PARIS (Reuters) - Holidaymakers may deplore the wet weather in France this summer but the silver lining to all those cloudy days at the beach may eventually be a good to "exceptional" year for French wine.
Many wine experts say only the return of heavy rain, storms, hail or locusts in the latter part of the growing season will interrupt what appears to be a harvest set to benefit from some unusual weather this year.
Vintners all over the country have found a new spring in their steps after a dismal start to the growing season that made them fear for the worst. France is the world's biggest wine exporter in value and the sector employs 120,000 people and generates 18 billion euros ($25 billion) in revenues.
During a dry spring, the vines searched for water and their roots burrowed deep into the ground while the growth of grapes was given lesser priority.
When the rain did come, at a time when July tourists were hoping for the sunny beaches, the water irrigated the vines and put the harvest back on track.
Jérôme Despey, the head of the wine sector at France AgriMer, an agriculture and fisheries body, said the harvest would be 10 to 30 days early and be superior in volume to 2010.
He told Europe 1 radio recently that the harvest was estimated at 47.6 millions hectoliters, which is more than the 45.3 millions hectoliters of 2010.
Olivier de Moor is a wine grower in Courgis, where he was born to a local wine dynasty. He studied at the Dijon oenology school and met his wife Alice when they were both working for a large estate near Chablis, the region for which the well-known Burgundy white wine is named.
They have made their own wines since 1989 - Chablis, Bourgogne Chitry, Sauvignon Saint-Bris and the more generic Bourgogne Aligoté. De Moor, an organic wine-maker, said the weather has also been a concern for him this year.
"The winter seemed normal but in fact December 2010 was harsh with temperatures going down to minus 15 degrees Celsius and the snow covered our grounds for 15 days. It was the coldest December for 40 years," he said.
"January and February were more clement but we already had a water deficit of 20 percent," De Moor added.
Spring was very warm. It was the warmest March to May period on record since 1945 and the water deficit went as far as 70 percent in April in the Burgundy region.
"The warm and dry soil had its influence. The growth of the vines seemed difficult and the plants looked more puny than usual. The microbiological activity that nourishes the vine must have suffered from the lack of water.
The soil was also very hard to work and it was difficult to remove the weeds. The Met office said the soil was the driest for the past 50 years," he said.
De Moor said that in Burgundy, the vintners have constructed their vineyards to deal with a surplus of water and not with extreme heat such as in the Mediterranean.
He said the Burgundy system may have to be reviewed - the plants are too low and the rows too dense. Even the grape varieties may need to be looked at.
With rare exceptions, the harvest has almost always been held in October as far back as he can recall.
"Once the vines are in full flowering, you know that the harvest will be in 100 days. This year that was on May 25, so the harvest was set for end-August or early September!," he said.
That puts this year on a par with the early harvests of the "mythical" years 1893, 1976, 2003 and 2007.
In the Bordeaux area, Yves Hostens-Picant has a vineyard of 42 hectares some 24 km from Saint-Emilion and makes wines under the Sainte-Foy Bordeaux appellation. He and his wife Nadine acquired the vineyards in late 1986.
The estate had been in the same family for almost a century before them but had been producing for a co-operative.
They make reds, whites and a rosé under the Château de Hostens-Picant (www.chateauhostens-picant.fr) and Château du Grangeneuve labels.
They grow various grapes - Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc for the reds and Sémillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle for the whites.
There too, original despair has turned to hope.
"The bits of rain in July, followed by the rains of August, gave us renewed hope of a harvest of a reasonable size because before that the marked lack of water heralded a serious lack of juice," Picant said.
"If the second half of August and September are sunny we could hope to not just have a good quality year but perhaps even an exceptional year."
($1 = 0.703 Euros)
Edited by Paul Casciato