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The Médoc Winemakers are the Real Face of Bordeaux

Crus Bourgeois may not be the grandest of Bordeaux classifications. But behind the distinction lies a world of family-owned Médoc estates that make delicious wines at affordable prices.

The history of the Crus Bourgeois dates to the Middle Ages. The English rulers of Bordeaux allowed middle-class merchants, called the Bourgeois, to buy land and make or sell wine without being taxed.

By the 15th century, the Bourgeois had acquired some of the best sites in the region, which became known as the Crus Bourgeois. Over the centuries, wineries here aided the development of the Médoc’s vineyards and their reputation as producers of high-quality wine.

Unlike other classifications that either never or rarely change, the Cru Bourgeois title is earned, not given by default. Each year, aspiring estates send their wines to be tasted and judged by an independent panel.

For the 2015 vintage, 271 chateaus from across the region, including the Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Moulis-en-Médoc, Margaux, Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe Appellations d’Origine Protégée (AOPs), earned the distinction. Saint-Julien, another appellation eligible for the classification, was not represented in the 2015 selections.

This is the real Bordeaux: wines made with the same care as those from the famed Crus Classés, by families that have often been in the same place for generations.

Karin Bernaleau of Château Mongravey
Karin Bernaleau of Château Mongravey / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Château Mongravey, Margaux

There isn’t a long family tradition at Mongravey. The Bernaleau family started the winery from a three-acre parcel that Régis inherited from his father in 1981. He and his wife, Karin, built the vineyards up to an impressive 32 acres. Their son, Jérôme, now also works at the estate.

Karin says that the chateau’s style is dictated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Planted in 25 parcels near Arsac, on the western edge of the Margaux appellation, the grape is well-suited to the vineyard’s deep gravel soil.

Owners: Karin and Régis Bernaleau

Vineyard: 32 acres

Grapes Planted: 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc

Production: 7,500 cases

“What I love about producing our wine is the game, the play of different parcels and varieties, along with the range of different barrel woods,” she says. “It’s all about delivering the very best we can.”

Château Mongravey 2015 Margaux; $50, 92 points. Now that this estate has calmed down in its wood aging, it is possible to see the beautiful fruit that is grown here. This wine is structured, firm with tannins and some spice from the wood, while allowing plenty of black-currant fruit to shine through. This ripe wine needs several years to develop. Drink from 2024. Aquitaine Wine Company.

Château Bellevue de Tayac
Mélanie Fabre and Jean-Hubert of Château Bellevue de Tayac / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Château Bellevue de Tayac, Margaux

Mélanie Fabre works with her brother, Winemaker/Sales Manager Jean-Hubert, in a most unlikely Bordeaux winery: a modern, shiny, mirrored box on the edge of the village of Soussans in the Margaux appellation. The estate is part of the Fabre family’s empire of four chateaus.

An agricultural engineer, Mélanie describes her little garden of a vineyard as a jewel. “One of my American customers said it is like a telephone box,” she says.

Owner: Fabre family

Vineyard: 11 acres

Grapes Planted: 70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot

Production: 1,500 cases

Like its facilities, the estate’s history is also unusual. It was created in 1995 and flourished under consultant Jean-Luc Thunevin, the original garagiste and owner of Château Valandraud. He shocked the conservative folk of Margaux by applying his Saint-Émilion ideas of low yields, superripe grapes, lots of new wood and a tiny production that could almost be handmade in a garage. Thunevin eventually purchased the property in 2004, and then sold it to the Fabre family in 2014.

With this brief yet glamorous past, the wines from Bellevue de Tayac are a fascinating mix of stylish Margaux and rich intensity from the Thunevin legacy. The latter likely comes from the high percentage of Merlot used in the blend.

“I see our wines as having roundness and great fruit, without losing sight of the elegance that comes from our great terroir,” says Mélanie.

Château Bellevue de Tayac 2015 Margaux; $35, 93 points. This 11-acre property, centered on an ultramodern winery, is the most northerly estate in Margaux. The wine, with its blend of dense tannins and juicy black-currant fruit, is rich, with impressive concentration and minerality. With weight and a firm core, the wine will age well. Drink from 2025. Deutsch Family Wine and Spirits. Cellar Selection.

Julien Meyre of Château Cap Léon Veyrin­
Julien Meyre of Château Cap Léon Veyrin­ / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Château Cap Léon Veyrin­, Listrac-Médoc

Siblings Nathalie and Julien Meyre have a long history to maintain. Their family has owned Cap Léon Veyrin since 1810, which makes it the oldest continuously owned estate in Listrac. They took over from their parents in 2011.

