The vintage of the millennium

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The Independent Culture
In Bordeaux they're hinting that it could be the vintage of the decade, the century or the millennium. It could even be rather good. As Britain's sadly diminishing band of claretophiles know only too well, the first half of the Nineties showed the Bordeaux climate at its most quirkily English: late frosts in 1991 resulted in a tiny crop of dubious quality, a lot of rain in 1992 left the wine thin and weedy; then came the high hopes entertained in 1993 and 1994 after spendid summers, until it pissed down solidly in September, leaving wines which were light and drinkable in 1993 and nice and elegant but overrated (above all by the American guru Robert Parker) in 1994.

But this year it all came right. You may have noticed that the summer was hot, which meant that the grapes ripened ten days earlier than usual, generally a good sign. Bordeaux was lucky that the September rains came in short bursts, with some brisk northeasters in between to dry the grapes and prevent the onset of the dreaded rot. Christian Moueix even quoted poetry - Bordeaux Memories, written in 1802, by the German Friedrich Holderlin: Whispers the Northeast wind/The wind which among all is dear to me. But then the Moueix are the owners of Chateau Petrus among other estates and can afford a touch of class in their observations.

The combination of heat and rain led to extraordinarily ripe grapes. To quote Moeuix in more sober vein: "The majority of our vats have been between 13 and 14 degrees [of potential alcohol] - positively Australian levels of potential richness."

Unfortunately for buyers, the quantities this year will not be enormous. Moreover, stocks in Bordeaux have been greatly reduced as owners have dumped their last few unsatisfactory vintages on to French supermarkets, who are totally indifferent to quality considerations provided that the price is right.

So when the wines appear next spring, they will undoubtedly be less cheap than they have been these past few years. Note the careful phrasing "less cheap". Allowing for inflation, the price of basic Bordeaux rouge is virtually the same as it was 15 years ago, while the classed growths have yet to recover the ground they lost in the Seventies. Drinkers' only hope of cheap claret is that the Gnomes of London will hit the franc for six.

For bargains from this and the past few vintages, look for the still neglected dry whites, above all those made from the early-ripening sauvignon. In 1993 and 1994, they didn't suffer nearly as badly as the black grapes from the September rains. This year, harvesting began in a blaze of sun (and publicity) at the end of August to produce wines that will be ripe and fruity without the blowsy overripe gooseberry gooeyness which I find in the much-vaunted New Zealand sauvignons.

Even more extraordinary (though less of a bargain) will be the sauternes, virtually non-existent in 1991 and 1992. In desperation, some estates offered their 1993s, most of them tasting more of barley sugar than of grapes. In 1994, it required a lot of courage to wait for the rains to stop: those few owners who dared, won - yet managed to harvest only tiny quantities. This year all was well: botrytis cinerea, the magic mushroom that transforms the grapes in Barsac and Sauternes into perfect wrinkled packets of grapey sugar, started to develop in the middle of September, and the combination of the hot summer and occasional rain kept it developing right through the month. "It went through the vineyard like the clappers", was how one expert put it. So the harvest was over sooner than is usual: even Chateau Yquem, which is normally picked grape by grape right through November, had finished picking its uniquely luscious fruit by early October.

As is right and proper, given the risks these growers take, the fact that even in a good year the yields are only a quarter those of dry wines and the quality totally unpredictable, these wines won't be bargains. But if you want the unique taste of botrytis-affected semillon, look out for the wines from the other bank of the Garonne, from Loupiac and Saint Croix du Mont. Half the price of sauternes, and of course lighter, but ideal aperitifs

Anthony Rose is unwell

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