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Getting bang for your Bordeaux buck
By John H. Isacs

ALLOW me to predicate everything to follow in this week's column with a true declaration that red Bordeaux wines were the first loves of my wine life.

I still adore drinking top Bordeaux reds but unfortunately I rarely purchase them as they are almost obscenely expensive.

In large part, due to demand in China, top Bordeaux red wines have become so ridiculously expensive that only the wealthiest of wine lovers can afford them.

What a wine is worth is a rather subjective issue but many traditional wine lovers and collectors have simply stopped buying the best Bordeaux wines. At the top of the quality and price pyramid are the Grand Cru Classe wines.

1855 Classification

The earliest known classification of Bordeaux was made by Thomas Jefferson, then US ambassador to France, in the late 18th century; however, the most famous one is the 1855 Classification.

In 1855, as part of the celebrations for the Universal Exhibition in Paris, the French emperor Napoleon III asked the Bordeaux region to rank their best and most famous wines. This classification included only wines from the left side of the Garonne River and the noble rot sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac.

Today the Right Bank regions of Saint Emilion and Pomerol make wines to rival the best wines of the Left Bank but this was not officially acknowledged in 1855.

The official 1855 Classification includes 60 Medoc wines and one Graves wine, the legendary Chateau Haut Brion.

Since 1855, the classification has been modified only once, when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was promoted from second growth to first growth in 1973.

Despite the fact that some classified chateaux perform above or below their classification, it is remarkable that after more than a century and half later these rankings are still a decent indication of the quality of top chateaux.

The 1855 Classification still influences the prestige and as a consequence the prices of Left Bank wines and almost all the wines included in this classification are very pricy in China.

But there may be a small beacon of hope for Bordeaux lovers.

My sources in the industry tell me that the prices of top Bordeaux wines in China, including the classed growth wines, have dropped approximately 30 percent in 2012.

This is in part due to slower domestic growth and also the recent calls by authorities for less conspicuous consumption.

Because of the open market system used to buy classed growth wines from Bordeaux, any importer in China can buy and sell these wines, so prices vary.

While cheap 1855 Grand Cru Classe wines don't really exist, some chateaux definitely offer, as we're fond of saying in the US, much greater bang for the buck. Therefore if only the prestige of an 1855 Grand Cru Classe wine will do, here are my top three best buys.

Chateau Grand Puy Ducasse

Arguably the best value of all 1855 Grand Cru Classe wines, Grand Puy Ducasse is a terrific wine from the prestigious Pauillac sub-appellation. For those in the know, this is the same appellation that produces the legendary first growth wines Chateaux Latour, Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild.

While admittedly Grand Puy Ducasse doesn't reach the lofty height of those first growths, neither does its price, which is about 800-950 yuan (US$136-144), depending on the vintage.

A blend of about 65-percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 35-percent Merlot, this wine offers a substantial, yet elegant Bordeaux experience of dark fruit and spices. Grand Puy Ducasse is an age-worthy wine that, depending on the vintage, can be cellared for 10 to over 20 years.

Chateau Giscours

If Chateau Grand Puy Ducasse isn't the best value Grand Cru Classe wine, then Chateau Giscours may well be. This third growth chateau from the Margaux sub-appellation is quite large with 200 acres of 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Merlot, 8 percent Cabernet Franc and 2 percent Petit Verdot vines.

While typically not as elegant or complex as the top Margaux chateaux like Chateaux Margaux, Rausan Segla and Palmer; Giscours nonetheless offers a high-quality, classy Bordeaux experience. The wines tend to be more full bodied than other Margaux wines with a smooth, weighty mouth-feel.

In 1998, Giscours was caught using illegal oak-chips to age its second wine. Although the wine has performed well since this scandal, the prices of Giscours have remained quite affordable. In Shanghai you can pop the cork of a bottle of Chateau Giscours for about 800 yuan.

Chateau Beychevelle

This lovely Saint Julien chateau is quite large with 180 acres of vines. With over 500 years of history, Beychevelle is one of the most recognized and beloved wines of Bordeaux.

The name Beychevelle literally means "strike sail," referring to a time when the ships of the French navy would sail pass and salute the former owner of the chateau, the Duke of Epernon who was also the Grand Admiral of France. The 18th century Louis XV-style chateau is one of the prettiest constructions in Bordeaux.

Depending on slight variations according to different vintages, Chateau Beychevelle is usually about 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 35 percent Merlot with equal parts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot comprising the rest of the blend.

A fourth growth wine according to the 1855 classification, Beychevelle is an elegant and balanced wine that most wine lovers, including myself, believe routinely performs above its classification.

Despite a price tag of about 1,400 yuan here in Shanghai, I still consider this classic Bordeaux a reasonably priced wine.

The next time your pockets are full of cash and you feel the need to buy an 1855 Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux, show your business acumen as well as your good taste by choosing one of the aforementioned wines.

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