This year’s winners of the prestigious Coupe de Crus Bourgeois in Paris for their 2015 vintage, the Meyres love the terroir of Listrac. They make wines that are powerful, with ripe fruit and tannins. In the process, they eschew the appellation’s traditional rustic style in favor of smoothness and concentration.

Nathalie says their wines are “like us: dynamic, complex and profound.”

Owner: Meyre family

Vineyard: 37 acres

Grapes Planted: 48% Merlot, 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot

Production: 4,800 cases

The estate’s vines are situated in a number of parcels around Listrac and are an average of around 35 years old. Taste the wines, and it’s obvious that the preferred style is for fine, well-balanced wines that are also rich, dense and concentrated.

There are currently three boys in line to take the helm of the historic estate, but that won’t be any time soon: All are under 10 years old. Be sure, though, that there will be Meyres at Cap Léon Veyrin for many years to come.

Château Cap Léon Veyrin 2015 Listrac-Médoc; $30, 91 points. Continuing the sequence of fine vintages from this estate, this wine is rich, dense and structured. It has plenty of tannins, as well as generous black-plum and spice flavors. Wood aging adds light toastiness and smooths out the fruit. Drink from 2025. Baron François Ltd.

Lucie Sécret of Château du Moulin Rouge
Lucie Sécret of Château du Moulin Rouge / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Château du Moulin Rouge, Haut-Médoc

Lucie Sécret is the 13th generation of the Ribeiro family to be involved in wine. A trained wine-estate manager, she took the reins from her father in 2012. Sécret works with her brother, Geoffrey, and their parents “are always around,” she says.

Sécret describes her wines as “powerful, but at the same time elegant and balanced.”

Owner: Ribeiro family

Vineyard: 49 acres

Grapes Planted: 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc

Production: 11,250 cases

The vineyard, with vines that average 40 years old, is close to the Gironde estuary. It’s an ideal location, with the gravel soils that are iconic for the production of expressive wines from the Médoc.

For her, both the fun and the challenge of the job is its variety. “One day I can be the cellar master, the next day I can be on the road selling our wines,” she says. “There is no other business like it.”

Château du Moulin Rouge 2015 Haut-Médoc; $20, 90 points. Set in the heart of Haut-Médoc and close to the 18th-century fortress designed to stop the British attacking through the Gironde estuary (they never tried), this estate has made a firm, tannic wine that has great black fruits and a rich potential. Drink from 2022. Regal Wine Imports Inc.

From left to right; Arnelle Cruse and Technical Manager Josephine Duffau-Lagarosse of Château du Taillan
From left to right; Arnelle Cruse and Technical Manager Josephine Duffau-Lagarosse of Château du Taillan / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Château du Taillan, Haut-Médoc

Château du Taillan is an impressive estate. A French National Heritage Site, its foundations date to the Middle Ages. It’s owned by one of the great families of Bordeaux, and today, the Cruse women run the place.

Arnelle Cruse is in charge. She describes her Merlot-dominated wine as “charming and warm, a wine to give pleasure. A good bottle, which you can drink without breaking the bank.”

Owner: Cruse family

Vineyard: 69 acres

Grapes Planted: 70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc

Production: 8,800 cases

It comes from a vineyard in its first flush of maturity, with an average vine age of 25 years. It will undoubtedly continue on to Cruse’s several nephews and nieces, who she says, “are already asking lots of questions.”

Château du Taillan 2015 Haut-­Médoc; $23, 92 points. Leaving Bordeaux for the Médoc, this is the first estate along the road. The wine is structured and firm, with some solid tannins and generous blackberry fruit. The wood aging and spice balance the blueberry and blackberry flavors. The wine should age well; drink from 2021. Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd. Editors’ Choice.

Marie Vialard of Château Cissac
Marie Vialard of Château Cissac / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Château Cissac, Haut-Médoc

In the five generations that Cissac has been owned by the Vialard family, women have been in charge for two: Danielle Vialard, and now her daughter, Marie.

The family produces a serious, concentrated, Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wine that’s structured and firm when young. It ages slowly and as well as many of the classed growths in neighboring Saint-Estèphe. Marie Vialard talks of the wines’ “tannic structure allied to the intensity of fruit and acidity.”

Cissac is an old estate, and the chateau is a classic one-floor, 18th-century Bordeaux country house. It’s said to have been constructed on the site of a Roman villa within sight of the Gironde estuary. Louis Vialard, Marie’s grandfather, built up the property and made it one of the most familiar of the Crus Bourgeois in overseas markets, particularly England.

Marie has made some stylistic changes to the wine since she took over from her mother.

