Bordeaux scares me. I rarely find a way in. The classifications are extraordinarily complex. Constant soil variation from site to site and a marginal climate year to year require intense focus and research to wrap one’s head around. The grand châteaux are imposing and financially out of reach, while the mass-produced general AOC wines are blunt and banal. I wimp out on Bordeaux.

If the more moderately priced wines were not only tasty (some are) but actually indicative of what makes Bordeaux special, I’d be much more inclined to explore further, to splurge on a pricey bottle every once in a while, to begin figuring out what I like, what I don’t, and why. But they so infrequently indicate. They seem so grateful to be in the bottle at all that they neglect to signal any intention, to follow through on any promise.

This isn’t just pointy-head talk. Open a small group of red wines, Bordeaux included, for a gathering of people with varying degrees of wine interest and knowledge. Cook some food, don’t worry about pairing it to the wines; eat, drink and watch what happens. When I do this with Bordeaux on my table, that bottle usually stays full.

This, the inapplicability to daily life, the unsuitability to hanging out, the unreadiness, the trouble communicating, aggregates into Bordeaux’s primary weakness. Sure, the impenetrable labels, fuddy-duddy reputation, inflated prices, vintage variation and so on don’t help. But value in any wine ultimately springs from one of just a handful of categories: transparency, depth, intrigue, impact.

Too many young Bordeaux wines fail to distinguish themselves in any of those. They seem inalterably blockish, blocked, blocky.

Yes, I’m talking of young Bordeaux. The few properly aged Bordeaux I’ve drunk are extraordinary. In fact, they’ve been some of my greatest wine experiences ever.

But great old Bordeaux don’t come around very often, and we should expect them to come around less in the future. That’s because at this point the prices on well-regarded “growths” (Bordeaux’s system of classification, in place since 1855) have risen so precipitously that the wines are no longer within reach – for just about anyone. They will age beautifully, yes, but their destiny is to be traded through international auctions until they find their way to the loving cellar of an extremely wealthy man who will not share any of them with me.

Long-term maturation in bottle was always Bordeaux’s raison d’être. The merlot-heavy blends from right-bank clay soils northeast of the Dordogne River generally come around more quickly than the cabernet sauvignon-based wines from gravel soils west of the Gironde and Garonne, but either way the wait has always been part of the game. The terse, impassive front early on that melts over time (preferably decades) to reveal impossible subtlety and length: That’s Bordeaux’s play. And the more widespread and democratic the wine-drinking public becomes, the more boring that play appears.

The recent response has been to de-emphasize the centrality of long aging. The “garagiste” movement, now around 20 years old, emphasized not only “micro-cuvées” with abnormally small production but also a generally bolder, fruitier character in the wines, meant to compete more meaningfully with competitors from Argentina, Australia and the United States. Garagism still lives, though it never took off as expected. Perhaps its eager-to-please modern streak seemed so obvious and replicable as to be irrelevant.

Is there no end to my curmudgeonliness? I just would like to drink a sub-$20 Bordeaux every once in a while that tastes distinctive and true to place. You’ll be shocked to hear that I have now done so, and describe how below. But first, a brief elaboration of what “place” means in Bordelaise context.

We forget that the three rivers that delineate Bordeaux, the Gironde, which flows into the Dordogne and Garonne, are tidal: They move the Atlantic inland and back. This fact bears large responsibility for the dizzying variety of soils and subsoils in this, the largest fine-wine region in the world. There is also Bordeaux’s climate, which could charitably be called marginal. A cold June can be hard to recover from, and rain is common; hence the significance of vintage.

Viticultural practices throughout the world have improved tremendously over the past several decades, but perhaps nowhere more than in Bordeaux. Changes in pruning regimens and canopy management (trimming leaves to alter sun exposure), as well as a reduction in the heavy use of pesticides and fungicides that was common in the region, have helped usher in healthier, more fully ripe fruit.

The majority of Bordeaux’s acreage is in Entre-Deux-Mers, the vast flatland between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, but the best wines hug the water. This is true of the gold-chip regions of the Médoc, but also for the southern area of Graves as well as the Right Bank.

I think this is why my favorite young Bordeaux wines taste as much of the sea as of the earth. With a zippy salinity, kelpy greenness and cooling refreshment, these wines trade in Bordeaux’s pretensions to earthy profundity for a clear, gentle aqueous envelopment.

Graves and the smaller, lesser-known subregion of Cadillac have proven to be my most reliable transmitters of this mode. Graves’ overall pebbly soil drains quickly and leads in my favorite wines to a porosity and purity I struggle to find elsewhere. Cadillac’s denser clay soil on limestone yields a somewhat chewier texture in the wines, but retains that inimitable vivacity.

The two wines listed below offer intimate portraits of these areas. They point to something. They are ready to communicate, now. They also are both from what is widely acknowledged to be the best vintage of the past 10 years at least, 2010. The great wines of that vintage will age magnificently, or so the vintage scientists say, baring their souls for the few who can view them.

I am more than content to drink these somewhat less ambitious, but perhaps more useful, wines right now. They occupy the sacred middle ground of Bordeaux, between unnecessary tension and unattainable calm.

Château L’Avocat 2010 ($18), from Cadillac-Côtes de Bordeaux, is a 60/35/5 blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. I find it especially difficult to discover such freshness, transparency and sheer charm from a majority-cabernet wine. With ripe, supersoft tannins, deep plum and black cherry fruit, black olive chew and a bracing herbal sappiness, it empties ahead of the pack whenever I’ve set it on the group table mentioned earlier. This is a totally together wine, integral, on point.

Château Meric Graves 2010 ($20) is 70 percent merlot and 30 percent cabernet sauvignon, from a region better known for leaning toward cab. I don’t know why the reverse works in this case, but it does, expressing merlot’s inimitable peppery cocoa aspect in lovely harmony with the marine Atlantic quality so crucial to good Graves. Black currant fruit, silken texture, vibrant outlook. I began this column expressing a fear of Bordeaux, but this wine transforms that into a thrill.

 


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