The Bordeaux wine establishment is very proud of its sales system, known as the Place de Bordeaux. Over centuries, a process has evolved whereby the châteaux sell via brokers to negociants (merchants) who distribute the wines throughout the world.
This inevitably adds a few margins to the ex-château price along the chain but the château owners don’t have to do deals with individual importers, wholesalers or retailers and can take advantage of an efficient distribution network. The Place is busiest from April to June, when the latest vintage of bordeaux is tasted, assessed, priced and put on the market at only a few months old — the so-called en primeur campaign.
This works pretty well for the more prestigious Bordeaux estates, the crus classés that feature in the best-known classifications, the most famous of which dates back to 1855. Yet Féret, the bible of bordeaux wine, lists almost 10,000 different châteaux and brands. And because lesser estates can find it so difficult to establish a distinctive identity and long-term sales strategy many offer some of the best value wine in the world.
In an effort to promote some of the small wine properties on the right bank (rive droite) of the Gironde, whose most famous appellations are St-Émilion and Pomerol, château owner-turned-winemaking consultant Alain Raynaud formed an association of them called the Cercle Rive Droite in 2002. Well‑organised tastings of their wines became a feature of the frantic en primeur season in Bordeaux every spring, alongside the many opportunities to taste the crus classés.
In 2017, it merged with a similar but smaller association of lesser-known left bank (rive gauche) châteaux in the Médoc, Graves and Sauternes appellations called the Cercle Rive Gauche to become the Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux, with a total of 136 châteaux.
The smarter names, the crus classés, benefit from an extremely efficient generic promotional body, the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, which organises tastings all over the world. It even, by a stroke of luck, managed to put together a proper sit-down professional tasting of the latest bordeaux vintage to go into bottle, the 2018, in London last October between two lockdowns.
Tasting red bordeaux, a wine that can last decades, in bottle is much more satisfactory than tasting cask samples en primeur but during the pandemic it has been difficult to get much airtime for the 2018s below cru classé level.
Those in charge of promoting the crus bourgeois (all left bank) delivered 136 of them to my fellow Master of Wine and Bordeaux resident James Lawther, who tasted them at his home on behalf of JancisRobinson.com in December. And last month, a lorry finally found my London address and delivered a pallet — yes, a pallet — of 2018s from members of the Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux. I tasted the 105 wines on it.
In its early years, I must confess that it wasn’t always a pleasure to taste the wines of the Cercle Rive Droite. Too many of the winemakers involved, particularly in St-Émilion, were still in thrall to a style I would call pastiche, wines too obviously marked by alcohol, sweetness, concentration and oak.
Yet nowadays this has become much less common. In my recent tasting, I was thrilled to find well-balanced wines that showcased the glory of right-bank wines, dominated by the Merlot grape, usually complemented by Cabernet Franc, wines that are both rich and fresh, and in which the character of the vineyard is able to soar above any alcohol. The 2018 vintage was certainly hot and dry enough to produce potent wines but, as I have reported, high-alcohol wines are much more comfortable to taste than they used to be.
I was delighted too to find excellent wines from some of the less famous right-bank appellations such as Castillon, Montagne St-Émilion, Lalande-de-Pomerol and Fronsac. Indeed, I ended up giving a total of 36 wines (30 right bank and six left bank) a score of at least 16.5 out of 20, which means they are really worth buying.
But when I tried to find out where to buy them, I was frustrated. My first port of call was the pre-eminent international price comparison site Winesearcher.com. Five of these 36 2018s didn’t seem to be available anywhere. Some of them, not surprisingly, were available only in France, and distribution seemed to be best in countries such as France, Belgium and Switzerland.
Millésima.co.uk, the UK retail arm of a big Bordeaux negociant, was cited as a stockist for six of them. But any Brit placing an order is met with this message: “Due to Brexit we are currently adapting our logistics to comply with the new regulations. We will keep you informed as soon as shipments resume. In the meantime we keep your orders safely in our cellar in France.”
Hortense Bernard, in charge of sales and marketing for Millésima UK, explained by email: “Brexit has changed a lot of things in the UK. We are working on it and we do not have yet our complete solution so we cannot discuss it. As you know delivering to private customers from Bordeaux is not an easy thing.” This mirrors the delays and extra costs caused by additional form-filling reported widely by UK wine importers.
I chased up other listings of my favourite Grand Cercle 2018s that seemed to be available in the UK only to find in Laithwaite’s case that either the vintage was wrong or there was no sign of the wine in question. Or there were just two cases available (Feytit-Clinet at Jeroboams). Or there were 16 cases of six available (Fleur Cardinale at the young company Warwick, Banks & Jenkins) but they are waiting in Bordeaux and not expected here for quite a while.
Availability in the US is better. American merchants have always been much readier to sell fine wine by the bottle instead of by the case. The large Fronsac estate La Vieille Cure, for instance, is available from several US retailers (it used to have American owners) but the only merchant offering it in the UK, Cru World Wine, suggests that it will not be delivered until September 2021, almost a year after the first 2018s arrived in the UK.
There are UK merchants offering some of these 2018s in bond but I could find only two out of the 36 that are actually available to buy now, both Vieilles Vignes (old-vine) bottlings: Faizeau from a village store in Cornwall and the Bordeaux Supérieur Ste-Marie that has been sold direct to Greatwine.co.uk, and several US retailers, for many years. Both of these are delicious already and bargains.
When I raised with president Raynaud how difficult it was to find his association’s wines, he admitted that some of them lack the fame needed to sell easily internationally, instead relying on ratings from wine writers.
But, as with the primeur tastings in April, I have to admit that I’m happier providing a true service for readers than simply churning out scores for château owners.
Favourite 2018 red bordeaux châteaux offered in the US
I have included Ch Grand Village from the family responsible for Ch Lafleur in Pomerol because it is excellent and even less expensive than most of these Grand Cercle wines.
• Ampélia, Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux
$16.94 Saratoga Wine Exchange, NY
• De la Dauphine, Fronsac
Many retailers, from $24.50
• Feytit-Clinet, Pomerol
Many retailers, from $75
• Fleur Cardinale, St-Émilion
Many retailers, from $39.95
• Grand Corbin-Despagne, St-Émilion
Several retailers, from $32.88
• Grand Village, Bordeaux Supérieur
• Laplagnotte-Bellevue, St-Émilion
Several retailers, from $30.68
• Lynsolence, St-Émilion
$39.88 B-21, FL
• Mazeyres, Pomerol
Several retailers, from $36
• Rol Valentin, St-Émilion
$33.99 Michel Thibault, TX
• Ste-Marie, Vieilles Vignes, Bordeaux Supérieur
Several retailers, from $13.99
• Sansonnet, St-Émilion
Several retailers, from $36.99
• La Tour de Bessan, Margaux
Many retailers, from $28.95
• La Vieille Cure, Fronsac
Several retailers, from $23.29
• Vieux Château Palon, Montagne St-Émilion
$29.99 Total Wine
• Vieux Maillet, Pomerol
$33.98 Allendale Wine Shoppe, NJ
Follow Jancis on Twitter @JancisRobinson
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