Bordeaux: You don't have to pay crazy prices to drink great wine from France's top region

Yahya Egeh’s mother slipped him £20 on his 20th birthday and expected him to go out and celebrate in low-key fashion with a friend called Tallulah.

Egeh, an architecture student from Willesden in London, had planned to grab a burger, but the mysterious Tallulah suggested he meet her at The Savoy instead. Any past visitors to that venerable haunt will know that £20 does not go far there, and he panicked when presented with a menu after Tallulah did not show up.

Instead of asking for a side salad and a glass of water and hoping for the best, or just leaving, Egeh decided to go full throttle in the opposite direction. He ordered a bottle of 2004 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a world famous First Growth claret that will set you back a cool £1,750 at The Savoy.

He got stuck into the food too, perhaps hoping that Tallulah would arrive with a bulging purse. There was still no sign of her when he was presented with a £2,146 bill; and so, with a slightly woozy head and a stomach bulging with food and rich, exquisite, full-bodied wine, he did a runner.

And made it all of a few yards before security grabbed him, sat him down and told him the Old Bill were on their way.

The cash-strapped student was sentenced this week and the judge took into account his remorse, his guilty plea and his lack of prior convictions. He was given a 12-month community order and told to undertake 60 hours of unpaid work, while he must repay the hotel for the £1,750 bottle of wine and his £158 meal, although he was let off from repaying the £238.50 service charge.

The good news is that you do not need to spend £1,750 or land yourself a criminal record to enjoy a great bottle of wine from Bordeaux. First of all, the 2004 Chateau Mouton Rothschild is not even all that special in the great pantheon of superstar clarets.

Despite 2004 being one of the better vintages this century, it received a mere 90 Parker points. Meanwhile, Robert Parker’s esteemed heir apparent, Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, gave the 2016 vintage of the same wine 100 points. Egeh really should have waited until his 40th birthday and ordered the 2016 as part of his stunt, as he would have had a far richer pre-run experience.

But nowadays Bordeuax is knocking out excellent wines in the £10-£20 bracket, so he really could have just visited an off-trade retailer, picked up a good bottle of claret, still had enough change left over for a sausage roll from Greggs on The Strand – vegan options now available, in case you hadn’t heard – and sat in Victoria Embankment Gardens enjoying himself, Tallulah or no Tallulah. Happy birthday Yahya.

Bordeaux is on a bit of a roll at the moment. Exports to the UK are up 11% in volume and 17% in value, according to generic body CIVB. Frost in 2017 sparked a short harvest, causing production to fall 40% to 3.5 million hl, but that rose to 5.1 million hl in 2018, which is in line with the 10-year average.

Climate change has allowed it to enjoy a string of high quality years, and Perrotti-Brown confirmed this by handing out 100-point scores to eight 2016 wines, calling it a new benchmark vintage that could eclipse the much-loved 2009 and 2010. Along with Mouton Rothschild, the top score was also given to Cos, Léoville Las Cases, Cheval Blanc, Haut-Brion, Latour, Petrus and Vieux Château Certan, while Margaux, Lafite, Ausone, Pavie, Lafleur, Montrose and Trotanoy were all awarded 99 points.

These wines are beyond the means of most people, however, so the CIVB is on a mission to educate the trade and consumers about the quality Bordeaux can offer in the mid-tier bracket between £7 and £20.

“I remember buyers coming to Bordeaux a few years ago and being surprised by this new identity of Bordeaux wines that are fruit-driven, well-balanced and harmonious,” says president Allan Sichel. “It takes time for buyers to bring in those wines, expand Bordeaux visibility on the shelf, for the consumer to be confronted with it, to taste it, like it, then buy more.

“There’s an awful lot of inertia to get moving in the right direction, but now we are beginning to get there, and there’s no reason for that trend to be interrupted, because the quality of the wines is there, the pricing is stable and we have tools in place to provide the availability and that long-term perspective for everyone. We want Bordeaux to be seen as reliable, enjoyable and accessible in that middle segment at £7-20.”

Fiona Juby, the CIVB’s UK representative, says Bordeaux whites are soaring. “The UK is the largest export market for Bordeaux white wines,” she says. “It’s about 30,000 hl per year. It’s growing.

“Waitrose took on two or three new whites this year. For the first time ever it put a Bordeaux white front-of-store on a gondola end, which is one of their key areas, which was great to see.

“For somebody who likes Sauvignon Blanc, it’s a perfect wine. It’s fresh, easy drinking and very pleasant. We need to try to encourage some of the independents now to take on some of the whites. We need to demonstrate the opportunity to them. There has been a change with new winemakers coming through and new techniques. The quality level has lifted considerably over the past 10 years.”

James Davy at Davy’s Wine Merchant echoes these points. “Bordeaux has so much more to offer in the lower echelons than ever before,” he says. “Modern winemaking techniques, increased quantities of Merlot in the blend, with possibly a little help from global warming – this all combines to make some easier riper or fruitier styles. There is an open mind to the need to market the region and communicate that there is more to Bordeaux than expensive Cru Classe requiring a long time before consuming.

“The rosé sector that was not so long ago a heavy Clairette has caught up with lighter, dry styles. The whites offer a range from unoaked Sauvignon to Semillon blends and varying degrees of complexity. There really is something for everyone now, and in volume too at varying price points.”

Once Egeh is done paying off his £1,908 tab he might keep that in mind.

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