Uncorked: $20 gems amid pricey Bordeaux
Great Bordeaux wines are not made easily. Or cheaply. Centuries ago, the fine wines of that area were produced rather anonymously, without the grand chateaux names we know today.
Then, in 1525, Jean de Pontac married Jeanne de Bellon, who brought her dowry — the land of Haut Brion, or High Hill. Chateau Haut Brion has carried that name proudly ever since.
In 1935, the chateau was purchased by the American investment banker Clarence Dillon, the U.S. ambassador in Paris. He invested goodly sums, and the chateau has been soaring ever since as the only "first growth" vineyard in American hands. Dillon added to his holdings in 1983, buying another top vineyard, La Mission Haut Brion, just across the road.
As quality has improved, prices have soared. Today the top La Mission Haut-Brion is $645 a bottle; the top Haut-Brion is $427.
"It's a matter of demand," Jacques de La Giraudiere, U.S. sales manager for the chateaux, told wine fans at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in February. "Now the Chinese want the wines; the English want them."
One tradition that has helped the pricing a bit is that Bordeaux chateaux use only one-third to one-half of their estate grapes in their top blends. Grapes that don't quite measure up go into a second line of wines, or even a third.
The second line of Haut Brion, named Le Clarence Rouge in Dillon's honor, is "only" $130 a bottle. And a "lesser" Clarendelle is $20.
"It's the same winemaking in our everyday wines," said de La Giraudiere. "We want to give you access."
2009 Clarendelle Blanc, Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux AOC (68 percent semillon, 24 percent sauvignon blanc, 8 percent muscadelle): aromas and flavors of honey and minerals, luxurious and smooth, like a dry sauternes, full body; $20.
2006 La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion, Pessac-Leognan AOC (second wine of Chateau la Mission Haut Brion; 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 28 percent cabernet franc, 22 percent merlot): aromas and flavors of cassis, black cherries, mocha and herbs, powerful but smooth, long finish: $130.
2007 Chateau Haut-Brion Rouge, Premier Grand Cru Classe, Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux (51 percent merlot, 43 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent cabernet franc): aromas of camellias, sweet, intense red plum, tobacco and mineral flavors, subtle tannins, very smooth, complex, long finish; subtle tannins; $427.
2011 Clarendelle Rose, Bordeaux AOC (76 percent cabernet sauvignon, 24 percent merlot): sweet-tart red raspberry flavors, full body, intense fruit, very rich; $17.
2010 Clarendelle White, Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux AOC (94 percent semilllon, 6 percent sauvignon blanc): crisp but rich, full-bodied, with white peach and mineral aromas and flavors; $20.
2005 Clarendelle Red, Bordeaux AOC (82 percent merlot, 13 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent cabernet franc): concentrated, tannic and young, needs time, flavors of black cherries and herbs; $20.
2003 Clarendelle Amberwine late-harvest dessert wine, Monbazillac, Bordeaux (80 percent semillon, 10 percent sauvignon blanc, 10 percent muscadelle): medium-sweet, crisp balancing acid, flavors of ripe apricots, caramel and almonds; $35.
2006 Clarendelle Rouge, Pessac-Leognan/Graves (97 percent merlot, 2 percent cabernet sauvignon, 1 percent cabernet franc): black cherries, black plums and tobacco, youthful and tannic; $20.
Fred Tasker has retired from The Miami Herald but is still writing about wine: email@example.com.