Today’s Bordeaux Won’t Break the Bank

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

I don’t write much about it here, but I love wine. When I lived in France for a year, it was all I drank, besides the odd demi-pêche at the pub from time to time. Because I’ve traveled there frequently and have family there, I’m particularly partial to Alsatian whites, but the truth is I never tasted a French wine I didn’t like.

Stateside, it’s not always affordable to slake my thirsts with French vintages; most for sale in my neighborhood tend towards the higher-end—good for special occasions, but not priced for my daily drink. Or at least, I thought they did. I rarely look at the French wine shelf because I just assume it will be too expensive.

I won’t be making that mistake again.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

Last week, I sampled nearly 50 Bordeaux priced under $55—and the majority under $35. Bordeaux have a reputation in the US as high-quality (read: expensive) wines suitable for older drinkers, in part because their so-called “old world” characteristics have fallen out of fashion as more fruit-forward (and affordable) offerings—like those from Argentina and Chile—are in their ascendency. It hasn’t helped that Bordeaux futures have led to some producers overpricing certain vintages, creating a difficult market situation where many bottles are priced beyond what consumers are willing to pay. (See this excellent Wine Spectator article for a detailed explanation, and take a look at the comments to see the disenchantment of many US consumers.)

But let’s put those notions aside for a moment. I’m here to tell you that there are remarkable, delicious Bordeaux in reach of even budget-conscious non-profit workers. Some of my favorites from the tasting were priced well under $15. If you’re not obsessed with labels and if you can get past the “expensive=better” hangup that so many of us seem to fall for, you too can enjoy high-quality Bordeaux without breaking the bank—or even bending the budget.

The tasting, presented by the Bordeaux Wine Council, featured 100 wines representing 22 appellations as part of the Today’s Bordeaux selection, “value wines [that] can be enjoyed by wine aficionados and novices” alike. I put myself firmly in the latter category, as well as the “value wine buyer” box. (In general, most of my booze budget goes to whisky.) And while I might not drop $20 on every bottle I tasted, there were quite a few that I intend to look for in my liquor store. If you’re in New York, every bottle listed is available here, while other states may offer a selection.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

The wines were poured by professionals in the industry who were more than happy to talk about the characteristics of these Bordeaux. One of the comments I heard again and again was that wine doesn’t have to be complicated to be good—and that’s something I can agree with as a whisky-drinker. Sure, who doesn’t love to spend an hour or two rolling the liquid around in the glass, sniffing and sipping and contemplating the deeper mysteries of the bottle? I take deep pleasure in those moments. But when it comes to everyday life, they are rare. I’m much more likely to pour a glass of something familiar and comforting just to soothe my soul after a wearying day, enjoying the taste for itself and nothing more.

These Bordeaux fit that bill nicely, being fairly uncomplicated (many were young, 2011 or 2012) and well suited for food. As I was tasting, I ran through pairing possibilities in my mind, and I couldn’t think of any food without one wine or two presenting itself as a suitable accompaniment. To be fair, French wine, like most Old World wines, evolved to be drunk with food. That attitude—that wine is meant for everyday consumption—pervaded this tasting, and was well supported by the pricing.

It doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. I learned this when I spent a year drinking on a student’s budget in France, and I’m happy to continue in this vein stateside. I have no doubt that $300 bottles would excite my palate and transport me to realms of ecstasy hitherto unknown—but I don’t need that. I’m just looking for what tastes good!

Check out the Bordeaux Wine Council’s website for full list of the 2013 Today’s Bordeaux, searchable by color and tasting notes, grapes, price range, and occasion. You can read more about the tasting here. Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite pours of the day, all well under $20. If you see these, snatch them up! They are a delicious bargain, albeit by no means a complete list of the top affordable offerings from Bordeaux.

Courtesy of Tasting Table.

Courtesy of Tasting Table

Whites

Château La Maroutine, 100% Sauvignon Blanc. $11.

Château Fonfroide, 76% Sémillon, 18% Sauvignon Blanc, 4% Muscadelle, 2% Colombard. $13.

Château Les Clauzots, 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Sémillon. $16.

Reds

Château de Ricaud, 90% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc. $12.

Château La Croix Saint-Pierre, 70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec. $15.

Château de Paillet-Quancard, 80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc. $15.

Special thanks to Creative Feed and Tasting Table who graciously presented the tasting and provided the photos.

