Beleaguered Bordeaux wines look set for heady sales after critics lavished outstanding ratings on the 2009 vintage as thousands of buyers rolled in Wednesday for the yearly futures campaign.

Wine Spectator's critic James Suckling released scores of 97-100 for Bordeaux 2009, while twittering tipplers making the rounds of trade-only tastings created a swell of excitement for wines that will soon go on sale as a futures commodity.

More than 6,000 wine professionals have descended upon the Bordeaux region this week, many from the cash-strapped Western economies that were forced to slash back imports of fine wines in 2009.

In a system unique to Bordeaux, wine is released for sale between April and June, more than a year before bottling, allowing buyers to secure both a supply and a price.

Bordeaux sales plunged 23 percent last year, and while traditional markets in the United States, Britain and northern Europe may now be starting to pick up, all eyes are on global powerhouse China, now the key customer of the chateaux.

"From the Twitters and blogs that are pouring forth there seem to be some legends in the making," Justin Gibbs, director of Liv-Ex Fine Wine Exchange, told AFP. "The only reaction to Suckling's scores has been a general groan - that prices will be high!"

Many expect prices to be stratospheric, and with weak exchange rates, soar past record-highs seen with the 2005 vintage.

"The general sense is that 2005 release prices are the guide, which in pound sterling terms means 25 percent higher than at that time!" said Gibbs. "So high release prices and then an active secondary market to follow."

"Price is the key issue," said K.K. Wong, general manager of distributor Rare & Fine Wines in Hong Kong. "They all know it is a top vintage. They worry the price will be too high."

Hong Kong has emerged as a major buyer this year, increasing the pressure on the prices.

"We have huge funds lined up already for the vintage and we are sure this will be a record vintage," Doug Rumsam, managing director of Bordeaux Index (HK), told AFP.

"Demand for First Growths (eight top Bordeaux wines) will be intense... Allocations, however, will be tight and I am not sure the mainland Chinese will buy across the board and pick up the lower growths," he said.

Chinese buyers are definitely cutting a swathe through the professionals at the trade tastings, and taking the opportunity to visit estates.

At Chateau Cos d'Estournel and Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, 1,500 visitors are expected for private barrel tastings, with more buyers from Hong Kong and China than ever.

Many believe the skyrocketing prices for the First Growths like Ausone, Lafite-Rothschild and Petrus, will open the market to equally highly rated labels that are less well known in Hong Kong and China.

"Mainland Chinese consumers don't have the same knowledge as Hong Kong consumers, but they are starting to learn more," said K.K. Wong. "They know the top chateaux and they know Robert Parker's scores. If he gives it 95-100, they buy."

Still to come is the word from market-making US wine critic Parker.

"These ratings will not lower the price of Lafite and Petrus, but they will certainly encourage consumers of grands crus to try 'new' wines," said Julien Boulard, deputy director of Chinese importer Great Vineyards Wine.

The big winners will be the wines that received equally high ratings as the First Growths, but cost far less, Boulard said.

Among China's new rich, drinking something besides Lafite has become a sign of being a true connoisseur.

"I am certain that the importers will base their orders on the ratings," added Boulard. "And they will be obliged to promote them in order to sell these unknowns to the public."

The tastings of the 2009 vintage wrap up on Friday, and the wines will be released for sale in the coming weeks.

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