French vineyard owners set to reap a vintage harvest

After two very good years for wine, French vineyard owners already had dollar signs flashing before their eyes as they looked forward to a harvest that is likely to be even better than the last two. All the signs are now indicating that 1997 could be one of the best vintages in decades.

As early as 4 August grape-picking began in Rivesaltes, north of Perpignan; and on Monday the Haut Brion chateau near to Bordeaux announced that it would begin the grape harvest for white wine grapes on Monday, and for red wine at the end of the week. Grapes have not been ready for harvest this early since 1893.

Jean-Bernard Delmas, the chateau's director of commerce, explained that "the harvest usually takes place between 20-25 September ... but from the month of May it was clear that we would be harvesting early because the grapes were already very mature." Bottles from the last early harvest, in 1990, are now selling for several hundred pounds.

Other vineyards have also announced that they will begin harvesting this week, such as Couhins-Couton, Latour Martillac, Fieuzal and Chevalier. All these chateaux are in the Graves region in Bordeaux. The vineyards in the region of Cotes du Rhone are preparing for grape-picking next Monday and across France, wine producers are getting ready for an early harvest, even further north in the regions of the Loire.

The maturity of this year's crop is due to the very hot, sunny spring, and it not only promises good wine, but also means that the farmers have more time to harvest, which allows them to pick the grapes at the right time. The warmer weather of an early harvest also means that the alcohol levels are generally fairly high.

Even the heavy rain in July that flooded much of Eastern Europe, and made for a lot of wet summer holidays on the Mediterranean, was not a catastrophe for the wine merchants. Although it did destroy some grapes, some rain was essential to speed up the ripening process. The only disadvantage is for the grape-pickers, who will have to go through the vines with greater care, getting rid of the spoilt crop.

Some predictions are more cautious than others: Philippe Raymond, from the Wine Producers' Union in Saint Emilion, said: "Only a catastrophe with the weather would pose any threat to the harvests now, but we shall have to wait and see if the sun continues to shine in the next few weeks before we know if those crops which are not yet ready will be exceptional." Likewise, Fabrice Fatin, director of the Wine and Tourist office in Pauillac, in the Haut-Medoc, said: "All exceptional vintages do come from early harvests, but all early harvests do not necessarily produce good vintages."

Nevertheless, smiles are broad on the faces of most of those involved in the wine industry. A union official from the Bordeaux area said that they are "optimistic and relaxed", and a vineyard owner from Gaillac, in the South-west said he will get a relatively small quantity of wine, but it will be of excellent quality.

As for the weather, one vineyard owner in the Loire region said: "Even if we could control it, we could not have done any better."