France 2002 – a very preliminary report

Any European wine region that reports a perfect vintage will certainly be exceptional this year. There's been an awful lot of weather about, but little of it of positive benefit to the vine.

In general there were exceptionally cold periods during the winter, a rather dry spring and not really enough rain during the summer. The summer was, in many wine regions, characterised by far more cloud but no more rain than usual. Conditions were warm and mildly humid (as opposed to usefully drenching) – perfect for the development of various horrid fungal diseases.

In Bordeaux where I was on 12 and 13 September proprietors were prepared to admit that this could not be a great vintage but, in bright sunlight and an established period of high pressure, were still saying bravely that it could be a good one. The health of the grape bunches was far from perfect (different-sized berries and some rotten grapes) and, perhaps more importantly in this region full of sorting tables, ripeness levels were way behind average. In fact one Médoc proprietor was heard to say that he planned to make white wine this year as red was clearly impossible.

This is of course an exaggeration, and the fine weather that began just before my visit looked set to continue for a while – but the nights were cool so there will be no miracle compensation. Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces of Ch d'Yquem (my pal) told me they had done their first small picking that day, 12 September, botrytis being already well established in the vineyards. Red wine producers were hanging on and crossing their fingers, but at least their leaves were still green.

In Beaujolais many leaves had already turned red and photosynthesis was clearly out of the question. The harvest was already in full swing when I visited on 15 September, filling vats already too full of wine no one wants to buy. Much faith was placed in the north wind which, in the mornings at least, accompanied some fine weather to keep the moulds at bay.

There were similar reports from Burgundy to the north where those of us on export markets think that all must be fine and dandy because we can't always get our hands on the wines we want. But apparently the great soft under-performing underbelly of wines that are not good enough to be of interest to serious burgundy importers are languishing in the region's less famous cellars and there is general talk of a crise viticole again – more serious than that in 1996 and probably at least as serious as in 1991 when the reasons were entirely global and economic. This time, it's because not enough French wine producers have really learnt that if you snooze, you lose. (Now I understand why Hugh and I got so many blank looks from our French audiences as we told them how the world of wine had never been better.) Some Burgundy producers are planning to start picking on 16 September – purely because of the (lack of) health in their grapes.

It was a similar story in the Rhône with of course those awful floods in the Gard, southern Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Some growers in Côte Rôtie had already started picking when I was there on 13 September (after a quick trans-hexagonal flight from Bordeaux), so bad was the health of their Syrah. 2002 will not be glorious in the Rhône and quantities are likely to be low.

But in a restaurant in Chénas, I bumped into someone from Pol Roger who assured me that all was a breeze in Champagne. How's that for in-depth reporting?