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For centuries, the Médoc has been considered a jewel in Bordeaux’s crown, home to iconic and often stratospherically expensive wines, but this is only a fraction of what the region really offers. Yes, the Médoc is home to some of the most prestigious producers in the world, but it’s also home to family-owned and up-and-coming producers, a forward-thinking hub of sustainability innovation, and a surprising source of unexpectedly affordable (and reliably delicious) wines. In many important ways, the Médoc embodies everything that makes Bordeaux so special.
“Luxury, class, prestige, tradition—those are the thoughts that run through my head,” says Tonya Pitts, the sommelier and wine director for One Market Restaurant in San Francisco, and an esteemed speaker, writer, and consultant. “Classic. Beautiful. Stunning.”
Yet she is quick to point out that, just because prestige is often associated with the wines, that doesn’t mean that they should be reserved only for special occasions or decadent meals. Just the opposite, in fact: Pitts offers a by-the-glass pour of Haut-Médoc at the restaurant and often recommends pairing it with a burger. The first time she served the pairing, it was such a hit that it remains a core offering of hers even now. The guests “felt like it was a treat for them, to come in and have simple fare and have a nice Bordeaux.”
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More buyers and consumers are discovering that in the Médoc, deep pockets aren’t required to find wines that are deeply expressive of the terroirs from which they come. Their unexpected affordability, in fact, is one of the main reasons for their increasingly prominent bottle and glass-pour placement on restaurant wine lists.
Hai Tran, a North Carolina-based sommelier, points out that common consumer perception of the Médoc involves “grand castles” and images of “Porsches and Teslas” everywhere—but the reality couldn’t be further from that image. “There’s this agrarian culture, and a lot of people don’t have châteaus even if they have ‘château’ in the name,” he says.
And the vast majority of producers in the Médoc, Tran notes, make a point of looking forward to the future even as they remain respectful of the past. Environmentally conscientious farming, sustainable winemaking, responsibly addressing issues of climate change, and more are increasingly guiding the Médoc’s producers.
The Médoc consists of eight individual appellations spread out over an area of more than 16,000 hectares. Throughout that stunning land, over 600 châteaus produce more than 1,000 wine brands that retail from less than $10 per bottle to more than $1,000.
“There no longer is the idea that value and Bordeaux are oxymoronic,” notes Tran. The truth is that that was never really the case, but now more than ever, some of the greatest values in the world of French wine can be found there—particularly in the Médoc.
Bordeaux in general, and the Médoc in particular, has long been synonymous with the greatness of certain vintages over others, with exceptional ones often fetching astronomical prices. But producers throughout the Médoc have so precisely dialed in their grape growing and winemaking that vintage variation is now more a matter of style as opposed to intrinsic quality.
“There’s really no bad vintages for Bordeaux anymore,” adds Rebecca Banks, the beverage director for Balthazar in New York City, aside from rare catastrophic meteorological or climatological catastrophes. “Even in a bad year, they’re making great wine.” And incredible deals can easily be found in so-called “off vintages,” which these days are typically still delicious.
A Diverse and Delicious Landscape
Though villages like Pauillac, Margaux, Saint-Julien, and more are synonymous with the first and second growths that are produced there, the eight appellations of the Médoc are home to so much more than the most famous châteaus.
The profundity of the wines of the Médoc is rooted in the diversity and spectacularly high quality of the terroirs in which they grow—and the ways they are expressed in the wines. Saint-Estèphe, for example, typically boasts “textbook markers like tobacco and spice and dark floral notes,” notes Banks. On the other hand, explains Tran, “power and polish” are more typical of Saint-Julien. The best of them, he says, embody the power of a gymnast rather than of a boxer, with a true sense of elegance beneath the surface.
Pauillac’s wines provide richness, refinement, power, and grippy tannins, whereas the refined tannic structure and incredible value of Listrac-Médoc make its wines excellent options both alongside food or simply on their own. Wines labeled Haut-Médoc “always [have] more of an iron flavor that comes through,” says Pitt, “and more of a dried, savory fruit” character. That’s one of the great joys of exploring the Médoc: Each appellation has its own unique way of expressing its quintessential Bordeaux character.
Producers all over the Médoc are “really becoming very knowledgeable about their different soil types, aspects, where they’re planting,” and more, says Banks. As a result, “The wines are getting better and better.”
