Lord knows, it's tempting to just give up on Bordeaux.
The prices of the top-rated 1989s are obscene. Even given the fact that 1989 was the best vintage of red Bordeaux since the celestial 1982s, the price escalation in a mere seven years is staggering.
Chateau Lynch-Bages? Maybe $15 for the 1982, about $45 for the 1989. Chateau Leoville Las Cases? Perhaps $25 for the 1982, more like $60 for the 1989. It's even worse on the Pomerol side of the river, where a La Conseillante that cost $25 in the 1982 vintage might run you $75 this year.
These increases far outstrip the general rate of inflation. Now it's not just the top eight chateaux that command kingly prices. In one wine store's catalog alone, there were 33 1989s listed at prices higher than $30. Many of them were familiar names, well within reach for middle-class wine enthusiasts only a few years ago. Now the case price looks like a mortgage payment.
Still, there's good news. While the greatest wines of 1982 were superior to the best of 1989, more Bordeaux chateaux than ever are at the top of their game. There's more good wine produced in Bordeaux than ever before.
Much of it is hiding under unfamiliar labels. Dozens of obscure wines from little-known corners of Bordeaux deserve consumers' attention in the 1989 vintage. In some cases their quality rivals that of a Medoc 'super-second' growth in a good year.
That doesn't mean money is irrelevant to finding great wine. Clearly, your chances of getting an eye-poppingly gorgeous wine are greater for a $50 classified growth than they are at $15 for a 'cru bourgeois.'
However, if you choose your $15 wine well, it is very unlikely there will be $35 worth of difference between the two wines. The gap between a 1989 Chateau Tour-Haut-Caussan at $18 and a $43 Chateau Gruaud-Larose is minuscule. If you are willing to forgo a famous name that will make connoisseurs ooh and ah before you open it, you can spend less than $20 and still get them to ooh and ah when they taste it.
Naturally, when you get down to the lowest end of the Bordeaux price spectrum, around $6, you usually give up something in body, complexity and ability to age well. At those prices, you expect a good, honest quaffing wine that won't dazzle you.
Of course, then you run into something like the astonishing 1989 Chateau Pitray from the Cotes de Castillon that blows away all the expectations you ever had of an $8 wine.
While 1989 was a superb year across the board for the vast Bordeaux region, there are some definite pockets of value.
It was an excellent vintage for the 'wrong' side of the river, across the Gironde from Margaux. The wines of Bourg and Blaye, usually rough and rustic, show more than their usual quota of refinement, particularly the stunning Chateau Tayac Prestige.
The little-known inland appellation of Cotes de Castillon had a magnificent 1989, if the two wines I sampled from there are any indication. You might also want to keep an eye out for any wines from the Cotes des Francs, a little-known but exciting region on the Eastern fringe of Bordeaux.
Usually the best of these regions are better choices than any cut-rate Saint-Emilions you might find. Much of the Saint-Emilion appellation is made up of flat, sandy land that produces wines that bear little resemblance to finer wines from the slopes. Still you will pay a premium for the Saint-Emilion name. Yes, there are good 'unknown' Saint-Emilions but overall they are the biggest sucker bet in Bordeaux.
Fronsac and Canon Fronsac, on the other hand, are regions that deserve more attention from American wine buyers. Only small amounts of this Pomerol-like wine are imported from this compact region, but what arrives on these shores is choice. You can expect to pay close to $20 for a Fronsac, but there's a good chance you'll be pleased with the purchase.
In the Medoc, the best bets for good quality for value are the appellations of Moulis, Listrac, Haut-Medoc and Medoc. Non-classified growths from the famous regions of St. Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux usually offer less quality for the price than the better wines of less exalted appellations. There are, of course, glorious exceptions, such as Chateaux Monbrison, Meyney, La Gurgue, Marbuzet and Haut-Marbuzet.
Moulis and Listrac, which lie slightly inland from the classic communes of the Medoc, both enjoyed excellent vintages in 1989.
Moulis, unfortunately, is one of the most ill-defined appellations of Bordeaux. The viticultural district is drawn to include three villages: Grand Poujeaux, which produces exceptional wines; Moulis, which yields good, sturdy wines; and Bouqueyran, which produces light wines that do no credit to the reputation of Moulis. The best wine of the area is Chateau Chasse-Spleen, which is regarded as a de facto great growth. Its 1989 is superb.
In good vintages, Listrac produces wines with a distinct black cherry note. In 1989, Listrac wines show much more character than they typically do. Chateau Fourcas-Loubaney is the quality leader.
The Haut-Medoc and Medoc are a grab bag ranging from deep, complex wines that can age 30 years to lightweight luncheon wines that will be decrepit after five.
They range from complete nonentities to magnificent performers such as Chateau Sociando-Mallet, which is becoming well-known, and Chateau Tour-Haut-Cassan, which is still relatively obscure but which produced a 1989 that is probably the single greatest Bordeaux value on the market today.
If this double-dip rave about one particular wine strikes you as a bit excessive, that's understandable. Just do one thing. Taste the wine.