"1996 is the best vintage in Bordeaux since 1982," said Dr Alain Reynaud, president of the Union des Grands Crus, on 1 April, the eve of the 1996 vintage preview. Whether or not the pronouncement was meant to be taken with a pinch of April Fool's Day salt, it was put into perspective by Christian Moueix, owner of the expensive Pomerol property, Chateau Petrus. "1996 will not go down as a great vintage," he says. "I'd say we've made seven better vintages since 1982."

There's nothing like controversy to stir things up as the mad April scramble for the latest Bordeaux vintage gets underway. But although the views of Reynaud and Moueix apparently conflict, they could, in fact, be taken to represent legitimate opposite poles of an abnormally wide quality spectrum. Taken as a whole, the1996 vintage in Bordeaux is so variable in quality and style that it would be simplistic to apply vintage labels or scores, especially at such an early stage in its infancy. Overall, conditions in a difficult year favoured the Medoc region, the natural habitat of the cabernet sauvignon grape. And while 1995 may be generally more consistent, there are notable successes, particularly in the communes of St Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estephe, where a handful of powerful wines surpass the quality of their 1995 counterparts. Dry white Bordeaux, meanwhile, are delicious, and sweet Sauternes and Barsac in certain instances superb.

Paul Pontallier, of Chateau Margaux, feels that "among key quality factors this year is the big disparity in quality between cabernet sauvignon and merlot, perhaps the biggest ever". For Pontallier, "1996 is a great vintage for Margaux, not better than 1995 but different in style, with more purity, refinement and charm, if perhaps not the same weight or flesh on the mid-palate. It is not as ripe as 1989 or 1990, but more classic, more in the mould of 1985 or1986."

But even Pontallier felt "the grapes were not fully ripe, despite the high sugars". As the time came to pick the cabernet, he was observed by his neighbour Claire Villars-Lurton, at Chateau La Gurgue, scratching his head. "Some plots in the vineyard were ripe, while others were still hard," she says. "Like others, we waited and waited, trying to make up our minds whether or not to pick." What and how much of the best material went into the blend for the main label - the grand vin - was crucial. Even in the Medoc, where cabernet sauvignon predominates, most of the grands vins contain higher proportions of the grape than usual.

Tasting the unfinished wines collectively at this early stage offers an early snapshot of the vintage, an idea of whether or not to buy en primeur, and if so, which wines stand out. The blue-chip first-growths will be looking to re-coup some of the profits made on their 1995s by wine merchants last year, so their initial prices will leave less room for speculators to cash in. But Chateau Latour, Mouton-Rothschild and Margaux are on superb form, while the reputations of Ausone and Petrus, neither of which I got the chance to taste, are already high.

The "brand name" chateaux have by and large maintained their consistentency in 1996. In particular, St Estephe's Cos d'Estournel and Montrose, Pichon Lalande and Lynch Bages in Pauillac, Leoville Barton, Ducru Beaucaillou in St Julien, Palmer and Rausan-Segla in Margaux, and Pape-Clement in the Graves, fall into the pricey but ultimately rewarding "super-second" category.

A feature of 1996 will be the significant number of properties at classified and cru bourgeois level which offer genuine value for money. Among the classified chateaux in this category, look out for Grand Puy Ducasse, Pontet Canet, Malescot Saint Exupery, Lagrange, Langoa-Barton, Branaire- Ducru and Lafon-Rochet. Among the middle-ranking crus bourgeois, Chateau Poujeaux is outstanding, with fine quality from d'Angludet and pleasant surprises in Coufran, Beaumont, Fonreaud, Fourcas-Hosten and Loudenne. In the Graves, Larrivet Haut Brion and Smith-Haut-Lafitte should also be excellent value.

According to Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners: "The market doesn't reflect the quality of the vintage so much as supply and demand." And worldwide demand is high. So Bordeaux is acting cagey. While it waits for the wine trade and press reaction to the wines, it's also looking over its shoulder at its neighbour. Christian Moueix on the right bank has marginally dropped his prices. Elsewhere, average price increases of between 10 - 20 per cent should be largely offset by the pound's 15 per cent gain on the franc over the past year. If you're after instant gratification, look elsewhere, but cabernet sauvignon lovers with the patience of Job should shop around and take a punt on1996 Bordeaux

How to buy and why

Independent merchants offer a selection of Bordeaux wines with the price payable immediately, followed by duty and VAT (and shipping, if offered ex cellars) to be paid on delivery when the wines are bottled for export in around two years' time. The aim of buying by this method is to obtain maximum choice and a significant discount over the eventual market price. But caveat emptor, samples at this stage are at best only representative of the final blend. Parting with your money before you get your wine is also a risk, albeit a small one, so choose a reliable wine merchant.

Where to buy

A selection of independent wine merchants who will be offering Bordeaux 1996 between late April and mid-June: John Armit Wines, London W11 (0171- 727 6846), Berry Bros Bros & Rudd, London SW1 (0171-396 9600), Bibendum, London NW1(0171-722 5577), Bordeaux Direct, Reading, Berkshire (01189 471 144), Farr Vintners, London SW1 (0171-828 1960), Goedhuis & Co, London SW8 (0171-793 7900), Justerini & Brooks, London SW1 (0171-493 8721), Lay & Wheeler, Colchester, Essex (01206 764446), Laytons, London NW1 (0171- 388 4567), Morris & Verdin, London SE1 (0171-357 8866), Raeburn Fine Wines, Edinburgh EH4 (0131-332 5166), Tanners, Shropshire (01743 232400)