A nose for a fine profit

THE TIPPLING sophisticates of Britain and the United States, along with wealthy investors from the Far East, are holding their breath about the imminent release for sale of what is expected to be a phenomenal 1995 vintage claret. At perhaps pounds 50 a bottle for top-of-the-range wines which cannot be drunk for years and are still of uncertain quality, that takes some nerve.

The big noses of Bordeaux make no effort to conceal their glee at what they see as a dramatic turnaround from only average years in 1991, 92 and 93, when difficult summers created small volumes and demand was weakened by the world recession. So confident are the vineyard owners that this year there is even talk of punishing disloyal customers - those who stayed away in the lean years - by restricting their access to the golden harvest which is promised.

In the past few weeks, the hotels in Bordeaux have been full of merchants, including the British chains, tasting the product and jostling for their share. The wine is sold by the producers through a courtier, a broker who adds a margin of perhaps two per cent, to the negociants, who are the wholesalers. There are about 40 main firms and their margin is typically 10 per cent. They deal in ordinary wines and the class growths and sell to wholesale and retail merchants, who add their own mark-up of 10-20 per cent. The aristocrats, who boast first to fifth growth classifications, similar to Michelin stars, account for about five per cent of the total production and there is only a limited amount of that wine available.

Jonathan Stephens, of Farr Vintners in Pimlico, feels it is this basic conflict of supply and demand which is pushing up prices and persuading the producers to keep back some stock, instead of selling at prices lower than they believe justified.

In the 100-metre long cellar at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, 1,000 barrels of wine sit silently fermenting. The contents of these oak barrels represent a huge influence on the wine-drinking world. The vineyard is just 188 acres and produces about 12,000 cases a year - just 1 per cent of the wine being sold with the Baron Philippe de Rothschild name on the label. But, as one of the first-growth princes, along with neighbours Lafite and Latour, it sets the benchmark for prices.

No-one wants to make firm predictions, but when the price is set for the en primeur, as it is called in its pre-bottled infancy, the 95 is likely to fetch pounds 600 a case, compared with pounds 375-pounds 450 for the 94 - and that vintage is well respected in its own right.

There is nothing but optimism in Pauillac. Cellar master Michel Bosq, when asked if the 95 Mouton-Rothschild was formidable replied: "No. It is much, much better than that. It is une annee exceptionelle."

But a note of caution is sounded by Chris Gilbey of Nadder Wines in Salisbury. Many people have been burned over the last few years, he says, as prices have dropped. And there is always the threat of paying now, at a time of an artificially strong franc, for something that will be delivered in 1998, when the franc may have been devalued.

But, considering that the price of the 82 vintage recently nearly doubled from pounds 1,700 a case to pounds 3,000, and 45s, which are still drinking superbly, are pounds 2,000 a bottle, the pressure to be in on something as apparently special as the 95 is keeping fax and telephone activity at fever pitch.

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