My great love affair with French wines began with Burgundy (elegant, sensual wines that evoke specific historic vineyards) and, more affordably, the Loire Valley where I spent a year as a student – again deliciously elegant wines that articulate a sense of place. Gastronomy in general also plays a great role in these regions and you feel these are places where you are encouraged to indulge yourself. Bordeaux seemed different. It always hovered on the radar, but had an off-putting upright, somewhat mean presence. It's traditional airs seemed more suited to gentleman's clubs than my modest table and terms like 'luncheon claret' made me bristle.
After nearly 20 years things have changed. It's not that I don't still passionately adore Burgundy, but I have found a large space in my heart (and 'cellar'*) for Bordeaux. I've come to realise is that Bordeaux is deeply and reliably satisfying and, surprisingly so, right across the price spectrum (perhaps due to improved winemaking and global warming). I've also had the privilege of visiting the region as a Master of Wine student and had the opportunity of tasting some truly outstanding wines.
What I love about red Bordeaux is its neat restraint and poised structure that happens to be delicious with some of my favourite food; I am particularly partial to the cigar box complexity of maturing great claret. Just recently we had some mutton chops with a bottle of Château La Tour Carnet 2001. Refreshing acidity, subtle earthy berry fruit and mellowing tannins. Beautiful. If you like unadorned, high quality meat (especially lamb), Bordeaux is a wine for you. What's more it it isn't too alcoholic, only reaching 12.5 to 13 degrees. I also get a huge thrill drinking particularly mature wines (especially when they're at least as old as me – says she born in a decent vintage year).
As Bordeaux is such a large wine region (until recently producing more wine than Australia) and draws on a useful palette of grape varieties, it offers the consumer a lot more scope than Burgundy, for example. If you're able to lay down cases of wine for the future, it makes a lot of sense to buy 'en primeur' and a bottle price of £10 to £15 will get you some lovely age-worthy wine. For this price, of course it won't be a glitzy famous name, but it will give you several years' memorable drinking. My La Tour Carnet cost about £12 per bottle and a quick look on Winesearcher.com showed that it would now cost £20 to £25. More recently we bought some clarets from our daughter's birth year, 2006, which we are looking forward to start drinking in two or three years' time (bearing in mind that great claret benefits from a decade or so). I like to see it as investing in your future enjoyment.
* My 'cellar' is currently a great big mother of a refrigerated wine storage cabinet accommodating about 20 cases.
Here are a some current suggestions. (Prices are for mixed cases of 12.)
Waitrose Reserve Claret 2007 (£5.02): light, soft and fruity for everyday drinking.
Christian Moueix 2005 Bordeaux (The Wine Society £7.95): good value Merlot-based wine from the same producer as Château Pétrus, star of the Right Bank.
Château Liversan 2006 Haut-Médoc, Cru Bourgeois (Waitrose £8.54 on offer until mid Feb): juicy, succulent great value Cabernet-based wine.
Dourthe Barrel Select 2007 St-Emilion (Waitrose £9.49): lovely example of Right Bank from a highly reliable Bordeaux label. Still quite youthful.
Château Moulin à Vent 1999 Moulis-en-Médoc, Cru Bourgeois (Majestic Wines £10.99): an excellent price for a handsome, mature wine for drinking now.
Château Léoville Las Cases 1990 St Julien 2eme Cru Classé (Majestic £220): a truly great, thrilling example of the best Bordeaux has to offer. Robert Parker awarded this wine 96/100. One for very special occasions (and deep pockets)!
Bottles lined up for a tasting at Château Cantemerle in 2003
(The top picture shows the haunting Miss Havisham-like old cellars at Château Lafite)