Inside Bordeaux

My best wine purchase of the year has been not a bottle but a book: Inside Bordeaux, by Jane Anson. I went to college before the explosion in textbook prices, so this might be the most expensive book I have ever bought – equivalent in price to a bottle of Chateau Lascombes 2015 – but it has provided a great deal of geeky pleasure (perhaps even more pleasure, certainly more immediate pleasure, than the 2015 Lascombes would have) and a series of helpful shopping hints.

There are two important trends that the books documents in great detail. The first is that there has been, in the last two decades but perhaps at an accelerating rate, an enormous amount of investment in the region, in almost all the appellations. (It is harder to justify huge investments in wine production in the least prestigious appellations, like AOC Bordeaux, where there is effectively a cap on the price that can be charged for the wine.). There are new plantings, often based on a more scientific understanding of soil types, there is investment in vineyard management, with a widespread adoption of organic and even biodynamic practices, and there have been huge investments in upgrades of cellars and winemaking facilities. At the top end of the Bordeaux hierarchy, this level of investment is not necessarily new, but at all other levels it has driven a great improvement in the quality of the wines on offer. Prices have been rising, but nowhere near as sharply as the quality has been rising.

The second trend belies the area’s reputation for hidebound traditionalism, to the extent that the reputation had survived an earlier shift to a taste for riper, oakier wines. Bordeaux is as susceptible to changes in fashion as any other wine region. The change that has been underway for the last 10-15 years is a change toward an emphasis on structure and aromatics in the wines, at the risk of a green quality, and away from the emphasis on richness, at the risk of a cloying quality. This means that there has been a wholesale move toward earlier harvesting, and away from new oak, and in general toward a less interventionist approach to winemaking. Obviously, the best wines will satisfy the drinkers who value structure and the drinkers who value intensity, but there are now lots of less expensive wines that offer great balance.

The book doesn’t rate the chateaux and the wines, but Anson isn’t shy about pointing to the producers that she particularly likes. (She is admirably polite about the producers that produce wines less to her taste.) Since January, when I bought the book, we have been buying and drinking inexpensivish bottles of Bordeaux, based on the Anson recommendations, in search of quality and value. We have found a lot of both. Here’s a list of what we’ve tried, categorized as 1) definitely buy more; 2) maybe buy more; and 3) don’t buy more:

  1. Chateau Joanin Becot (Castillon), Chateau Capbern (St. Estephe), Chateau Puygueraud (Francs), Chateau La Garde (Pessac-Leognan), Chateau d’Aiguilhe (Castillon);

  2. Clos Floridene (Graves), Chateau de France (Pessac-Leognan), Chateau Montpezat Cuvee Compostelle (Castillon), Chateau de Francs Les Cerisiers (Francs), Chateau Ampelia (Castillon), Chateau Rouget (Pomerol);

  3. Chateau Haut-Segottes (St. Emilion), Chateau la Dauphine (Fronsac), Chateau Moulin Haut Villars (Fronsac), Chateau Moulin St. Georges (St. Emilion), Chateau Beausejour Duffau-Lagarrosse (St. Emilion), Chateau Lilian Ladouys (St. Estephe).

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Very interesting post, Tim. Thanks. Capbern, d’Aiguilhe, and La Garde have been favorite value wines for us for some time. I’ve been meaning to run down some Puygueraud and this gives me the push to do so.

Thanks for the insight on the book, I’ve been curious about it.

Recently picked up The Aviary Cocktail Book. That was just as expensive, but now it won’t hurt as much if I buy Inside Bordeaux. Hashtag conditioning.

Nice writeup. I too find the price rather high, and the exclusive sales channel kind of strange, but Neil Martin and others have proven that there is demand for niche, high dollar books on the region. And as you point out, the kinds of folks who drop $$$ on a bottle consumed over an evening should not get alligator arms over a reference book of comparable $$$ that they will use for a decade or two.

I agree that Jane Anson’s book is a very nice resource. It’s interesting that you’ve got Capbern in 1 and Lilian Ladouys in 3. I find those wines very similar, with LL showing just a bit more overt oak. They both did very well in 16 and 17, with Capbern kinda knocking it out of the park in 16 for its $25 price.

Great recommendation! I read it pretty slowly, taking a lot of notes, and will just whisper “Chateau les Vimieres la Tronquera” but only on the condition that no one here tell anyone else about it. newhere

Thanks, Neal. We bought the Puygueraud in January from Saratoga Wine Exchange, where they still have the 2010 for $22. This is my tasting note:

I bought this recently for $23. Now that we have tried it, we are thinking of buying a case (at $21.60 per bottle). In other words, this is another insane bargain (based on a recommendation in Jane Anson’s Inside Bordeaux).