Owner: Vialard family

Vineyard: 111 acres

Grapes Planted: 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot

Production: 15,000 cases

“We wanted to keep the [Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated] tradition of Cissac, but we knew we needed to modernize the wine,” says Marie. So she emphasized fruit, and the most recent vintages could potentially age more rapidly as a result.

Asked about the sixth generation, Marie says, “it’s too early to say, but there are three boys and a girl between five and 15. So maybe there will be another woman in charge at Cissac one day.”

Château Cissac 2015 Haut-Médoc; $35, 93 points. This is a structured wine, beautifully perfumed with richly tannic black fruits. It comes from a large 111-acre estate in the village of the same name. Made to age with firm tannins and layers of sumptuous fruit over firm wood aging, the wine will mature slowly. Drink from 2024. Elite Wines Import. Cellar Selection.

Christelle Sorge (center) with niece Amélie and nephew Alessio of Château Deyrem Valentin
Christelle Sorge (center) with niece Amélie and nephew Alessio of Château Deyrem Valentin / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Château Deyrem Valentin, Margaux

Surrounded by vineyards owned by five of the Margaux classed growths, Deyrem Valentin is run by fourth-generation sisters Christelle and Sylvie Sorge, whose family also owns Château Valentin in Haut-Médoc and Château Soussans in Margaux.

“Half our work, at least, is in the vineyard,” says Christelle, who trained in oenology at the University of Bordeaux. “That makes our vinification so much easier and [more] pleasurable, with soft extractions that give the subtlety of Margaux.”

Owner: Sorge family

Vineyard: 32 acres

Grapes Planted: 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 49% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot, 1% Carmenère

Production: 6,600 cases

She believes in wines that are silky and intensely perfumed, a change from the style employed by her retired father, Jean, who favored more structured, tannic wines. To help achieve such an impression for her own wines, she enlisted the advice of consultant Hubert de Bouärd from Château Angélus of Saint-Émilion.

Christelle says the family inheritance is both an honor and a responsibility.

“What’s my passion?,” she says. “It’s everything to do with the vineyard and the winemaking, but it’s also meeting visitors, treating their taste buds to our wines and giving them a good time.”

Château Deyrem Valentin 2015 Margaux; $35, 93 points. This dense and impressively ripe wine comes from a Sorge family estate in the northern part of the Margaux appellation. With black fruits and generous tannins, it is a big wine with considerable richness. This complex wine will age. Drink from 2025. APS Wine & Spirits. Cellar Selection.

Jérôme Bibey of Château Labadie
Jérôme Bibey of Château Labadie / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Château Labadie, Médoc

Jérôme Bibey may be only the second generation at Château Labadie, but he understands the importance of family, both for his estate and the Crus Bourgeois.

“You must respect the family tradition, and, at the same time, you need to pass on a passion for wine to next generation,” he says.

Owner: Jérôme Bibey

Vineyard: 91 acres

Grapes Planted: 50% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot, 4% Malbec

Production: 26,250 cases

Bibey is also a vanguard of organic viticulture and high environmental standards in the vineyard and cellar. The chateau has earned the ISO 14001 certification, an international standard for an effective environmental management system.

His wines are soft, generous and well balanced. They’re a fine testament to the awareness of and respect for nature.

Château Labadie 2015 Médoc; $24, 89 points. With a high percentage of Merlot, this is a ripe, juicy and red-fruit-flavored wine. It is soft, with the tannins already well integrated into the plush fruit. This rich, generous wine will be ready to drink from 2022. David Milligan Selections.

Pierre Cazeneuve of Château Paloumey
Pierre Cazeneuve of Château Paloumey / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Château Paloumey, Haut-Médoc

When the Cazeneuve family purchased Paloumey in 1989, there was nothing. No vines. No cellar. Just the right to plant where vines had once been. That once-blank canvas now flourishes under the direction of Pierre Cazeneuve.

Owner: Cazeneuve family

Vineyard: 84 acres

Grapes Planted: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc

Production: 10,800 cases

Situated in the southern part of the Médoc, close to the city of Bordeaux, the estate welcomes 6,000 visitors per year. It’s typical of the shift in attitude toward visitors that changed the former closed-door mentality of many Bordeaux chateaus.

Cazeneuve’s wines are generous, rich and structured. He loves to work with material that he calls diverse and complex. “Producing wine needs great precision, and I really enjoy that.”

Château Paloumey 2015 Haut-Médoc; $25, 92 points. From a grand estate whose owners also have vines in Margaux and Moulis, this wine is well proportioned and dense. Rich tannins and concentration are just part of what will become a generous, full wine. With great black-currant fruit and acidity to match, this structured wine will need to age. Drink from 2024. Fruit of the Vines Inc.

