(Robert Whitley is the publisher and managing partner of wine website Wine Review Online www.winereviewonline.com and the host of an online radio show "Whitley on Wine." He also oversees several international wine competition. The opinions expressed are hid own.)
By Robert Whitley
NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - It may come as a surprise to those who don't live and die by the (famous wine critic Robert) Parker scores that vintages of the century are rather common in Bordeaux, where the most collectible and thus the most expensive wines in the world are produced.
Since the harvest of 2000, we've had three. I kid you not.
It isn't clear whether the phrase was first uttered in jest or, more likely, to promote sales within the Bordeaux wine trade. What's important to know is that when, on those rare occasions, the Bordelais harvest fully ripened grapes, they are likely to celebrate another "vintage of the century."
So as the grapes were gathered in the fall of 2009, they partied like it was 2005. Something akin to what happened in 2005, when they partied like it was 2000.
It is a vicious cycle for anyone who collects or invests in Bordeaux, for it inevitably means a price spike is on its way. To soften the blow, serious wine collectors and merchants with deep pockets often purchase Bordeaux en primeurs, using what are commonly called Bordeaux futures.
The buyer thus enters into a contract to purchase the latest vintage of Bordeaux at the earliest (and theoretically the lowest) price for delivery of the wine in two to three years.
As the price tends to rise on a great vintage between the time futures are offered and the wines reach our shores, historically they've been a good investment. In a normal world, 2009 would be no exception. Bordeaux from this vintage is outstanding across the board.
Still, I'm not certain futures are the best bet in collectible Bordeaux at this time.
First of all, it appears the emerging Chinese wine market is eager to participate. Evidence of that surfaced in March, when the 2009 Bordeaux Primeurs were on display for a full week of tastings from the barrel.
A record 6,000 members of the trade and press attended, and the Chinese contingent matched the United States delegation, coming second in size only to the group from the United Kingdom.
The Chinese had been indifferent to Bordeaux futures in the past. Increased competition for a limited resource should drive up the price.
The 2009 Bordeaux futures will be expensive, and with the price pressure likely to be asserted by the Chinese, perhaps artificially so.
More troubling, however, is the cloud hanging over the future of the euro, and the distinct possibility that it could be worth far less two years from now than it is today.
Can an investment in '09 Bordeaux today be prudent when the wines might actually be cheaper upon release in two years? That's a tough call. If you believe the dollar will continue to be weak or that hyper-inflation in the United States is likely, then Bordeaux futures could be a good hedge.
Bottom line, though, nobody knows.
It is with this air of global economic uncertainly that wine collectors will be tempted to purchase some of the most hyped and expensive wines ever made.
I'm simply not going to take the bait. My strategy for the '09 Bordeaux vintage is simple. I will get my Bordeaux fix, but I will avoid top growths such as Latour, Mouton and Cheval Blanc in favor of less sexy wines from less well-known chateaux.
The vintage was so good that I know I will find attractive wines with excellent aging potential, particularly from the Left Bank.
The districts of Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estephe and Graves all produced superb wines.
Many of the lesser lights made wines as good as any they've ever made, but they lack the star power to command huge price increases.
And with some of the dollars I might have spent on the top growths, I will sort through the better wines from the more lightly regarded vintages of 2006, 2007 and 2008. A great vintage always has the effect of suppressing prices for lesser vintages immediately before and after.
A good example of that was the superb 1983 vintage that followed the legendary vintage of 1982. As good as the '83 vintage was, prices never reached the level of the coveted wines from 1982. Same thing happened with the outstanding vintage of 2001 following the enormously hyped 2000 vintage.
There were good wines made in '06, '07 and '08 and I intend to make it my mission to find them and, if all else fails, I will merely wait until the next vintage of the century and cross my fingers that the dollar has inched past the euro in value.
Knowing what I do about the history of Bordeaux, I have a hunch it won't be much of a wait. (Reporting by Robert Whitley at email@example.com, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)