A case of red wine was sold at auction last month for £11000. Admittedly, it was Château Latour, one of the most prestigious estates in Bordeaux and from the highly acclaimed 2010 vintage, but it set me wondering whether any wine is worth almost £1000 a bottle. And, of course, the buyer of this case is likely to have to wait at least a decade before the wine is at its peak, assuming, that is, that he or she is going to drink it, rather than (more likely) re-selling it at a profit.
The prices of top wines are now silly – the Liv-ex Index calculates that they have tripled since 2004 – and the sad fact is that it is putting the best wines way out of reach of most wine lovers. When I first started taking an interest in wine, you could buy one of these top Bordeaux for about 20 times the price of an ordinary wine – just about affordable for a really special occasion – now that figure stands at 150 and rising steadily.
So, for those of more modest means, is there any way you can sample a decent Bordeaux? Happily, I’d say yes! Look for wines with the words ‘Cru Bourgeois’ on the label. These are from estates which fall outside the Classified Growth system. Many are, nevertheless, well situated and with talented and dedicated winemakers. But, because they are not listed among the privileged few, prices are far more reasonable.
A couple of days ago I opened such a bottle that I’d kept under the stairs for a few years – even lesser bottles take a while to reach their peak.
Château Senejac 2006 had become nicely mellow and mature with soft, leathery flavours and a long spicy finish. You’d probably pay around £15 – £20 for the equivalent today. Don’t expect the length or complexity of a Latour, just really pleasant drinking – and at a sensible price.
Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.
Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.
Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.
The most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.