My general attitude to Bordeaux is that the wines I want to drink I can't afford, while those I can afford I don't want to drink. This is a widespread perception that's damaging to Bordeaux, a prestigious, historic region which needs to attract new drinkers in the face of increased competition.
Bordeaux's place in the new world of wine drinking is a microcosm of the challenges French wine has faced over the last 20 to 30 years. Back in the late 1980s, almost all wine drunk around the world was European, which by extension meant French. Since then, drinking habits have changed considerably. Other European countries have upped their game, most noticeably Italy with prosecco and white wine. But clearly the biggest threat to the position of French wine has come from countries in the Southern Hemisphere and California.
It's not so much the high-end wines that have been affected - in fact, the prices of premium Bordeaux and Burgundy are getting more and more prohibitively expensive - but the lower tiers. The French industry was slow to react as consumers turned away from the inexpensive and often low-quality wines of Languedoc and elsewhere to the much cleaner, easier drinking wine of, for instance, Australia and Chile.
But the last ten years have seen France fight back. Vin de Table - plonk in plain English - has been replaced by Vin de France to allow producers to replicate the multi-regionality that benefits Australians. Vin de Pays has been superseded by IGP, giving producers a lot more flexibility to experiment while maintaining regional identity.
It is this latter category which has perhaps shaken the French industry up the most, and for the better. Good, affordable, approachable wines are being made, while remaining distinctly regional.
These changes haven't directly affected Bordeaux, which has maintained its established appellation system. But similar changes have been introduced to make Bordeaux more appealing to the average consumer.
One such change is Cru Bourgeois, a category which has existed since the 1940s but which had always been unsettled and unstable until the Bordeaux and French authorities finally introduced formal, lasting rules in 2009.
A Cru Bourgeois wine can come from any of the eight appellations in Médoc, often called the Left Bank and the only area of Bordeaux where Cabernet Sauvignon dominates. Villages such as Margaux and Pauillac produce some of the most heralded and sought-after wines in the world; Cru Bourgeois acts as an affordable, good quality introduction to these wines.
Wines are tasted two years after the vintage by a panel of tasters who score the wines individually and independently. Only a wine that meets or betters the average score can be classified as Cru Bourgeois. This happens for every vintage, so there is no stale repetition as can be the case with Cru Classé which has largely remained unchanged since 1855. In 2015, 271 wines were classified as Cru Bourgeois (35 more than 2009 and seven fewer than 2014), a total of 32m bottles.
Cru Bourgeois wines generally retail for $20-30, an attractive price for quality, Cabernet Sauvignon based wines. They are representative of Bordeaux, as they should be, so quite different from the ripe, fruity wines of California, Chile, or Australia. Also unlike those countries, the wines will always be a blend, as Cabernet doesn't reliably ripen in Médoc's moderate maritime climate. Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and, to a lesser extent, Petit Verdot act as back-ups and, just as importantly, add complexity to a blend. Expect aromas of red plums, blackcurrants, cassis, smoke and sweet spices from some oak ageing, with firm, gripping tannins and refreshing acidity. They're best drunk 5-10 years after the vintage - wines that don't need to be cellared but which can show mature, leathery, dried fruit characteristics.
The French wine industry was for too long complacently stuck in a Byzantine bureaucracy. Competition from other countries has woken the industry up, and it's now much more dynamic. Cru Bourgeois is a good example of how the industry is changing to become more accessible and introduce a new generation to the wines of Bordeaux.
taste: Cru Bourgeois v. Margaux
Château Pontoise Cabarrus Haut-Médoc 2011 ($19)
45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 4% Cabernet Franc. This is an engaging wine that demonstrates that Cru Bourgeois wines have the structure to age; in fact, I wouldn't have liked to have drunk this wine much younger. The nose is very Bordeaux, with herbal, herbaceous aromas of mint, menthol, and capsicum, with some plum, blackcurrant fruits, smoke, cloves, and liquorice from the oak, and dried fruits such as figs and prunes from bottle maturation. On the palate, the acidity is high, with chalky tannins giving the wine good texture. A spicy, oak wine that's still surprisingly fresh. It's not an exciting wine but it does everything it should. ✪✪✪✪
Château Haut Breton Larigaudière Margaux 2012 ($40)
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot. Much heavier on Cabernet Sauvignon, indicating its higher pricer point. Fleshier and fruities than the Cru Bourgeois (it's also from the warmer 2012 vintage), with plush aromas of plums, blackcurrants, blackberries, black cherries, and smoke and black pepper. The palate is more concentrated and structured than the Cru Bourgeois, spicy with a long finish. The Margaux is better, a more intense wine - but at twice the price. ✪✪✪✪✪