IN BORDEAUX, it's an annual rite of spring. Wine writers who cover the Bordeaux beat flock to this wine mecca to taste barrel samples of young, unfinished wines and pronounce their judgment on the quality of the spanking new vintage. . . .
Wine Spectator's resident claret expert, James Suckling, is usually among the very first to sample the infant wines and what he and other critics say about the quality often shapes the first line of popular opinion. . . .
In the case of Bordeaux, where the wines are sold as futures, which you can buy right now, the 1996 vintage is a very good one, but not as great as 1995, says Suckling in the current Wine Spectator (May 15 issue|) and in a special on-line report. . . .
So your best bet is to look for 1995s or check out some undervalued older vintages, such as 1989 or 1990, because you're likely to pay more for futures than you are for wines you can drink tonight. . . .
BORDEAUX IS UNIQUE in the wine world because there is so much good wine made. In great years, Bordeaux futures can trigger lots of excitement and fast-paced spending. . . .
The Bordelais are shrewd marketers. They begin to sell their wines as soon as possibletypically, a chateau will sell its young wine to a negociant or merchant six months after harvest. . . .
Then the wine is offered to consumers who buy "futures" by paying for wine in advance of its release, which usually comes two years after the harvest. . . .
In great years, such as 1982 or 1989, or even 1995, buying futures is both trendy and frenetic, as many members of the trade buy and sell the wines as quickly as possible, based on the experts' evaluation of the young vintage. . . .
In some instances, it makes sense to buy futures, since you can lock in a lower price by paying up front and you can secure some of the harder-to-get wines that may not be easy to obtain when officially released. . . .
OTHER TIMES IT'S much wiser to wait, and most of the time the best advice is to try a bottle before you buy a case. . . .
Still, the classic Bordeaux estates are amazingly consistent with the quality of their wines, and when a great vintage comes along you can rely on many of the estates producing wonderful wines. . . .
I've had the opportunity to taste young Bordeaux with Suckling on several occasions and it can be a grueling assignment. . . .
The last time we tasted futures together was in 1991 when we pored through literally hundreds of young Bordeaux from both the 1989 and 1990 vintages, two terrific years. . . .
Tasting barrel samples literally wipes out your palate. It stains your teeth, lips and tongue deep purple, and the combination of sharp acidity, alcohol and raw tannins can pretty well carve up your palate. . . .
AFTER TASTING MORE than 100 samples you finish off the day with your feet up and a cold beer or two in hand. . . .
Judging barrel samples is different than critiquing finished wines, as you're looking for the raw ingredients for greatness and need to make allowances for high tannin levels, funky fermentation aromas or flavors, or maybe even a heavy dose of new toasty oak barrels. . . .
Some wines are easier to judge from barrel than others and for me it's easier tasting the potential of a young Cabernet or Zinfandel than a Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. . . .
Because the Bordelais sell so much wine as futures and just about anyone in the wine trade can sample the new wines, they are quite precise in making their barrel samples. They know that if the sample isn't representative of the final blend that their reputations are on the line and their blend may come back to haunt them. . . .
THERE ARE TIMES when you taste a young claret that's so delicious that you wonder whether it's a super blend made from just one great barrel or whether a chateau can really make 10,000, 15,000 or 25,000 cases of a wine that grand. . . .
In Bordeaux, in the great years, the great estates can do exactly that and they do it often enough to merit the lofty position they hold in the wine world. . . .
It's no wonder many wine estates around the world aspire to be like the classified growths of Bordeaux. . . .
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