I didn’t fall in love with Bordeaux wines right away. They had my respect, but I regarded them as the vinous equivalent of aloof and supercilious aristocrats. When I finally visited, I discovered profoundly pleasurable wines and châteaux staffed by surprisingly friendly people. What I had imagined to be the world’s snobbiest wine region proved to be nothing of the sort.
Bordeaux blends have long been a benchmark by which others are measured. The top bottlings fetch astronomical sums, so much so that people often use the wines as investment vehicles. It might be hard to believe that a wine costing $1,000 per bottle could possibly be worth the money to open. But if such wines are within your budget, there is very good reason to consider buying them and actually drinking them.
As I have learned over the years, every wine makes a journey in the mouth.
What one purchases for such a price is finesse. As I have learned over the years, every wine makes a journey in the mouth. It often starts with fruit flavors, followed by acidity, then perhaps some minerality or tannins, and finally some sort of aftertaste. Inexpensive wines tend to make quick, simple journeys, offering perhaps two or three notes. But a top Bordeaux unveils its complexity at a stately pace. Those who pay close attention will discover an array of lively flavors, exquisite focus and restrained power, unfurling over a period lasting maybe a minute or longer. Experiencing such seamless transitions from one flavor and texture to the next can be thrilling. Paying attention to the complexity is an intellectual exercise, but the rewards of this effort are visceral.
In a region as large as Bordeaux, there are values to be had as well. The second-label wines of the most famous châteaux tend to be dramatically less expensive than their flagship bottlings, for example, and there are many lesser-known wineries punching above their weight. Less-popular wine styles can also merit attention. Since Bordeaux is most famous for its reds, dry white wines tend to have reasonable price tags. I am consistently delighted by white Pessac-Léognan, based on Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Superb examples can be had for less than $50.
The upper echelon of Bordeaux wines possess their own unique character, often emulated but seldom surpassed. Its reds, blends based on either Cabernet Sauvignon (from the Left Bank) or Merlot (from the Right Bank), have a refinement that exemplifies the spirit of the region. Whereas Burgundy has a surprising informality — on our last visit, a shorts-clad vigneron came straight from his tractor to meet us in his Gevrey-Chambertin winery — in Bordeaux, you’re more likely to see sports coats and even ties in the private salons of châteaux. Of course, dressing up a bit can add a sense of occasion to a tour and tasting.
Natty though châteaux hosts may be, haughty they are not. Indeed, the Bordelais have mastered the art of gracious hospitality, and nowadays, one is just as likely to encounter a wine snob in St. Helena as in Saint-Émilion. Winemakers and their colleagues whom we encountered always seemed pleased to hear our impressions of the wines they poured.
Acquiring firsthand knowledge of the great wine regions of the world has been a happy mission of mine for decades. But alas, like most Americans, I now find myself cut off from the vast majority of them. As a consolation, I have been “traveling” to favorite wine regions by drinking memorable bottlings. Tasting a distinctive wine from a place I’ve visited immediately takes me back there.
As the pandemic has worn on, however, my collection of Bordeaux wines has diminished. Therefore, it seemed an opportune moment to petition Hal Oates, our Wine Concierge and the owner of Porthos, to share his favorite discoveries from his most recent trip. Oates has a talent for ferreting out lesser-known gems and ascertaining the most collectible vintages. I was curious to know what he had discovered, as well as which of Bordeaux’s greatest wines he thought were worth the extravagant price.
Oates’ team is happy to organize private tours in Bordeaux in 2021 for Andrew Harper members to the wineries described in this article, as well as other favorite châteaux (Porthos has access to estates that are ordinarily difficult to visit for those not in the wine trade). In the meantime, he has assembled an exclusive collection of rare library wines from the châteaux he describes below, which are available for members to acquire for their cellars.
In 2019, our sojourn commenced on the Right Bank of Bordeaux, near the ancient town of Saint-Émilion. Its primary destination was Château Troplong Mondot, a Premier Grand Cru Classé winery that I have highly recommended to collectors for many years. Troplong Mondot benefits from a terroir shared by iconic neighbors such as Château Angélus and Cheval Blanc. Hence, Troplong Mondot’s flagship bottling consistently delivers first-class quality at a price that doesn’t require a second mortgage.
The under-the-radar status of this château may change once its gourmet restaurant, Les Belles Perdrix, reopens in 2021, once again helmed by Michelin-starred chef David Charrier.
During our safari-like vineyard tour in the château’s Land Rover, we learned that Troplong Mondot’s vines benefit from a location on a slightly higher plateau compared to its neighbors, resulting in a consistent breeze from the nearby Gironde River. This creates a beneficial cooling effect during the summer growing season and plays a vital role in preventing the mold that can plague wet vintages.
Afterward, we sat down to a superlative lunch by chef Charrier. Our extravagant meal featured herbs and vegetables from the estate’s gardens, and a delicious seafood dish designed to pair with the property’s majestic red wines. We were dazzled by the older vintages of Troplong Mondot, but the showstopper was the 2015 vintage, which paired perfectly with some local cheeses.
