Deluge leaves French wine harvest at risk of ruin from mildew attack

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Sixty days and nights of almost incessant rain threaten to ruin large parts of the French wine harvest this year, especially in Bordeaux.

Some small vineyards have already lost their entire crop to a form of mildew, a fungal parasite which thrives in damp and warm conditions.

Other forms of mildew, including the dreaded potato blight, are threatening to destroy other crops in France, ranging from tomatoes to cherries.

"It is many years since we have seen conditions like this, with warmth and humidity at the same time," said Olivier Rostang, a wine-making consultant in the Rhône valley. "The mildew is biting hard, attacking the leaves of the vines, and worse, in some cases, the grapes. We are fighting for the 2007 vintage." Didier Michaud, a small wine producer in Médoc, north of Bordeaux, said: "I will have no wine this year. The mildew has attacked all my vines. There is just one small patch where the grapes have not yet fallen off. I have no illusions. It is only a matter of time."

Bordeaux, where the rain has hardly paused since early May, is the worst afflicted region. Problems have also been reported in Champagne, Beaujolais, the Loire and the Rhône valley.

This is a calamity for the worst-hit growers but not necessarily for the French wine industry. A much reduced 2007 wine harvest might help to push up wholesale wine prices, which have been depressed by a glut of cheap wine on the world market.

Huge unsold stocks of table wine, and even the cheaper Appellation Contrôlée wines, remain from 2006 and 2005.

As for the quality of the 2007 vintage, all is still uncertain. A warm and dry late summer could still produce excellent wines.

Vine mildew or Plasmopara viticola is a fungus borne on the wind in damp conditions. It produces brown blotches on the leaves before spreading to, and rotting, the young grapes. There are preventative remedies and controls but they are frowned upon by the more militant, organic food watchdogs. Organic wine producers - increasingly common in France - have therefore been the worst hit.

The problems have been made worse by the fact that the ground has become so damp that it is impossible, or ill-advised, to drive heavy machinery into the vineyards. Spraying with anti-mildew products, such as "Bordeaux mixture" (copper sulphate and lime) has had to be carried out by hand. The rain has often washed the protective coating away again.