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Claret prices take fun out of fair

Every two years, thousands of winemakers, salesmen and journalists descend on Bordeaux for Vinexpo, a trade fair which culminated last night in an intimate dinner for 1,600 guests. Vinexpo is not nearly as big as its equivalents, the Frankfurt Book Fair or the Cannes Film Festival, but it is more fun.

For the professionals are not "wine bores". Of course they are obsessed; but they do not go into ecstacy over individual wines. With up to 50,000 samples available from 2,200 exhibitors from 39 countries they simply have not got the time. A quick sniff, a speedy swirl in the mouth, a sharp spit and onto the next stand.

The biggest contingent at Vinexpo is of course the home team, for the French account for more than one-third of the exhibitors, followed by major producers such as Spain, Italy and California. Other exhibitors are less obvious. There is whiskey and cheese on offer from the Irish, dangerous-looking spirits from Taiwan and a new London gin. Inevitably, too, there is a lot of kitsch - much of it German and symbolised by a tincture called Karma Sutra, based on ginseng.

In a mere 16 years since the first show in 1981, Vinexpo has become the event which everyone in the business has to attend, despite the inevitable complaints; of the expense, of the danger of exhaustion or of alcoholism, and above all of the impossibility of doing business in the chaos of the characterless exhibition halls on the outskirts of Bordeaux. Nevertheless, Vinexpo is particularly important for small producers who often find new importers or agents in far off countries which they would never have the time or the money to visit.

The stars of the show are not so much the wines but the buyers and the journalists - as always an ill-mannered and self-important bunch. While lesser visitors have to rely on hastily snatched sandwich lunches and dinners at crowded bistros, the select few hundred are fated at sumptuous dinners at dozens of chateaux around Bordeaux.

Over the past few years the representatives from the world's major airlines had become the most courted of buyers, but this year they were rather overshadowed by hordes of rivals from the Far East. This has become a veritable El Dorado, especially for the French, who treat their new customers with an inevitable mixture of sequaciousness and resentment. The new taste, particularly amongst the Chinese, derives from the increasingly obvious healthiness of wine, especially of the tannic red wines of Bordeaux.

But the Chinese are also gamblers and they have emerged as the major factor in the astonishing rise in the price of claret over the past few months. The market in the 1996 vintage has gone completely crazy. Of the 1995 wines, the "first growths" were originally offered in the spring of 1996 at Fr230 (pounds 24) a bottle. But today you are lucky if you can find them at three times the price. This year the 1996 vintage was first offered at Fr300 and now the price is into four figures. The resulting hysteria has given this year's Vinexpo its own special flavour.

Naturally, the Vinexperts are worried that Bordeaux is due for one of its periodic crashes, the last of which, in the mid-Seventies, bankrupted virtually every major independent wine merchant in the region.

It is all a long way from the lengthy discussions of the fruitiness, the harmony, the overtones of strawberry jam or bananas and cream which wine bores are eternally finding in their glass.