Alsatian Tarte Flambée

Eleven years ago, my family discovered we had relatives in Alsace, France. In the first decade of the 20th century, when Alsace was still a part of Germany, my paternal great-grandfather “jumped ship” in New York City and settled down as a baker. He lost touch with his siblings during the first World War and for years we wondered what became of them. (In the meantime, Alsace, ever disputed over like an only child suffering a nasty divorce, went back to being a part of France.) My mother, excited by the mystery despite her lack of blood relationship, got hold of a page from a phone book bearing addresses for a couple dozen people who shared my great-grandfather’s (rather uncommon) last name. She mailed a form letter to each of them, including a copy of the only old family photo we had, and lo and behold, one chilly December day we received a heavily-accented phone call from one of the long lost cousins.

This kicked off what became a Griswaldian European family vacation with cranky grandmother in tow (they were her first cousins, after all) to the pays natale. With my one year of high school French, I represented my family’s most fluent speaker, forced to attempt translations of such phrases as “Pull ovah, let me buy you some gas. Oh my god, there’s no shouldah on this road!” (Needless to say, my grandmother’s heavy Bronx accent got lost in translation.) Luckily, when it comes to food and wine, no translation is needed.

During our week’s visit to Alsace, the cousins practically fought over us, the result being a different home-cooked meal, complete with ravishing local wine, every night. The night we arrived, however, before we met the family, we ventured out on our own to the town hall of Séléstat where there was a rousing Bastille Day celebration happening. A full band and dance floor, free-flowing Riesling and Pinot Gris, and something we determined must be pizza. In fact, it was pizza-esque but oh-so-different: more delicate, more subtle, more French. What we glommed on all night was tarte flambée, also known as Flammekuechea thin-crust wonder topped with a mixture of fromage blanc (essentially a very fresh white cheese) and crème fraîche and sprinkled with sliced onions and lardons.

Occasionally one sees cheesier versions (Trader Joe’s sells a frozen tarte flambée with Gruyère), or some topped with other things like mushrooms. One of my cousins made a dessert tarte with fresh plums which was heavenly. But the traditional tarte flambée, and the one I make most often, is the most common for a reason. The crispy cracker-crust of the dough, the warm, rich sauce, the salty lardons and the sweet onions meld into a glorious mouthful that demands you a) keep eating and b) keep drinking. There’s a reason this dish arose in a region where you literally cannot find a bad white wine. I suggest pairing this with a crisp, semi-dry Riesling or, if you’re feeling fancy, some crémant d’Alsace, but it would really work well with any white, dry or sweet. Tarte flambée is versatile, and addictive, so be prepared to double your portions here.

Traditional Alsatian Tarte Flambée
I’ve adapted this recipe from a French version given to me by one of my cousins, and have included both metric and imperial measurements. If you have a kitchen scale, use the metric measurements for more precision and, well, just to make your life easier.

Ingredients:

Dough
250 g/1 heaping cup all purpose flour

150 ml/10 Tbs. room temperature lager such as Pilsner Urqell or Kronenbourg (The measurement in my cousin’s recipe is actually 1/7 liter or “3 mignonettes”, a measurement I have never been able to determine. Who has a measuring device for 1/7 of a liter??)

1 Tbs. (cuillère à soupe) vegetable or sunflower oil

1/2 tsp. salt

Topping
118 ml./1/2 cup fromage blanc (available stateside at some Whole Foods or specialty cheese shops)

118/1/2 cup crème fraîche

1 egg yolk (optional)

pinch of nutmeg

salt, pepper to taste

1 small onion, sliced

1/2 cup lardons

Note: If fromage blanc is unavailable, substitute thick, full-fat yogurt, such as Greek yogurt. If crème fraîche is unavailable, substitute full-fat sour cream. If you can’t get lardons, try diced pancetta or thick-sliced smoked bacon cut into bits and half-cooked ahead of time.

Directions:
Preheat oven as hot as it can go, at least 500°. If you have a baking stone or baking steel, now’s the time to use it—preheat at least an hour. If you have an outdoor brick pizza oven, you’re golden.

1. Combine flour, beer and oil in a bowl. Using a fork, blend until dough forms a shaggy, wet ball, adding more flour or beer as necessary. Do not overwork. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour and up to 24 hours.

2. Meanwhile, whisk together fromage blanc, crème fraîche, egg yolk (if using), and spices.

3. When dough has rested, remove from refrigerator and separate into two equally-sized balls. Roll each one out very thin to a rectangular or circular shape. (For easier rolling and moving, use two sheets of plastic wrap on the top and bottom of the dough, or parchment paper on the bottom and plastic wrap or flour on top.)

4. Top each crust with half the sauce mixture, half the onions, and half the lardons. Pop into the oven on a baking sheet or stone and bake until the center is bubbling and the edges are nearly black, usually 10-15 minutes.