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Grape expectations: A new meaning for the house 'red'

Over the past few years, the Chinese have acquired a taste for wine.

French wine, to be precise, almost invariably 'claret', the red wine of the Bordeaux region. Earlier this month, the Chinese jewellery company Tesiro bought Chateau Laulan Ducos for an undisclosed price. This was at least the fifth purchase of a French vineyard by a Chinese investor, and it is the second deal reported in just a few weeks.

Richard She, head of Tesiro, visited more than 50 properties before deciding on Chateau Laulan Ducos and its 22 hectares. Tesiro plan to discontinue sales of the vineyard's wines within France and focus on selling solely in China, where it will open boutique wine shops under the chateau's name.

Bordeaux is an impressive city on the Garonne river on France's west coast. The region supports around 12,500 producers. Thus Bordeaux is the centre of a huge wine trade, that rose to pre-eminence in 1152 when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, later Henry II of England and it has maintained its reputation ever since.

The earliest attempt to introduce a pecking order was what's called the 1855 Classification. Few know that this was limited to the Medoc, the strip of land adjacent to the left bank of the Garonne, that hosts many of the greatest red wines of the world.

Further north, a bank of gravel produces both red (including legendary Ch Haut-Brion) and white wines. The region is called Graves/Pessac-Leognan.

On the right bank sits tiny Pomerol, an appellation making classy, rich, big-hearted wine mainly from Merlot and exemplified by Ch Petrus, arguably the greatest and most expensive red wine in the world.

Go south from here and you come across Saint-Emilion. Here Cabernet Franc, with its huge herbal bouquet, thrives on limestone slopes and winemakers have learned to round it out with generous dollops of Merlot.

Latterly, Bordeaux has struggled. Not at the top end, but downmarket there has been too much poor and unmarketable wine made. This creates a vicious circle -- without a price hike winemakers can't invest to improve quality.

The important negotiant -- the term for a merchant -- Dourthe, under energetic CEO Patrick Jestin is on a mission to lift standards so that the more modest level of Bordeaux wines can compete with offerings from the New World.

One of their enterprises resulted in serious investment in Tour de Pey, a 200-hectare property in unfashionable Entre-deux-Mers in the South of the region. Recently, I tasted the 2007 vintage (O'Brien's €16.99). With Merlot-dominated brambly fruit, it's remarkably spry and supple considering the modest lineage and is what I call a 'signpost wine', giving strong clues as to what the pleasures of classy Bordeaux reds are all about.