Cold summer forces earliest French wine harvest on record

The first bunches of grapes for the manufacture of champagne will be snipped in north-eastern France today - one of the earliest wine harvests ever recorded. Despite miserable weather across much of France in June, July and August - which will greatly reduce the amount of wine produced - the 2007 vendanges, or grape-picking, will be two to three weeks ahead of the normal timetable in most of the country.

The mild winter and the hot weather in April and May gave the grapes a flying start. The wet summer, which produced savage attacks of mildew in some vineyards, has not prevented an early harvest.

Even the reduction in yields - likely to be down 5 to 6 per cent on an average year - is good news, for producers. Vineyards growing the cheapest table wines, in huge surplus worldwide, have been worst affected by the mildew and the wet, cold summer.

French production of low-quality wines is expected to fall by almost one quarter at a time when the world market is still swamped by unsold cheap barrels and bottles from last year and from 2005. There were also poor harvests last winter (the southern hemisphere summer) in Australia, South Africa and Argentina.

French growers - and the French government - hope that the combined effect will be an easing of the overproduction "crisis" and an increase in the wholesale prices of table wines for the first time in a decade. Philippe Janvier, of the French wine, fruit and vegetable trade organisation, Vinifhlor, said: "If we see a continuing increase in demand for table wines, as we did last year, we may see prices go up at last."

In some parts of Languedoc, the first grapes were picked three weeks ago. Harvesting began in Provence on Monday and will extend to Beaujolais and the Rhône Valley by the weekend and white grapes in Bordeaux by the end of the month. In Champagne, which always starts ahead of some more southerly areas, the vendanges are said to be the earliest for a century, apart from the heat-wave year of 2003.

The date of the vendanges in France has been creeping forward for decades: a symptom, according to some meteorologists, of climate change.

Widespread attacks by vine mildew, a form of fungal infection, appeared to threaten the 2007 harvest in some areas in early July. Regular treatment and a slackening of the rain has saved the crops of most middle-rank and better vineyards. Some lower quality producers have been devastated.

Overall, France is expected to produce just under 50 million hectolitres of wine this year, compared to just over 53 million in the past two years. Better quality, or appellation contrôlée wines will be down 2 per cent and table wines down by 23 per cent.

Wine producers insist that the quality of the 2007 vintage will be good or excellent.

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