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Bargains in Bordeaux?

On a warm summer day, I am lost on the winding roads of Canon-Fronsac, an appellation on Bordeaux’s Right Bank. When I finally turn up more than an hour late at Château Moulin-Pey-Labrie, owner Grégoire Hubau makes a few witty digs about wine critics rarely finding their way to this little-known region. We head for his cellar (hung with amusing portraits painted by an artist friend), where I taste my way through a lineup of a half dozen surprisingly delicious, savory, plush vintages from his two chateaux. Their prices? A mere $20 to $30.

His 2006 Chateau Haut Lariveau is everything merlot should be — darkly fruity, soft and round — while the 1988, 2003 and 2008 Moulin-Pey-Labrie (merlot with a dash of malbec) are bigger, richer, more concentrated. I’d happily drink all with dinner.

As we wander out to a grassy area dotted with sculptures overlooking his hillside vineyard, Hubau says, “Here in Bordeaux, you have big-business wine and pleasure wine. I want to make pleasure wine.”

That’s the story of the Other Bordeaux, a world of family-owned properties I explored for two weeks, frequently losing my way when my rental car’s GPS system failed.

Affordable choices under the radar

People moan about the prices of the region’s 40-plus investment-grade labels from famous appellations. The futures price for Château Lafite-Rothschild is now $1,650 a bottle, and it’s still in the barrel. But most ignore wines from under-the-radar spots like Canon-Fronsac, whose small châteaux produce delicious reds with elegance, balance and classic character that cost a tiny fraction of that.

Sadly, too often convinced that Bordeaux means greedy château owners making wines for billionaires, wine lovers now often bypass the region altogether, chasing value in Argentina’s Malbec. The CIVB, the Bordeaux trade organization, admits the region is losing market share in the U.S.

But my recent tour reminded me why people shouldn’t give up on the world’s largest fine wine region. Bordeaux is still the benchmark for stylish, complex cabernet and merlot, with 8,500 growers in more than 60 appellations making more than 600 million bottles. In the past decade, the best producers, aiming for quality, have embraced winemaking improvements, and warmer weather (thanks to climate change) and better vineyard practices help grapes ripen more fully. Many, like Moulin-Pey-Labrie, now farm their vineyards organically.

Wines grounded in history

Fronsac and tinier Canon-Fronsac have a long and illustrious history making ageworthy reds; Hubau tells me one of the first fans was Louis XIV. Its soil, a bedrock of limestone and chalk, are similar to more celebrated Saint-Emilion, and excellent for merlot and cabernet franc, the main grape varieties. Names to look for include Château de la Rivière, Château La Vieille Cure, Château La Fleur Cailleau.

In Lussac Saint-Emilion, one of the so-called “satellites” of Saint-Emilion, André Chatenoud of Château de Bellevue insists: “Organic is the future for Bordeaux’s small producers.” After we explore part of his acres of underground limestone caves, where World War II American GI’s carved their names, we taste his fresh, fruity white made from sauvignon gris — the 2010 tastes of minerals, citrus and pear. His 2007 Les Griottes red is a light, easy-drinking quaffer ($20) while the 2008 Château de Bellevue is elegant and structured, the not-yet-bottled 2009 super plummy and rich.

To the north, in the hilly Côtes de Bourg, dotted with medieval fort ruins and grand views over the Gironde River, I find wonderfully fruity reds at châteaux practicing biodynamic viticulture. After his family bought Chateau La Grôlet in 1997, Jean-Luc Hubert tells me as we watch dwarf goats eat vineyard weeds, “a catastrophic storm inspired me to begin.” He adds, “Now, we no longer have bad vintages.” We’re tasting barrel samples of a certain great vintage, 2009, so it’s hard to disagree; both the Classique and the more serious Tête de Cuvée are concentrated and rich, with layers of cassis and raspberry fruit.

It’s almost dark when I arrive at pretty Château Fougas, one of the appellation’s oldest properties. “Half the Côtes de Bourg is for sale, because the prices for wines are so low,” owner Jean Yves Bechet tells me over dinner. Certified organic, they turned to biodynamics in 2010.

Both their 2006 and 2008 Maldoror ($25), with aromas of violets and notes of roasted coffee and chocolate, seem bargains to me, but the 2009 ($17 as futures) is even better.

Perhaps the most fashionable Saint-Emilion satellite is Côtes de Castillon, where I catch up at Clos Puy Arnaud with owner Thierry Valette, who’s wearing Bordeaux-colored Nikes. A former saxophone player, singer and dancer, he reminds me that this appellation is part of the same limestone plateau as its famous neighbor. Politics separated the two. Valette, too, has turned to biodynamics to lift the quality of his fruity, plummy, savory merlot-cabernet franc blend.

These are just a few of my trip’s highlights. If you’ve given up Bordeaux, just try one.

Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”

Photo: A vineyard in Bourdeaux. Credit: Anyka / istockphoto