1985 vintage has finished fermenting, all the barrels have been tasted, and some are even in the bottle and on the shelves. It can now be said that on the whole, across the world, the 1985 vintage, the "vintage of the comet" as the French have called it, was the greatest in history.

With the expanding body of knowledge of fermentation and aging, and the spread of new wine-making technology, wine makers are capable of making better wines than ever before. With the continuing discovery of new areas with microclimates conducive to growing outstanding grapes, particularly in the United States, there are more regions capable of producing excellent wines than ever before. Never before have so many of the world's wine regions enjoyed such clement weather, and never before have so many of the world's wine regions produced wines of such excellence.

France

Across most of France, the summer of '85 was glorious, warm, dry and sunny, and the harvest was dry and rot-free. In Bordeaux there was a drought, and merlot seems to have fared better than cabernet sauvignon. The grapes were dark, thick skinned, and if there is any cause for concern it is that a few wines appear to be a bit high in alcohol and low in acid.

The 1985s are another in an unprecedented string of superior vintages in Bordeaux that includes 1983, 1982, 1981, 1979 and 1978. It was also a large crop, and the market is now awash in good claret. Despite an oversupply (can there be too much good claret?), and the decline of the dollar, demand for the '85s in the U.S. is extremely high according to Harry Lebowitz of Socie'te' Distribution Vins Fins, the largest bordeaux broker in the world. The American wine trade and wine collectors are willing to gamble large sums of money on unfinished wines that will not even be blended and bottled for more than a year. The buying activity seems to have been stirred by the 1982 vintage's track record. The '82s inflated rapidly, because they were touted as being the "vintage of the century" and because the exchange rate exaggerated their price increases.

According to Lebowitz and other brokers, this futures activity is mostly centered around the most famous 100 chateaux. This means that, when the wines arrive in summer 1988, there will certainly be great bargains to be found among the lesser-known chateaux.

Despite the decline of the dollar, there is no justification for record prices being spent for wines that are in oversupply. Although I am not predicting a collapse in the bordeaux market, I think the futures market is being pumped up by too many rookies: consumers, writers and merchants. It is unlikely that the 1985 vintage will appreciate appreciably, certainly not as much as did the 1982 vintage, unless the 1986 vintage is a disaster.

My advice: relax. The '82s and '83s are on the shelves. You can afford the luxury of tasting before you buy, and there are many petite chateaux that made wine every bit as good as the more famous classified chateaux. Buy wine that you or others you trust have tasted, rather than speculating on unfinished wine that may be a disappointment at record prices.

Elsewhere in France, in Sauternes, some good 1985s were made, but not on the level of the 1983s. Dry white bordeaux will be good, but not exceptional.

Burgundy appears to have made exceptional wines, both red and white. Price increases are likely because Burgundy has not been as fortunate in recent vintages as has Bordeaux, and because demand continues to outstrip supply for the produce of this tiny region.

Chablis, Beaujolais, Alsace, Champagne, the Loire and the Rhone all produced memorable wines.

United States

California holds half of America's wineries and produces about 90 percent of the total U.S. wine output. When the vintage goes bad in California it is because the grapes get overripe and sunburned, as opposed to most other states or European vineyards, where underripe grapes are the most common flaw.

In California, the summer of 1985 was cooler than most, and, despite a few early September rains in a few northern valleys, the fruit came in rot-free and healthy in most regions. According to California wine writer Jerry Mead, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, the state's best grapes, made the best wines in 1985. There was some botrytis mold in riesling and sauvignon blanc, meaning that there will be some excellent, rich, sweet wines made from grapes affected by the so-called "noble rot." Despite contrary reports, interest is growing in red zinfandel, as well as in pinot noir, as California's winemakers continue to improve their handling of this finicky varietal.

In the Pacific Northwest, crops were smaller than normal, but quality also appears to be excellent, especially in Oregon. Oregon pinot noir has been growing justifiably in reputation, and the 1985s will almost certainly enhance that reputation.

In the east, New York's Finger Lakes had a remarkable summer and fall, and grapes far riper than normal were common. Most of the wines of this region, best known for light, crisp, tart wines, are a bit richer and fatter than normal.

The mid-Atlantic region of Maryland and Virginia, rapidly acquiring a reputation for world-class cabernet sauvignon, is one of the few in the world to have bad luck in 1985. A combination of cold winter and bad weather in summer severely limited the harvest size and damaged the quality in some microclimates.

Germany

The 1985 vintage was just what the Bernkasteler Doktor ordered in Germany. It produced primarily drier wines of excellent quality. Although there were few of the rare sweet auslese and late harvest wines, the drier kabinetts and spa tlesen are excellent. A severe winter damaged the new hybrids more than the venerable riesling, so the great grape of Germany will be most available.

Italy

Most of Italy made excellent wines in 1985, especially the barolo, barbaresco, and other nebbiolo-based wines of Piedmont in the northern cuff of the boot.

Unfortunately the public may miss some of this extraordinarily fine wine because some extraordinarily bad wine was also made in 1985. In April, 1986, when 22 Italians died from 1985 vintage wine doctored with methanol (wood alcohol), many U.S. merchants pulled Italian wines off their shelves. It can now be said that it is safe to go back in the water. Tests conducted by the U.S. government, the Italian government and independent labs show that the scandal was limited to a handful of cheap wines that were never shipped to the U.S., and consumers should not confuse them with internationally acclaimed wines that are produced by reputable winemakers. If methanol was found in some cheap French wine, we wouldn't stop drinking Chateau Latour, would we?

Wine Find

Preston Vineyards 1985 Cuve'e de Fume', Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County: Sauvignon Blancs from California come in three basic flavors and have two basic names.

Although the grape is properly called sauvignon blanc, in the late 1960s Robert Mondavi decided he needed to give this slow-seller a little sex-appeal, and dubbed his sauvignon blanc "fume' blanc," after the famous Pouilly Fume' wines from the Loire Valley in France, so named because they occasionally have a smoky or fume' character. Now both names are officially recognized for the same grape. Some wineries even call their sauvignon blanc "blanc fume'." As if this were not confusing enough, here comes Preston Vineyards with a cuve'e de fume', which means a blend or selection of fume' blanc. No matter, it's what's inside the bottle that counts, not what's on the outside.

Stylistically, sauvignon blanc is versatile and can have three faces. It can be light, delicate, slightly tart, but not as tart as chardonnay, and perhaps reminiscent of underripe pears in aroma. It can also be aged in young oak barrels and get the same vanilla-like, toasty, smoky and complex overtones as a chardonnay. Or it can have, when picked ripe, especially from a cooler climate, an intriguing herbal, grassy, even vegetal aroma and flavor.

Despite all this confusion, sauvignon blanc sales are booming, and the wine is rapidly gaining popularity.

This excellent example is one of the herbal, grassy types, intense in flavor with a long, lingering finish. A bigger wine than most, and an excellent example of the style.

Serving: This wine was born to swim with the fishes. Try it with mildly seasoned broiled or grilled fish, soft-shell crab saute'ed in butter, lobster with drawn butter, or raw or steamed bivalves.

Price: Suggested retail list of about $6.50 per bottle. Actual price may vary significantly. Cases produced, 7,800. Wholesale supplier is Winery Associates. Wholesale suppliers cannot sell direct to consumers, but your wine merchant can buy from wholesalers. (c) 1986, International Wine Review magazine