Bargain Bordeaux from wineries less palatial

VINTAGE POINT

May 08, 1994|By Michael Dresser

If you drive northwest out of the city of Bordeaux along the D2 you will eventually come to a huge wine bottle in the middle of the road.

This kitschy but beloved monument marks the heart of the tiny village of St. Julien, where begins an almost unbroken succession of magnificent wine estates -- Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, Chateau Langoa-Barton, Chateau Leoville Las-Cases. Cross into Pauillac and the famous names whiz by: Chateau Pichon-Lalande, Chateau Latour, Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

It's a magnificent tour for anyone -- not just the fortunate few who regularly get the chance to imbibe the wines from these palaces of the vine. But if you're looking for affordable wines, you're in the wrong place.

To find great wines that don't cost an exorbitant amount, you need to turn off the main road and explore the other Bordeaux, away from the traffic.

The wineries are still called chateaux, but they hardly resemble the castles of St. Julien and Pauillac. They are simple stone farmhouses, with an outbuilding that holds tanks and barrels. Picturesque, yes. Posh, no.

Here is where we begin our search -- in towns with names such as Begadan, Moulis, Listrac and Fronsac. What we're looking for are excellent reds that cost less than $20 and demand less time in the cellar than the $50 nectar produced at the landscaped estates along the D2.

It's a search well worth making now. The shelves of local wine stores are well stocked with Bordeaux from the excellent 1990 vintage, the last great year before a trio of disappointments. Prices are reasonable, considering the quality. The character of the vintage is lush and open despite the wines' robustness.

Moulis

In 1855, when the great growths of the Medoc were ranked on a five-tiered list that just won't seem to go away, Moulis wasn't getting much respect. Not one of its chateaux was included.

Today, the results would be much different. Several Moulis chateaux would be candidates to be ranked as Fifth Growths. One, Chateau Chasse-Spleen, is widely regarded as the equivalent of a Second or Third Growth.

The lack of a famous standard-bearer has kept the name of Moulis in obscurity. For consumers, that means lower prices.

The wines tend to be more rustic than those grown closer to the Gironde, but they have ample weight and structure. The best are packed with black-cherry flavor.

* Names to watch for: Chasse-Spleen, Gressier-Grand-Poujeaux, Maucaillou, Poujeaux, Brillette.

Listrac

Listrac lies slightly inland from Moulis, and its wines tend to be similar, though perhaps less weighty. There are many good chateaux, but nothing to rival Chasse-Spleen.

For many years, Listrac's reputation was plagued by bad winemaking at some of its largest estates.

Those days are largely gone. The wines can still be tough and rustic, but winemakers have learned to emphasize the fruit rather than the taste of wood. It's a big improvement.

* Names to watch for: Fourcas-Hosten, Fourcas-Loubaney.

* Specifically recommended: 1990 Chateau Fourcas-Hosten ($16). A medium-bodied, supple wine that you can enjoy now or hold for its peak in about 1998.

Haut-Medoc

This catch-all appellation of more than 7,200 acres takes in most of the better vineyard land of the Medoc, minus the famous four villages plus Moulis and Listrac.

The region is so broad that the name Haut-Medoc tells you little about the wine's quality or character, except that it's red. Haut-Medocs can be pathetically skinny peasant wines; they can also be expensive, classified growths such as La Lagune and Cantemerle.

In such a goulash appellation, the reputation of the individual producer is paramount. Fortunately for the consumer, there are many excellent estates in the Haut-Medoc whose wines sell at a discount because they are classified as "cru bourgeois."

* Names to watch for: Citran, Coufran, Senejac, Sociando-Mallet, Tour du Haut-Moulin.

* Specifically recommended: 1990 Chateau Sociando-Mallet ($19.99), possibly the best of the cru bourgeois wines of Bordeaux. This is a massive, complex, serious wine for long-term cellaring; 1990 Chateau Coufran ($16): Herbal and complex, it should peak in about 1997 but is enjoyable now; 1990 Chateau Senejac ($12.59). A medium-bodied wine for drinking young.

Medoc

The Medoc appellation is used to describe the area known as the northern part of the Medoc, an area known as the Bas-Medoc. Bas means low in French, and its marketing appeal is precisely that, so anything in the Medoc that is not Haut is called just plain Medoc.

The Bas-Medoc is closer to the sea and has fewer prime vineyard sites than the Haut-Medoc. The wines tend to be lighter and more supple, but there are a few estates that make wines of surprising power and complexity.

* Names to watch for: Tour-Haut-Cassan, Potensac, Greysac, Patache d'Aux, La Tour de By, La Tour St.-Bonnet, Vieux Robin.

* Specifically recommended: 1990 Chateau Greysac ($11.59) and Chateau Potensac ($14), both supple wines for drinking young.

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