On the eve of the London International Wine Trade Fair, Andrew Jefford, winner last week of the Glenfiddich Drinks Writer of the Year Award, offers an overview of the Bordeaux 1999 vintage, which was windswept and wet, and difficult for the smaller, unprepared grower.

Between 1982 and 1990, the sun shone on Bordeaux. Vintage after vintage proved good or great; only 1984 and 1987 offered a dip in sustained vintage excellence. Since 1990, by contrast, heavy Atlantic clouds have repeatedly raced in over the Gironde in August and September, and done what such clouds usually do: dump, wetly. No great vintages (with the possible exception of 1998 in Pomerol and St. Emilion), and only two consistently good ones, 1995 and 1996. Everyone wanted the century to end with a flourish, for two thousand years of European viticulture to achieve millennial apotheosis, for bottles of Bordeaux with three nines on the label to score 10 out of 10. And?

And then came Monday September 20th 1999. It was the date most growers were going to bring in their Merlots. Instead, it was a day of anguished thumb-twiddling, of staring glumly out from chais as the rain hammered already water-heavy vines. According to négociant Bill Blatch, Bordeaux's most assiduous vintage chronicler, this was the tail of Hurricane Floyd lashing out in its death throes. Jean-Hubert Delon of Léoville Las Cases and Jean-Philippe Delmas of Haut-Brion both admitted the rain was pivotal. "That day of rain," Christian Moueix of Château Pétrus summed up, "killed the quality."

It wasn't the whole story, of course. There was no shortage of heat over 1999's growing season, and no one is complaining of unripeness in the wines. Sunshine levels, though, were down on the 30-year average for every month except March, and rainfall was higher than the 30-year-average for every month between April and October, with almost double the average in September. The 1999 vintage, in sum, was warm and wet. This made it, in the words of Comte Stephan von Neipperg of Canon-la-Gaffelière and La Mondotte, "a real farmer's year". In other words, those who had the resources to trim and manicure their vineyards produced a small crop of largely healthy, though somewhat dilute, grapes.

After the rain, they were able to bleed off (and throw away) up to a third of the juice, as well as use vacuum evaporation and reverse osmosis machines to expel more water from the harvest. These techniques can never compensate for nature's inadequacies; they can, though, mitigate them. As Christian Moueix admitted, 1999 "was a vintage we would have missed completely 30 years ago; a 1974, something like that." Instead, those prepared to make great efforts have produced startlingly attractive, vivid, well-balanced wines, sometimes to the surprise of their owners. 1999, for example, was the first vintage since 1961 where no chaptalisation was needed at Château Palmer, while Anthony Barton at Léoville-Barton recorded his highest ever tannin indices in 1999.

One other weather snare needs mentioning, too, and this time the crucial date was September 5th. This was a bad afternoon to have been dozing in the vineyards just west of St Emilion itself, since a huge thundercloud let rip with a belt of shattering hail, which ran from south of the Castillon road (the D670) to north of the town. Among the 17 key châteaux affected were Angélus, Beau-Séjour-Bécot, Clos Fourtet, Clos St-Martin, Franc- and Grand-Mayne, La Gomerie, Grandes Murailles and Larmande. Immediate picking was the only remedy; Angélus announced to French television viewers that it would make no wine. In the event, though, all the hail-hit properties did produce a grand vin, and some of these are impressive. The summer heat meant they were riper than the owners suspected - and they missed the worst of the rain.

Among Bordeaux's elite, therefore, 1999 is almost a good vintage, a 1997 double plus, with many delicious wines which lack only depth and power of fruit, and which will drink well in the short to mid-term. Leave the region's top 10%, though, and the situation is much more difficult: generic Bordeaux is copious and dilute, and tasting panels for the AOC were said to have rejected 30% of all 1999 wines submitted to them by the end of March. It will be a hard year for Bordeaux's brand-builders.

Merchants report little interest so far in the 1999s, and it seems likely that only highly scored wines will sell well without substantial price cuts compared with 1998. Of the few wines which had emerged onto the market by May 15th 2000, the highly scored St. Emilion micro-wine Quinault l'Enclos was released with a 50% price increase on 1998, while the always reasonable Léoville-Barton held its 1998 price, as did the sought-after Pavie-Macquin. Beychevelle and Léoville-Poyferré have dropped 5FF per bottle, Branaire 15FF and the disappointing Montrose 46FF per bottle (216FF down to 170FF). The First Growths are expected to release prices soon, though since all have performed outstandingly well in the difficult conditions of 1999, price falls seem unlikely. The real beneficiaries of 1999 may well be the 1995s, 1996s and best 1998s, as well as undervalued vintages like 1988 and 1994. Fingers crossed for 2000.

Andrew Jefford