On my return to the U.S., I led a tasting of Bordeaux’s best, including several first growths. One of the top-scoring wines of the night was the 2015 Château Troplong Mondot Saint-Émilion. Headliners of the event included bottlings from Château Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild and Cheval Blanc from top vintages. All of those wines are memorable, but only Troplong Mondot is available for less than $200.
2015 Troplong Mondot Saint-Émilion
$155 / bottle
“The deep garnet-purple colored 2015 Troplong Mondot is redolent of warm plums, blackberry tart and blueberry pie with suggestions of underbrush, bay leaves, cedar chest and lavender plus a waft of baking spices. Full-bodied and full-throttle in the mouth, the palate is decadently packed with a solid core of black and blue fruit layers, supported with firm, grainy tannins and finishing with loads of spicy layers.” — Robert Parker Wine Advocate
Our next destination was Château Palmer, admired for its singular architecture and world-class wines. Located in the commune of Margaux, Palmer resembles a fairy-tale castle with spiky turrets fronting manicured gardens. It is often the top choice of connoisseurs fatigued by the prices of wines from the traditional first-growth châteaux on the Left Bank. Palmer’s vineyards are contiguous with those of the legendary Château Margaux, yet its wines typically sell for far less.
Since several Palmer vintages rank high on my list of favorites from Bordeaux, I was more than usually excited as we approached our tasting. It did not disappoint. I was struck by the consistency of refined texture, careful balance and exotic spices displayed in each vintage. Our pick of the tasting was Palmer’s 2009 Grand Vin, a soaring achievement that boasts a veritable cornucopia of flavors. I’ve since added several bottles to my own cellar to savor with discerning friends in the coming decades.
Château Palmer has built a loyal international following by delivering reliable quality, as reflected by the lofty ratings it has earned from Robert Parker and other notable critics. Its Cabernet blend is unique among Left Bank elites, since it includes a heavy dose of Merlot in every vintage. This addition is Palmer’s “secret weapon,” as it results in a wine that is more approachable in its youth. Its silky-smooth texture is particularly appealing to American collectors who tend to favor Cabernet-Merlot blends such as Joseph Phelps’ “Insignia,” Dominus and Opus One.
2009 Château Palmer
$375 / bottle
“The 2009 Palmer is unquestionably one of the greatest young Bordeaux I’ve tasted, and it has a rare mix of richness and elegance that’s incredible. Blackcurrants, violets, lead pencil shavings and a touch of minerality all emerge from this rich, massively concentrated Margaux that still glides across the palate with no sense of weight or heaviness. It’s perfectly balanced, has a ripe, hedonistic core of fruit, as well as integrated acidity. It’s a dream today, but is going to have 30-40 years or more of prime drinking.” — Jeb Dunnuck (former writer for Robert Parker Wine Advocate)
Château Latour creates the coveted red wine that many collectors consider the best in all of Bordeaux. The winery occupies a historic property that dates back to the Hundred Years’ War in the Middle Ages. Its name, “the tower,” refers to a military installation located on a knoll with a strategic view of a bend in the Gironde. (Unlike the rest of the flat Left Bank, Latour’s terrain is undulating.) Beneath the relatively inconspicuous stone tower is a complex dedicated to producing, aging and distributing some the most treasured bottles of wine on earth.
Once again, I was pleased to be welcomed by Jean-Marc Pistre, directeur du domaine of Latour. Our tasting included a range of inspiring vintages from this century. While Les Forts de Latour is considered the second-tier bottling, it’s often a standout value, particularly in vintages that have been overlooked by the trophy hunters, such as 2012. The unanimous favorite of the tasting was the 2005 Latour Grand Vin, still an emerging beauty after nearly 15 years of cellar time. This remarkable vintage promises to be an odyssey for the senses to be explored over the next decade or two.
For Porthos, Château Latour has emerged as our best-selling first-growth Bordeaux. Latour is also my personal favorite among the first growths, a statement that I admit is akin to pointing out my favorite kind of Ferrari. In any case, I respect the Latour team’s incomparable record of vintages that are dependably age-worthy yet approachable in their youth.
2005 Chateau Latour Grand Vin
$1,075 / bottle
“The colossal 2005 Latour (44% of the total production) is a wine for the ages. A blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 1% Petit Verdot, it possesses the highest alcohol of recent vintages. Different both structurally and texturally from the extraordinary 2003 (which I tend to prefer, although Frédéric Engerer clearly disagrees), the black/purple-hued 2005 exhibits high tannin, prodigious concentration, unbelievable purity, amazing freshness and vibrancy, and almost surreal definition and nuances for such a young wine. It is a huge, fresh, backward yet incredibly pure effort that represents a modern-day classic, but don’t expect the opulence and exotic sweetness of the 2003. It will close down after bottling, and require at least a decade of cellaring before consuming. Anticipated maturity: 2015-2050+.” — Robert Parker Wine Advocate
Andrew Harper's Wine Concierge, Hal Oates of Porthos, provides personalized recommendations to members, helping longtime collectors expand their cellars and more-casual wine lovers explore new bottlings. He can also arrange visits to top wineries ordinarily not open to the public. Visit Porthos for details on private tours this fall, as well as to gain special access to the rare wines highlighted in this story.