Wine tasters swoon over Bordeaux's 'liquid beauty'

Bordeaux is spoiled for choice as it unveils the 2010 vintage, its third smash hit in six years, in a week of barrel tastings for wine professionals from around the world.

"It's liquid beauty," said Denis Dubourdieu, a consulting winemaker and director of the Institute of Vine and Wine Sciences (ISVV) at the University of Bordeaux.

In a system unique to Bordeaux, each spring the region's chateaux offer trade-only tastings that kick off the futures - or "en primeur" - campaign, in which the wines are offered for sale roughly two years before delivery.

This year 5,000 trade professionals from 65 countries are expected, with attendance down slightly from last year because of a scheduling clash with the upcoming trade show Vinexpo, said Sylvie Cazes, president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux and general manager of Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande.

Top chateaux report that they expect upwards of 500 visitors a day, and Chateau Mouton Rothschild director Philippe Dhalluin said they had a 25 percent increase in requests for tastings.

The latest vintage is quickly winning praise for its freshness, lush fruit and intense tannins.

"The wine is magnificent," said Stephane Derenoncourt, a consulting winemaker. "Unfortunately these geniuses of communication have already declared two vintages of the century. Now they don't know what to say."

To Bordeaux's delight and chagrin, both 2005 and 2009 were declared "vintages of the century" by many experts, and now the 2010 looks to be another blockbuster.

"We are not going to be asked to be forgiven for having made two great wines in a row," Dubourdieu said.

"The 2010 is like the 2005, only everything is bigger - more tannin, more finesse, more acidity," said Patrice Hateau, director of Chateau Pape Clement. "But we have nothing to do with it. It's the weather."

Last year's growing season was long, dry and warm - but not hot.

"We are in a climate cycle that is superb," agreed Charles Chevallier, who oversees the Chateau Lafite Rothschild estate.

Another trend has weighed in favor of winning vintages: "We have better control of vine disease than we did 15 years ago," Chevallier noted.

"We used to harvest for the health of the grapes. If there was some problem we picked the grapes before they were completely ripe. Now we use a precise product at the precise moment to keep our crops in perfect health."

But the buzz is due to more than a fine vintage aging in the barrels, because Bordeaux is above all else a business that generates 3.3 billion euros (4.7 billion dollars) in turnover.

"There is a lot of excitement, because the market is there," Cazes said. "The principal economies have strengthened, consumer confidence is back, conditions are favorable for the sale."

And key trading partners who have been scarce in recent years due to the global economic crisis have returned, including American buyers, Dhalluin said.

"The Americans are definitely back," Cazes confirmed.

But a question mark hangs over Bordeaux's sixth largest client, Japan, in the wake of that country's devastating earthquake and tsunami.

"Our Japanese importers are coming to taste and are interested in the vintage but we don't know what their position will be during the en primeur campaign," Dhalluin said.

"The Japanese market is in bad shape," confirmed Philippe Casteja, managing director of Borie-Manoux and owner of several chateaux. "It will recover but it will take a long time. The market is closed, the restaurants are closed."

On the other hand, China - which has been snapping up Bordeaux by the container load - is expected to enter the Bordeaux futures market in force this year for the first time.

"If you want to be in the Bordeaux business seriously, you need to buy en primeur," said Casteja. "The Chinese will buy this year."

"They understand now how it works," Cazes agreed. "The 2009 vintage worked. The year before, the few who bought in 2008 saw their profits triple," said Cazes.

Some did even better. Between the en primeur sale and the arrival of the bottles last winter, the price of 2008 Chateau Lafite shot up 590 percent thanks to demand from China.