The weeklong tasting of the 2007 Bordeaux vintage officially begins this weekend amid reports of a difficult vintage, denials of compromised quality, a weaker dollar, demands for lower pricing ... and purple teeth.
The appearance all over this French town of people with purple teeth is one of the hazards of tasting young un-matured wines.
"The 2007 vintage is most certainly not a bad vintage," said Patrick Maroteaux, president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB), the group of 132 Bordeaux chateaux which organises the tastings.
"It is a serious vintage, not bad, not medium," he said, admitting however that it is neither a great vintage like 2005 or 2000.
This is Maroteaux's eighth year as President of the UGCB, and his last. He will retire in June, and, if no other candidate comes forward to challenge Sylvie Cazes of Chateau Lynch Bages, the Union will elect its first woman president.
One of the highlights of his presidency, he said, has been seeing visitor numbers for primeur, or futures, tastings rise from about 2,000 to up to 5,000. This year 4,500 buyers and critics are expected, a good average he says.
The selling of wines "en primeur" -- which means first or new -- simply means the selling of the latest wine harvest, in this case 2007, six months after it was made and two years before it is bottled and commercially available.
The main advantage is a first call on wines for which demand exceeds supply, for example the top five premier cru classe, or first growths (Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Haut Brion and Margaux), and the so-called right bank stars -- because they are grown on the opposite bank of the Garrone river to the first growths -- such as Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Le Pin.
The other advantage -- which has led to increasing numbers of investors, as opposed to drinkers, entering the equation -- is the potential profits to be made.
The latest report from LiveEx, the London based fine wine exchange, shows, for example, a rise of about 110 percent in the price of a 12-bottle case of Ausone 2005, between July 2006, when it cost about 11,000 euro as a primeur, and February 2008, when it cost about 23,000 euro.
It can go the other way too of course, but there is less talk about that, with investors generally preferring to cite the "well, at least you can drink it" philosophy of wine investment.
Despite Maroteaux's positive reading of the 2007 harvest -- which in positive terms is described as a fresh, fruity, claret-type vintage, meaning it is lower in alcohol and less of an in-your-face "fruit bomb" -- it has already taken a drubbing.
The main concern is the summer weather leading up to the 2007 harvest, which was wet and cool, then wet and warm, before a miraculous period of sunshine in late September, early October, which anyone will tell you, saved the harvest.
The Bordelaise argue that though quality may be uneven, in chateaux that worked hard managing their vines, there is good wine to be found. The biggest challenge was disease with mildew, rot and odium -- a kind of a mushroom -- all putting in an appearance.
"Production costs were about double," said Benoit Trocard of Chateau Clos Dubreuil in Saint Emilion, referring to the number of chemical treatments required in 2007.
Asked about dollar weakness affecting sales Maroteaux is laconic. He merely agrees it is not favourable, adding that America is not the world, a remark that speaks volumes about changes in consumption patterns over the last four or five years.
"Europe is a significant market," Maroteaux said. "As is Asia, including Japan, China, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore." And, he notes, in the last few weeks the yen against the euro has improved more than the dollar.
Despite pricing being weeks away -- this is fixed several months after tasting -- hopes are that prices of even the very top 2007 wines will come down by 10 to 15 percent, and more for wines outside the top 20 "most wanted", reflecting the difference in quality.
The general acceptance of top wines as luxury goods, is another change.
Pre-2005, top wines were considered the industry's locomotive, but since the fantastic price hikes for top wines of that vintage -- in the region of 300 to 400 percent -- that particular locomotive is seen by many to have decoupled itself.
The advantage of such mythic wines is they draw people to the region, physically and in wine shops. The disadvantage is many assume all Bordeaux is costly.
"The media tend to focus on the most expensive, and we lose sight of the good quality, good value wines which sell for 15 to 40 dollars, and are better value than much of the new world," said Bordeaux based American wine merchant Jeffrey Davies.
For punters not buying top of the range this year, Davies gave three suggestions. Chateau Le Thil Comte Clary 2007 (white, Pessac-Leognan), Chateau Belle-Vue 2007 (red, Haut Medoc) and Chateau la Fleur Morange - Mathilde (red, St Emilion), all in the 12 to 16 euro (20 to 25 dollar) price range.