And because the Médoc’s winegrowers are at the forefront of France’s work to combat the increasingly challenging effects of climate change—biodiversity is on the rise there, pesticide use is plummeting, and more than 80 percent of the Médoc’s producers have implemented environmentally conscientious practices in the vineyard and winery—the character of each individual appellation shines through more brightly now than ever, and at all price points.
The Future of the Médoc
Like all great wine regions, Bordeaux is in a state of constant forward motion, and the Médoc is at the forefront of that evolution. “More women [are] getting into the winemaking process, not just being the secretary in the château,” Banks points out. “They’re taking more ownership,” and showing up at tastings in jeans and t-shirts—a dramatic departure from the old image of Bordeaux being a bastion of men in bow ties, which it most certainly is not anymore.
A younger generation of Médoc winemakers is traveling to other parts of the wine world and bringing back that knowledge and experience to their work at home, injecting a sense of renewed energy to wines that remain rooted in tradition. Combine that with an increasingly passionate respect for preserving the land itself in the face of a changing climate, and you have the recipe for greatness—at all price points.
“It’s all about [a] sense of place, and the plant materials that they have to work with, that’s what we’re seeing in front of us,” says Pitts. “These wines are what they are, they’re not being manipulated in any way.” Producers from across the Médoc’s eight AOCs are increasingly focusing on their particular terroir and on how best to express it. Even the wines of the smallest producers, which often cost a fraction of what you’d expect, are honest evocations of some of the most exemplary, exquisite terroirs in the world.
This is the soul of the Médoc, and it’s as exciting, profound, and approachable as one could imagine.
Eight Delicious Wines from the Médoc
Château La Chandellière 2016 Médoc Cru Bourgeois
Savory aromas of leather, pipe tobacco, and forest floor are joined by ripe currants that follow through to the energetic palate, which is also marked by hints of coffee and a dusting of sweet tannins.
Château Ducluzeau 2016 Listrac-Médoc
From the Borie family, of Ducru-Beaucaillou fame, whose label shares an aesthetic with this one. Ripe plums and brandied black cherries are joined by caramel-like notes, ripe chestnuts, and mint, all of which tee up a silky palate that rolls along with mixed currants, brambly berry fruit, sweet spice, and a subtle tug of cigar tobacco and blood oranges. It has well-balanced acidity, ripe tannins, and a quiet balsamic lift.
Château Myon de L’Enclos 2016 Moulis-en-Médoc Cru Bourgeois
Notes of wild strawberries and tobacco rise from the glass and are joined by leather, and cherry skin, before a deep, layered palate of currants, brambly berries, and olives, as well as fresh-cracked peppercorns and minerals. A deep seam of acidity cuts through this silky wine, lending excellent definition to those flavors.
Château Maurac 2016 Haut-Médoc Cru Bourgeois
This rolls from the glass with evocative aromas of plums, blackberry liqueur, crushed blueberries, and cassis, all of which translate to a palate of equivalent richness and generosity. Those same fruit notes are joined by melted chocolate, kirsch, and a slate-like minerality that rings through the balanced, rich finish.
Château Beau-Site 2016 Saint-Estèphe
Wonderful aromas of dried flowers, scorched mint, and leather are savory and immediately call out for food. The palate confirms this, where that mintiness is joined by cedar and loads of blackcurrants and blueberries, as well as charred vanilla pod and a touch of five-spice powder. The spice- and violet-tinged finish is savory and generous.
Château Paveil de Luze 2016 Margaux
Rich, generous, ripe, and open-knit aromatics of crushed purple berry fruit, black plums, and Amarena cherries set the stage for a palate that boasts far more vibrancy than the richer nose implies. This is gorgeously made, flashing with flavors of boysenberries, blackberries, flowers, and sweet baking spices.
Château Lalande-Borie 2016 Saint-Julien
Clear-as-day aromas of peonies and rose petals are joined by black raspberries, red cherries, and sweet spice. On the palate, balsamic and floral notes lend real freshness and lift to assertively structured tannins that carry flavors of sarsaparilla, cherries and cherry pits, blueberries, blackberries, singed herbs, and rooibos tea, all of it savory with minerality.
Château Pibran 2016 Pauillac
Reminiscent of gently smoked black licorice on the nose, with blackberries, cigar humidor, and sun-warmed-graphite minerality, before a palate of balance, silkiness, and layered complexity. This is outstanding, with black plums, cassis, cooked honey, sarsaparilla, forest floor, and black raspberries, all of it cut with razor’s edge acidity and framed by tannins.
For more information on exceptional and unexpected wines from Médoc, visit the Vins du Médoc website.