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Bordeaux's in a class of its own with top wines; WINE HELEN SAVAGE.

BORDEAUX can be very confusing. There are so many names, so many arcane terms on the labels and so many producers. It's hard to pick a good one unless you've got detailed inside knowledge.

The reason it's hard to get one's head around is that it's the world's largest quality wine-producing region. It has more than three times the amount of land under vine than the whole of New Zealand and roughly ten times as many wine producers.

In order to give some much-needed guidance to consumers, a grand scheme was hatched in 1855 when the French Emperor, Napoleon III, decreed that a list of the top few dozen producers of red wine in the Medoc should be from an official classification.

The list was based, largely, on the price the wines sold for, and amazingly, with just one addition, remains unchanged to this day. These wines, labelled Grand Cru Classe, with a few additions from other parts of the Bordeaux region, still fetch the highest prices on world markets for fine wine.

But there are hundreds of other producers in the Medoc that make marvellous wine. Some of them are often better than the less dynamic members of the Grand Cru Classe club. The best of these other wines are often described as Crus Bourgeois, a name as uninvitingly staid and earnest to Anglo-Saxon ears as it's almost possible to imagine. But it has a proud history, back to the days when the leading town's folk of Bordeaux (the "bourgeois") laid claim to some of the region''s best vineyard land.

In the twentieth century, the term had a rather less happy history. A list of 444 Crus Bourgeois was published in 1932, but it remained outside the law and was open to abuse. Any wine producer could, and sometimes did, adopt the term. In 2003 another attempt by leading growers to restrict the term to those chateaux worthy of a special status also collapsed; and then, two years ago, after many years' lobbying by a growers' group, the Alliance of Crus Bourgeois of the Medoc, a new scheme with government support, was finally accepted.

This makes Cru Bourgeois an annual accolade awarded to those wines - not properties - that are produced according to stringent standards and have passed a blind tasting test. Last year, 304 wines from the 2009 vintage were entered and 244 were approved. On Wednesday, the results of the 2012 competition were published in Bordeaux and a large selection of them will be shown to the British trade this morning in London.

Although the term Cru Bourgeois remains as enticing as dishwater, there is no doubt in my mind, that it is now worth cherishing as a means of identifying a group of incredibly attractive wines that offer often outstanding value for money.

They are made in the same way as the more famous and swanky Grands Crus Classes, from the same mix of grape varieties, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and from neighbouring plots of land, many of which have even changed hands with their prestigious neighbours over the years, but, crucially most Crus Bourgeois cost between about PS10 and PS15 on the UK market against prices for the top names that can run into hundreds or even thousands of pounds. In simple terms, when you open a bottle of a good Cru Bourgeois, you get to enjoy a wine that's very similar to a wine that you're seldom if ever likely to afford.

I made a special effort to taste samples of the 2011 vintage made by the members of the Alliance of Crus Bourgeois when they were first shown to the trade back in April, and, though the word on the street was that this was a tricky vintage, I was very impressed (my notes on about 50 of them can be found on my blog as www.helensavage.com). Above all, I was delighted by the consistently high standard of wine-making.

Last month, I made my way back to the Medoc to follow up the tasting with visits to some of the properties whose wines stood out. In particular, I headed for Chateau Fonreaud, which sits in the appellation of Listrac, the highest spot in the Medoc, which means their land is on deep gravel soils ideal for making elegant, perfumed claret, but is otherwise an unremarkable accolade in a land of vineyards that edge into the vast expanse of the Gironde Estuary, pine forests and huge skies.

The estate encompasses three other properties, each of which has its own distinct, subtly different character, dictated by slight variations of blend, soil and physical orientation of each site. The wines are all aged in small oak casks for a year and they then are sold for a song. The Wine Society, for example, offers the fully mature and now magnificent 2005 Chateau Fonreaud for just PS12.95.

A host of other Cru Bourgeois bargains available locally include Chateau Bernadotte, Caronne-Ste-Gemme and Rousseau de Sipian (from Richard Granger), Chateaux Greysac, Romefort, Tayac, Peyrabon, Picard, Griviere, Bessan Segur (from Majestic) and Chateau Liversan (Waitrose). The Wine Chambers have several more, all at tempting prices.

It may be easy to make fun of the name, but Cru Bourgeois is an increasingly reliable guarantee of good, characterful wine at a very fair price. Bordeaux need not be so tricky.

CAPTION(S):

CHARACTER Chateau Fonreaud, and below, the vineyards and cellars
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 21, 2012
Words:904
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