Speak to observers in the regions, though, and the fairy tale stuff of post-harvest press releases begins to take on a creative, if not downright misleading, air. Bordeaux, normally the first region to be talked up, has suffered from the usual dose of hype, kicking off when six chateaux in Pessac-Leognan began picking their grapes on 18 August. Reports of the "earliest start since 1893" - were lapped up by the media. "There's no doubt this vintage will be exceptional", trumpeted the pink'un in a fit of silly season intoxication.
It is not a good idea to talk up a vintage before the grapes have been picked. In fact, despite a promising start to the season, Bordeaux was already beginning to look iffy when the vintage of the century cliche broke. After a remarkably wet early summer and a steamy August, panic set in when the heavens opened on 1 September and an army of pickers was dispatched to the vineyards. Fine weather followed for the next five weeks. In a late finish to the season it looks as though the Medoc, and the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, has triumphed again at the expense of the thin-skinned, earlier-ripening Merlot.
According to Bordeaux broker Bill Blatch, "The Merlots are soft and delicate, almost Burgundian, while the Cabernet Sauvignon is ripe, well-defined with pure, robust fruit. There are some stunning results, but overall it's a worthy vintage, comparable to 1983 or 1988, and not good enough to keep the hype rolling." 1997 looks to be limping in in the third place, behind 1995 and 1996.
This year will go down as the year of the Indian summer. The question, however, is whether or not it came too late to salvage what for many regions was an early start to the season followed by a cold, wet flowering period and an abnormal summer of rain followed by humidity and sticky heat.
Some of the broadest smiles span the length of the Loire Valley, where a fine late season appears to have produced a second successive excellent vintage with well-balanced dry whites and exceptional sweet whites. The champagne harvest is down in quantity and unlikely to be declared a vintage year because of inconsistent ripening. At least this bodes well for the future of non-vintage champagne, and ensures ample stocks for millennium celebrations.
In Burgundy, ripening was also uneven, but fine weather in the run up to harvest helped produce highly attractive white Burgundies in the style of 1989 and rather smooth, seductively forward reds.
Given its increasing importance as a value-for-money rival to the New World, Languedoc-Roussillon, France's biggest wine region, has been the most disappointing. The stop-go-stop cycle of rain in July, August humidity and September storms dealt the vineyards a devastating blow. Most of the white wines had to be picked unripe, while red wines have in many cases suffered from poor colour, dilution and low acidity.
Winemaker Hugh Ryman is confident that Provence, on the other hand, which avoided the Atlantic side rains, has produced wines of excellent structure and concentration. The southern Rhone is a mixed bag with the Grenache and Mourvedre grapes preferred to the more precocious Syrah, although the Syrah's heartland of the northern Rhone looks set to have had its second best vintage (after 1995) since 1990.
In Italy, for the first time since 1990, the peninsula benefited from a dry, sunny September and October. The quality looks very good in the three main premium red wine regions, Piedmont, Veneto and Tuscany, with ample whites, too, from northern Italy. Alto Adige, and Frascati.
In Spain, where there was an awful lot of rain, no one is looking at 1997 as a vintage of the century, or even the decade for that matter. Concern over quantity has been mitigated up to a point by better-than- expected quality north of Madrid, where Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Rueda look to be good. Sherry could be extraordinary however and Penedes very good for white wines. The season in Portugal eventually came good, although Vino Verde, on the vulnerable Atlantic coast, was all but wiped out.
The Indian summer saved the vintage in Germany after frost, late flowering and hail, threatened to play havoc. "It's a very positive surprise with an excellent range of quality ahead of what had been hoped for," says one merchant. In Eastern Europe, Angela Muir, who made wine in Romania this year, is more optimistic about reds than whites, particularly where growers were able to treat against rot. Tokaj apart, Hungary, according to Aussie Master of Wine Kym Milne, has had its best vintage since 1994 with both red and white wines benefiting from the prolonged dry autumn. In the long run, of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the tasting - and the drinking
White of the week
1996 Loosen Bros Riesling, pounds 5.99, Waitrose. From the youthful Ernie Loosen, one of the most quality- minded producers in Germany's cool Mosel Valley, this fragrant, full-bodied, modern Riesling captures the quintessential character of the Mosel with its spritz-fresh, lime acid-drop fruitiness adding trenchant bite to the attractively appley flavours. Try it as an aperitif or with lightly spicy oriental food.
Red of the week
1995 Four Sisters McLaren Vale Grenache, pounds 5.99. Fuller's. If Shiraz, the Syrah grape of the northern Rhone, is Australia's trump card, its resource of old Grenache vines is the ace up its sleeve. From Trevor Mast, the producer of Victoria's Mount Langhi Ghiran Shiraz, the vibrant raspberryish fruit of the Four Sisters Grenache is spiced with fresh-milled pepper notes and the heady mule kick of 14 per cent alcohol.