The initial impression is quite woody, very dry, leathery. Dark color, moderate tannins, lively acidity. There is some soft fruit behind the tannins, but with air, the blackberry flavors emerge, and the acidic balance persists. Delicious. At peak.

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Are there some noteworthy estates which have migrated from a riper, oakier style towards earlier harvesting and less oak? If so, which ones?

That has happened a lot in California. A significant number of wineries pushed the limits of ripeness and oak in the early 2000s vintages, and in the last decade or so have pulled back considerably. It would make sense to me that might happen at some estates in Bordeaux, but I haven’t heard stories to that effect. I’d be quite curious if you, or anyone else, knew of any.

Thanks. I heard you. That’s on my list but I haven’t come across it yet.

Another one that I forgot to add to the list – another definite repurchase – is Chateau Tronquoy-Lalande (St. Estephe). We had the 2014 vintage of that and the Lilian Ladouys on successive nights, and the Tronquoy just seemed much livelier – much more acidic, more precise, more exciting. The Lilian Ladouys was funkier and softer – we enjoyed it a lot too, but for the money we would go with the Tronquoy, and we liked the Capbern better than both of them.

Jane seems to like quite ripe, oaky, modern wines which she calls ‘sexy.’ She doesn’t exclusively like, them, but she definitely isn’t a AFWE.

She also quite likes St Emillion. I notice the OP’s group 3 includes a lot of them. There are rather a lot of bad wines from that appellation IMHO despite not being cheap.

Chris, this is a good question. I’m swimming mostly in the bargain Bordeaux pond, so others may be able to answer better than I can. I would, though, point to two established chateaux that have made quite extensive changes, to general acclaim: Pontet-Canet and Palmer. Palmer has gone fully biodynamic, even though it has meant lower yields, and they have significantly lowered the amount of sulphur they use in the winemaking process. They also have shifted to the use of no exogenous yeast, and they are experimenting with the use of smaller casks. As Anson writes, “the intention is to put purity of flavor above everything else.” Pontet-Canet has implemented a similar set of changes. A 1990 Palmer is one of the best wines I’ve ever had, but I haven’t had any products of the new regime there. It is impressive, though, that they would make as many changes as they did to a process that was already producing one of the most reputable wines of the region.

Pontet Canet is a good reminder that biodynamic doesn’t mean less ripe or less oak. I like PC a lot, but they’re fairly modernist in style.

Love Inside Bordeaux, and appreciated your list of producers that you’ve been trying. I’d suggest giving Lillian Ladouys another shot – though I’ve only had the '15 and '16, the latter was significantly better IMO and, to me, an absolute steal at $22. Seems like they’re on an upward trajectory and might be worth another look. Wholly agreed on Capbern though, such a great chateau.

I also recently purchased this book and find it quite informative.

I would really recommend the Capbern and Puygueraud. Both great values and have had recently in current vintage.

Neal, I don’t know here you live, but has had puygueraud on the west coast for the past 6 months or so.

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This is a timely post - thanks Tim. What I liked about the book was the focus on terroir, with all the detailed maps.

There’s a good review by Jamie Goode:

It’s a good read and definitely better than a bottle of Lascombes!

My only quibble would be that although she’s right about the trend away from the Parker-inspired wines of the past, the ones she recommends are not perhaps the most convincing examples. In her defence, lots of châteaux are saying the same things about less oak, less alcohol, etc, yet their wines do not really actually add up to that - for example, when Troplong-Mondot was sold, the new team said they were looking for more freshness (not very difficult!), yet are still producing wines with high levels - 14.5° (2017) or 15° (2018).

There’s nothing wrong with wines like d’Aiguilhe, Capbern or Tronquoy-Lalande, on the contrary, they are good in a particular style - but that style is the one which produces levels of 14.5° and 15° (I think all three “achieved” 15° in 2018). There’s nothing wrong about a wine containing 15° alcohol but I’m not sure about how it can be described as less rich and more fresh.

Not only a few but almost all Chateauxs have moved away from the extreme(r) levels of ripeness, extraction and oak use of the 00s. Some a bit more and some a bit less but in my opinion it is quite obvious that most did. Of course, a lot of that progress has been met with ever higher temperatures and ever drier and longer growing seasons due to climate change which demands some sort of scaling back and eats up parts of that progress towards less extraction and ripeness.

I don’t have the clear picture but here are some names on top of my head: Troplong Mondot is certainly a name that has massively scaled back in the past few vintages. Rauzan Segla, Canon, Pavie Maquin, Figeac, even Pape Clement, while still far too extreme for my taste, has scaled back a lot.

Even Pavie has scaled back, not enough for my particular taste, but enough that I would drink some of the post 2014 wines if offered a glass.

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