A bounce for Bordeaux

America's top wine guru saves a vintage, and wine lovers could pay the price.

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By Chris Redman, contributor

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BORDEAUX (Fortune) -- Last year it seemed as if the proud wine growers of Bordeaux might actually have to share the financial pain the rest of us were going through. After a wet summer with little sunshine, even the Bordelais -- who like to think their reds are the global benchmark for quality -- were conceding that the 2008 vintage might not be one for the history books. Everyone else hoped that after an overpriced 2007 vintage, Bordeaux prices, which have been mounting steadily over recent vintages, might descend from the stratosphere, aided by weaker global demand.

Some wine merchants were so convinced of the mediocrity of the 2008 vintage that they declined to visit Bordeaux this spring for the traditional en primeur tasting of the new vintage where judgment is passed and prices are set for wines that will be bottled and delivered two years down the road. Many of those who did attend the tastings judged the vintage to be better than they expected, but the consensus among the cognoscenti was that even the Bordelais, who have a reputation for rapacity, would not dare to raise their prices.

But they reckoned without the world's most influential wine commentator, Robert Parker. This year the Wine Advocate's legendary guru had shown up in Bordeaux to sample the vintage en primeur and for ten days spent 12 hours a day tasting and re-tasting over 400 of the 2008s. His verdict: "It did not take me long to realize that the 2008 vintage was dramatically better than I expected."

Parker posted his tasting notes and scores on his website (erobertparker.com), giving top marks to Chateaux Lafite Rothschild (98-100), Ausone (96-100), Petrus (98-100) and Trotanoy (96-100). Many of the 2008 wines, he said, compared favourably with the 2000 and 2005 vintages whose quality has helped propel Bordeaux prices inexorably upwards this decade.

Producers who had not finalized their prices before Parker's price-boosting pronouncements congratulated themselves for waiting; those who had -- in some instances dropping prices by as much as 40% compared to 2007 -- were wishing they could roll back the clock.

But even wines that had set their prices before the Parker verdict will become more expensive thanks to the so-called "Parker effect." According to Liv-ex, the on-line exchange for investment-grade wines, Lafite Rothschild, which was trading at around $3,000 for a case of twelve prior to winning Parker's beauty pageant, jumped to around $4,800 before falling back to around $4,500. Other leading chateaus saw comparable price hikes.

Other wine experts professed themselves puzzled by Parker's take on the 2008 vintage. Twittered Simon Staples, fine wine director at leading London wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd: "He went crazy about 2003 (all on his own). He missed 2005 (everyone else loved it). He's now potty about '08 (a few very nice wines). Plot? Lost?"

Time will tell whether Parker has overrated the 2008 vintage, but he remains confident that he has called it correctly. The vintage, he writes, has "all the qualities that make an excellent and in some cases, a great vintage so special: exceptionally dark opaque colours, gorgeously ripe fruit, stunning purity almost across the board, great freshness (because it was a cool year), slightly higher acids than normal, and remarkable density as well as concentration."

With Live-ex's index showing fine wines up 4% on the year, would-be investors may be tempted to acquire some of these liquid assets. And even if they don't appreciate in value, they can always be consumed. Unlike crude oil. To top of page

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