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"We Are Bottling History"


Elegant, white-columned Ch?teau Margaux stands proudly at the end of a grand, tree-lined walkway. Inside, visitors are welcomed to reception rooms decorated in Napoleon III Empire style. Below ground, they visit cellars shimmering with new oak barrels. "We are bottling history," says Paul Pontellier, the ch?teau's chief winemaker.

And history sells. While France's mass-market wines struggle, prices for the 2000 harvest of the seven elite Bordeaux ch?teaux, including Ch?teau Margaux, more than doubled this year, reaching as high as $250 a bottle. That's only the wholesale price. The wine itself is here in the cellars and must age two years in barrels. By the time it's dispatched to stores in 2002, consumers could be paying as much as $1,000.

What's behind the frenzy? Admittedly, quality is high. After trashing the mediocre 1999 vintage, influential U.S. wine critic Robert M. Parker awarded top grades to the 2000 Bordeaux in his Wine Advocate newsletter and on CBS's 60 Minutes. And there's the millennium effect. "It's the three zeros," says Florence Cathiard, co-owner of Ch?teau Smith Haut-Lafitte.

Prices of elite Bordeaux have been rising fast in the past two decades as Americans and Asians developed a taste for the high life. Limited supply also helps prop up the price. Margaux and the other elite ch?teaux produce only 750,000 bottles a year--a drop in the ocean of the 700 million bottles of Bordeaux produced annually.

Still, a further downturn in the global economy could cool the palates of these nouveau riches buyers. And the eyebrow-twitching prices could mean that people are buying top wines as investments to be sold later at auction rather than to be sipped. On Sept. 14, the Euronext exchange in Paris will begin selling futures for the top Bordeaux. "We are running the risk of speculation," admits Pierre Lurton, Ch?teau Cheval Blanc's managing director. Bordeaux had better hope its millennial bonanza doesn't end up producing a nasty hangover. By William Echikson in Margaux, France


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