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Middle road Bordeaux

AS I've mentioned in the past, the words Bordeaux and bargain continue to seem mutually exclusive. The best Bordeaux are ridiculously expensive while cheap Bordeaux tastes exactly that, cheap. What's a Bordeaux lover to do? Turn to the new world Bordeaux-style blends that can be delicious but never really replicate true Bordeaux? I suggest a middle road that while not easy to navigate is still well worth the search. Based on my most recent Bordeaux tastings, I'm pleased to introduce some of the best Bordeaux red wines that retail for less than 500 yuan (US$77). These wines represent some of the best-quality, fairly priced Bordeaux red wines available in Shanghai.

On several occasions in this column I've explained how bargain-hunting for Bordeaux wines is dangerous to your palate and can be insulting to your guests. As a northern wine region where ripeness is often an issue the best winemakers tend to be very selective in the grapes they use and throw away or sell the unripe or otherwise imperfect grapes to producers of cheap supermarket wines. On the shelves of discount stores here in Shanghai and elsewhere there are always a plethora of cheap and insipid 11-11.5 percent alcohol Bordeaux reds. You should avoid these wines. When purchasing inexpensive Bordeaux wines you should not buy anything below 12 percent alcohol content. But even purchasing reds with 12-13 percent alcohol doesn't guarantee a good drinking experience. Instead you really have to know those quality producers in Bordeaux who still spend the money and take the time to make good wines.

Also helpful in picking the right Bordeaux wine is to understand the different quality levels. The French have always loved, and quite frankly been quite good at, establishing quality levels for wines. Despite EU efforts to start standardizing the quality-level designations across all member states, each wine region in France still features its own system. In Bordeaux the system for red starts at the low-end with table wine and basic AOC wines and tops out with the highest-rated Grand Cru Classe wines, though some regions like Pomerol still don't have classifications.

Basic AOC wines

Table wines may be drinkable in France but they don't travel well and have a short shelf life. Therefore, I suggest starting your quest for inexpensive Bordeaux red wines at the AOC level. Many wines in this category don't make the grade but a few do. Avoid wines with alcohol under 12 percent. One of the best examples is the 2009 Chateau Pasquet, a balanced wine offering robust dark-fruit flavors, good ripeness at 13 percent alcohol and best of all a very un-Bordeaux-like retail price of 165 yuan. Owned by the Beaugency family, this wine has a higher contribution of the Malbec grape. Other good wines at this level include the 2009 Chateau Naudeau, another Beaugency wine and the 2008 Chateau Lamothe Sandeaux.

Bordeaux Superieur

One step up from basic AOC level is Bordeaux Superieur wines that range from ordinary to quite good. Superieur doesn't really mean superior, but it can be a good wine. The 2009 Guillaume Blanc is a fine example of a well-made Bordeaux red with plenty of fruit and good structure. Another very nice wine in this category is the 2008 Chateau Timberlay Superieur, a large producer of consistently good-drinking, affordable wines.

Cru Bourgeois

Paying a little more to get a Cru Bourgeois wine is one of the most reliable ways to choose a good Bordeaux red wine, however it's not always easy to find one under 500 yuan. Some of the better Cru Bourgeois wines often outperform some of the 1855 Grand Cru Classe wines. The 2008 Chateau Barateau is an elegant Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois that's just under 500 yuan. Other wines at this level and price are the 2006 Chateau Loudenne and Chateau Larose-Trintaudon.

Not Quite Saint Emilion

One of the most reliable ways to get a well-made budget Bordeaux is to choose wines from lesser-known Right Bank sub-appellations. In simple terms this means wines from regions surrounding the famous Saint Emilion appellation. Two fine examples are 2006 Chateau du Courlat from Lussac-Saint-Emilion, a graceful and elegant wine, and the 2001 L'As de Roudier from Montagne Saint-Emilion, a rare case of an affordable, decade-old Bordeaux that's drinking beautifully now.

The food

Structured Bordeaux reds as featured in this column are not afternoon sippers or aperitif wines; rather they are wines that deserve a good meal. Some classic Bordeaux red pairings include beef rib steak with a rich sauce of Bordeaux red wine, shallots, herbs and bone marrow, Pauillac rack or leg of lamb liberally sprinkled with fresh herbs and roasted or grilled, or an assortment of locally produced soft, semi-hard and hard cheeses. When you realize that Bordeaux reds and these ingredients and dishes have synergistically co-existed for centuries, it's little surprise that they taste so wonderful together. More challenging, but equally rewarding when you get it right is pairing these reds with Chinese dishes. Two of my favorite dishes to enjoy with Bordeaux red wines are modern Shanghai-style slow-roasted beef rib and Yunnan-style fried lamb chops. In both cases the dark fruit flavors in the wines enhance the flavors of the meats, almost acting as a sauce, while the tannins cleanse the palate and facilitate digestion.


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