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BORDEAUX, France (Reuters) - Good weather smiled on the winemakers of France's Bordeaux region last year, but when the top 2006 wines are soon released prices are expected to be lower than the stratospheric records set in 2005.
Wine merchants hope they will be between 15 and 40 percent lower than the exceptional 2005 vintage, with top of the range wines costing between 200 and 250 euros ($267-334) a bottle "en primeur" (still in their casks).
But they fear vineyards will set their prices high to take advantage of surging demand from China and Russia.
"The 2006 prices should definitely be lower, 2005 was an exceptional year," said Max Lalondrelle, a wine buyer and seller from the London-based vintner Berry Brothers and Rudd.
"It was text book. If you had to write the perfect vintage in terms of weather, that was it," he said.
Last year's weather did not quite match the consistent heat of 2005, with a wet and cold August diluting the grape flavors but the overall result was no disaster.
Influential American wine critic Robert Parker called 2006 "better than expected" and others agree it has been a good year.
"There won't be any legendary wine in 2006 but you will still be able to find some very, very good wine," said James Sichel, the export manager for Maison Sichel which owns Chateau Palmer, a high quality Bordeaux wine.
The five top notch "premiers crus" and other good wines like Chateau Palmer, like to wait until the end of the sales period, and are expected to start selling next week.
But many Bordeaux producers have already released their "en primeur" wines and Emmanuel Cruse, who runs Chateau d'Issan in Margaux, has already sold out.
"We sold the 2006 harvest within 12 hours, which is quite good. But then, we sold out 2005 in three hours," he said.
The 200-250 euros a bottle that vintners are hoping the chateaux will set as their "en primeur prices" compares with around 420 euros for the first sale in 2005.
But winemakers want to profit from the growing market and prices are likely to be set higher.
"The market for the top wines has never been so good because of demand from Asia and Russia," said Aymar de Baillenx, president of Chateau Beychevelle which owns Barriere Freres, a Bordeaux wine merchant.
"It will probably not be as expensive as 2005 but it's the market that will decide."
Some in the trade are already complaining about the high prices so far this year. They also complain about the "en primeur" system of selling wine in casks two years before it is delivered in bottles which leaves little room for negotiation.
Baroness Philippine de Rothschild who heads one of Bordeaux's best known vineyards worries that the high prices will turn wine into a collectors item that will never be drunk and that a speculative bubble is developing in the industry.
Higher interest rates and unfavorable exchange rates and the fact that there is still some 2005 wine available in the market could also help bring prices down. Also, American investors tend to stick to buying in only the very best years.
"We're not arguing with the quality of 2006 but it's very difficult to sell after 2005 which was the best. There is definitely no market for that at the moment," said Lalondrelle.
Additional reporting by Marcel Michelson