French vintners divided over 2011 harvest risks

Tue Sep 13, 2011 11:03am EDT
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By Marcel Michelson

PARIS (Reuters) - Unpredictable 2011 weather has divided French vintners into cautious early harvesters keen to avoid early autumn storms and nail-biting gamblers willing to risk catastrophe for more mature grapes in a year that has been flagged as exceptional for wine.

A dry spring, a wet start to summer, which has eased into more clement seasonal conditions and warm temperatures has persuaded some vintners to start harvesting in late August, while others have bided their time, measuring grape maturity with modern science and old-fashioned chewing and tasting.

Traditionally, the associations of vintners in a wine region set an official start to the harvest with "la levée du ban des vendanges" or the end to the harvest ban, which has its traces in the Middle Ages.

The ban allowed individual wine growers to benefit from the combined wisdom of a region in setting the harvest date, usually 100 days after the first flowering in the vineyards.

For the last few years however, this ban has no longer been universally compulsory but is still upheld in several areas for AOC wines and is a popular way of attracting wine tourists after the summer rush, such as in Saint-Emilion.

The Jurade de Saint-Emilion run a Medieval-style pageant with members of the Jurade in long red robes and square hats who attend Mass in the church, walk the cobbled streets and clamber to the top of Tour du Roi (King's Tower) and then release balloons symbolizing grapes to mark the harvest.

The ban des vendanges in Saint-Emilion is on September 18 this year. The same weekend as in 2010, but a week later than 2009.