Pascale Peyronie of Château Fonbadet
Pascale Peyronie of Château Fonbadet / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Château Fonbadet, Pauillac

Compared with the grand chateaus of her Pauillac neighbors, Pascale Peyronie’s house at Château Fonbadet is a low, modest range of buildings, with the cellar right next door. She grew up here, her earliest wine memory the smell of harvest-time fermentation as she returned from school and walked through the cellar.

Now 52, and with a young son to eventually take up the inheritance (“he is already checking out the state of the vines,” she says), Pascale guards her estate from the powerful neighbors.

“My father took back the property in the 1960s,” she says. “He could have sold to [neighboring] Mouton and Lafite, but he wanted to have [a] little piece of land he could call his own.”

Owner: Peyronie family

Vineyard: 50 acres

Grapes Planted: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot and Malbec

Production: 2,100 cases

With the magnificent terroir of the deep gravel soils north of the town of Pauillac, it’s no surprise that Fonbadet makes powerful wines, especially in recent vintages. Yet, everything is traditional.

“My aim is to get the highest level of maturity from the grapes,” she says. “We have old vines, so we can get the concentration. Then I pick up my artist’s palette and make the blend. I see a harmony of colors, so that I can make a beautiful painting.”

Château Fonbadet 2015 Pauillac; $40, 93 points. This wine comes from a 50-acre crus bourgeois estate in the middle of some of the greatest crus classés estates. The terroir is impressive and produces a rich, structured wine with good concentration, ripe tannins and a sumptuous bed of black fruits. The wine is likely to age well; drink from 2025. Aqui­taine Wine Company. Cellar Selection.

Christine Nadalié of Clos la Bohème
Christine Nadalié of Clos la Bohème / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Clos la Bohème, Haut-Médoc

Christine Nadalié has one big advantage when she shops for barrels: She’s in charge of sales at her family’s cooperage, La Tonnellerie Nadalié. It’s just down the road from her bijou estate of Clos la Bohème.

“When I want to buy barrels, I just negotiate with myself,” she says with a smile.

Nadalié is a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon. “As soon as I took over what was my grandmother’s vineyard, I decided to replace some of the Merlot with Cabernet,” she says. According to her, climate change seemed to benefit the richness of the Cabernet Sauvignon and made Merlot too ripe in the Médoc.

She first learned to love Cabernet while working at Duckhorn Vineyards and Inglenook­ in Napa Valley. She especially appreciated the grape’s richness.

Owner: Nadalié family

Vineyard: 8.6 acres

Grapes Planted: 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot

Production: 750 cases

“I was also impressed by the scientific approach,” says Nadalié, who believes she sharpened her winemaking skills in California. “We can’t get the richness of a Napa Cab in Bordeaux, so what I aim for is elegance in my wine.”

Clos la Bohème’s vineyard is organic. “[It] makes you understand the place better, the vines and the environment,” says Nadalié. It’s all part of her fascination with wine production, from planting the vine to selling the bottle.

“There’s no business quite like it.”

The future of this jewel is assured: Her son, Benjamin, is studying oenology.

Clos la Bohème 2015 Haut-Médoc; $40, 90 points. This wine comes from a seven-acre property in the south of the Haut-Médoc. Well textured, ripe with black fruits and firm with tannins, this is quite an enjoyable wine. It will develop into a beautiful, rich wine. Drink from 2024. Chartrand Imports.

François and Hélène Boivert of Château Les Ormes Sorbet
François and Hélène Boivert of Château Les Ormes Sorbet / Photo by Patrick Desgraupes

Château Les Ormes Sorbet, Médoc

There have been 10 generations of the Boivert family at Château Les Ormes Sorbet. Today, it’s run by Hélène Boivert and her sons, Vincent and François. The family house is a three-story building that overlooks the flat land of the Médoc, once surrounded by the elm trees that gave the estate its name.

Cabernet is king here, unusual in an area where Merlot dominates. The limestone outcrop that forms the bedrock of the estate’s vineyards seems better suited to Cabernet than Merlot.

Owner: Boivert family

Vineyard: 49 acres

Grapes Planted: 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot

Production: 3,300 cases

This used to mean that the chateau’s wines were austere and firmly structured initially. Since 2010, however, the winery has adopted a more open style, and recent vintages are increasingly accessible in their youth.

Château Les Ormes Sorbet 2015 Médoc; $30, 92 points. This is a beautifully balanced, rich wine. A core of fine tannins is surrounded by ripe blackberry fruits. The wine seems accessible now, but those tannins will allow it to age well. It will be better to wait until 2022. B&Bs French Wine Club.