The One Thing You Should Actually Pay Attention to When Buying Bordeaux Wine

updated Dec 17, 2019
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(Image credit: Geraldine Campbell)

Earlier this year, I attended a dinner that highlighted the wines of Bordeaux. But these wines weren’t the ones I expected to see; the serious and spendy reds I think of when I hear “Bordeaux.” Instead, they were affordable and approachable, the kind I’d want to serve for the holidays — or just drink on any given Tuesday night.

Curious to find out more, we invited Mary Gorman-McAdams, an advisor to the Bordeaux Wine Council (and former wine writer for Kitchn), and Patrick Cappiello, the wine director at New York’s Rebelle and Pearl & Ash, to come to our offices. We tried a bunch of wines, got a bit geeky about grapes, and learned a lot about the region.

The top tip I took away, though, was one I didn’t expect — and it has to do with understanding the wine label.

It turns out it’s really difficult to determine anything about a bottle of Bordeaux just by looking at it. Here’s what not to pay attention to — and what really matters — when buying Bordeaux.

(Image credit: Geraldine Campbell)

Don’t judge a Bordeaux by its chateau.

For starters, nearly every wine comes from chateau something-or-other and has a sketch of a chateau on its label. This, the pros say, means basically nothing: A chateaux could be, in real life, a garage (which is not to say that wine coming out of a garage is bad!). But the word chateau — and the rendering on the label — doesn’t reveal anything about what’s in the bottle.

Don’t be afraid to buy cheap Bordeaux.

You also shouldn’t be swayed by price — and when we say price, we mean low prices, not high prices. According to Mary, only three percent of wines are the expensive, haute couture-type that you probably associate with Bordeaux. The remaining 97 percent is quite affordable. In fact, nearly every wine we drank was under $20, and many retailed for less than $15. The point is, there are really, really good wines from Bordeaux that won’t break the bank.

(Image credit: Geraldine Campbell)

Don’t worry about vintage.

This is one tip that really surprised me, but Mary and Patrick agreed: Unless you’re going to cellar it, don’t worry about vintage. That is largely thanks to better viticulture practices (although climate change has also contributed). Mary says that, while there might be slight differences from year to year — and hail at the wrong time can still be devastating — you don’t really have that awful vintage anymore.

(Image credit: Geraldine Campbell)

Do look at the importer.

If you’re starting to think that buying Bordeaux is a little bit like Secret Santa — i.e., you never know what you might get — you’re not wrong. The good news is that these wines are so cheap, with many great options in the $10 to $15 range, that you can afford to experiment.

When you do find one that you like, take a look at the importer and make a note. If you find another bottle you like and it’s from the same importer, there’s a good chance that importer is one whose wines you will like.

Do you have any additional tips for enjoying Bordeaux?