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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.
But not everyone has waited for an official start.
In general, white grapes are harvested earlier than reds, and dates also vary from region to region.
The harvest of the sturdy red Madiran wines, in the southwest toward the Basque region, will start on September 18.
The Beaujolais harvest started on August 24, the earliest date since a heatwave in 2003, when the harvest started on August 8.
The operation lasted three weeks with some 50,000 people mobilized to cut and carry the grapes by hand. The Inter Beaujolais association said 2011 looked a good year and vintners were optimistic about quality.
The "new" Beaujolais will be delivered to the trade from Oct 10 and the official Beaujolais Nouveau day is November 17, the third Thursday in November.
"The small berries boast an excellent juice to skin ratio. This is great news as the compounds that give the red wine its wealth of color and tannin structure are mainly to be found in the skin," said Melina Condy of Inter Beaujolais.
The Nantes area also started on August 24 and the Champagne harvest started on Aug 19. In the Cote d'Or of Burgundy and the Buzet area in the southwest, the harvest started on August 23 while the 'ban' for Cotes de Rhone was declared on September 3.
Wine critic Michel Bettane, who was in Champagne toward the end of the harvest, said on the Bon Vivant blog that the harvest there started too early, certainly for Chardonnay, where the grapes did not start to taste good until after September 1.
His opinion is shared by Daniel-Etienne Defaix, a vintner in the Chablis region, where there is no longer a 'ban' and growers can decide themselves when to start the harvest.
Defaix said that in Chablis, people usually credit the mineral content of the ground and the weather for the wine rather than the Chardonnay grape and the grower's skill.
"This year we could see that with time, there appears to be two different 2011 vintages with a different imprint by man," Defaix said.
"There were those who started with fanfare on Tuesday Aug 30, and there were those who waited quietly and started on Sept 5."
He said earlier harvesters preferred to risk a weak maturity with more acidity than natural sugar content, while those who waited -- including Defaix -- spent sleepless nights praying a change in the weather would not bring heavy rains and storms.
Waiting has had its benefits with a rising sugar content the results of temperate weather and warm winds.
"No need to wait any longer, the grapes are at perfect maturity," Defaix said.
Although it may be a bit early to talk about taste. Defaix said the earlier harvested wines could be dry, slightly acid and good for drinks with friends, while the later harvested wines will be more rounded and geared toward accompanying food.
"What is re-assuring is that the consumers are as varied as the vintners and each wine will have its market and its clients," he said.
"As my father and my grandfather used to say - at Chablis the ground makes the wine and the last three weeks determine the vintage!"
Edited by Paul Casciato