The second labels of the lesser growth remind me of their primary bottlings. In fact, the great thing about second labels is that sometimes Latour or Palmer or Giscours may have too much of that primary bottling and be forced to place their second label on the rest. That actually happened in 2009. Many second labels have at least the blend of the primary bottling. That is, what I believe happened with Giscours and their second label, Sirene de Giscours. Chateau Giscours is a third growth margaux and often quite good. It will never push Chateau Margaux out of its premier position and may never exceed Brane-Cantenac or Cantenac-Brown. But is is a beautiful wine in its own right. So with second labels sometimes there is a Santa Claus.