Now the harvest's over

Berate Beaujolais Nouveau by all means, but what kind of vintage does the rest of Europe's 2001 harvest look likely to offer?
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The 2001 harvest in Europe is all but done and dusted; the ripe, and not so ripe, grapes plucked in a series of tidal surges sweeping from the hot shores of Africa to the cool slopes of the Mosel Valley.

The 2001 harvest in Europe is all but done and dusted; the ripe, and not so ripe, grapes plucked in a series of tidal surges sweeping from the hot shores of Africa to the cool slopes of the Mosel Valley. The evidence is to be seen in the vineyards, which have been transformed into a photogenic tapestry of russet, tawny and gold, and in the harvest festival revels, where the obligatory sore heads serve as a potent and painful reminder of the weeks of back- breaking grape picking. Romantic as it might sound, hand-picking, like crushing the grapes by foot, is either a chore or a marketing opportunity, depending on your particular point of view.

A recent tightening of French social security rules, making it compulsory for all casual workers to declare casual labour income, has had an impact. All the more so, too, in regions like Beaujolais, which, by law, have to harvest manually.

This year, Beaujolais Nouveau, the first wine of the new harvest to arrive, has experienced extremely variable weather and is unlikely to come up with wines of the quality or concentration of those from 2000. While beaujolais can be deliciously gluggy, the nouveau, straining hard to reach us by the third Thursday in November, is pretty thin stuff at the best of times – and these are not the best of times.

The apparent romance attached to hand-harvesting and crushing by foot provides some wonderful opportunities for marketing. Bernard Magrez, the resourceful owner of Château Pape-Clément in Bordeaux, has made much of eliminating machines and reverting to traditional practices for the 2001 harvest. In a costly exercise, he has taken on around 120 workers to sort through the grapes on specially designed sorting tables.

Less noise is made of the fact that most, if not all, of his cheap, volume brand, Malesan, is harvested by machine. While most top estates in the classic regions aim at hand- harvesting, machines have the advantage of being able to pick faster, to run at night in warmer areas and beat labour shortages.

Fine-tuning the date and method of picking has become quite critical, as producers are increasingly focusing on the vineyard as the primary source of quality. It's now standard practice for quality- conscious wineries to employ a vineyard manager or consultant to advise on how best to convert photosynthetic energy into ripe grapes.

Yet all the viticulturalists in the world couldn't prevent champagne from suffering its wettest year since 1873. With rain both before and during vintage bringing high yields and unripe grapes, it is reasonably safe to predict that 2001 will not be a vintage year. Putting a gloss on bad news, though, is a finely honed champenois talent. So expect claims for excellent non-vintage blends (using up to 50 per cent reserve wine from previous vintages) when the new fizz is released after a couple of years in the cellar.

The modern harvest brings an increasing emphasis on tasting the grapes for flavour. The distinctive flavours of sauvignon allow it to be more easily picked than chardonnay at different ripeness levels, enabling greener flavours to be mingled with more tropical ones.

Unfortunately, with rain, mildew and rot prevailing in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the Loire Valley's sauvignon blanc heartland, the opportunities for this kind of vineyard blending proved to be virtually non-existent this year. The quality of the 2001 Loire Valley vintage varies dramatically, and of the new vintage whites to expect in the spring, only Muscadet looks like it might be outstanding.

Analysis may tell the winemaker the grapes are ripe, but the proof of it is in the tasting – a task that's easier described than done, requiring years of experience in a particular vineyard. After severe summer drought in the south of France, the ripening process slowed down. Growers who picked when the grapes were analytically ripe missed out on the extra smoothness, aroma and flavour of fully ripened grapes. Ripeness can go too far, but it is also an issue because a grower under contract will often aim to balance the lowest ripeness (minimum risk) with the largest crop allowable (maximum financial return).

Each year brings with it a refinement in technique. This year is destined to go down as the year of the sorting table, a costly technique that is increasingly employed for sorting out rotten, unripe and scorched grapes. This is particularly true of burgundy, where sorting tables were so prevalent that it looked as though le tout bourgogne was out for a massive vineyard picnic.

The reality of the situation is that sorting tables were badly needed this year, in order to cope with unhealthy, rotten grapes and uneven ripening. With variable weather conditions across the region, Burgundy looks like being a fair but not exceptional year for both red and white wines – certainly, nowhere near as good a year as 1999.

In Bordeaux, after a summer that was less sunny than hoped for, summertime techniques of leaf-plucking and snipping off green bunches were essential. Growers eventually breathed a collective sigh of relief when a bout of October sunshine allowed grapes to be brought in ripe – at least by those who hadn't jumped the gun.

Expensive concentrating devices at top châteaux to remove excessive water from swollen grapes, although much in evidence to begin with, were often withdrawn for fear of concentrating the high acidity. It's too soon to write 2001 off yet, but when the new wines are tasted in the spring, the chances of a sales campaign as profitable as 2000 looks remote. By contrast, an abundance of noble rot has given sauternes the "sweet white vintage of the century" tag – at least until next year.