Early hopes that 2006 was going to be an outstanding vintage in Bordeaux were all but dashed by unfavourable weather conditions in August and September, but the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux is still confident that 2006 will produce classic wines with good ageing potential. Stuart Todd reports.

The Bordeaux Wine Council, the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB), is reluctant to be drawn on the size of the 2006 harvest as all declarations are yet to be submitted by producers. But figures from the Ministry of Agriculture point to a slight fall in volumes globally in the major growing area of the Gironde and a minor increase of 2% in AOCs, from last year's modest-sized crop of around 6m hectolitres.

These figures could well be revised downwards as they do not take into account the uprooting of vines, which form part of a restructuring programme of the Bordeaux wine industry. The precise impact of the uprooting programme on the total volume of the harvest is difficult to quantify at present.

However, with fermentation largely finished, the CIVB has been able to provide a preliminary analysis on the quality front. This highlights the excellence of the 2006 dry white wines, which express the typical aromas of each grape variety. "The Sauvignon Blancs have blackcurrant bud and white peach aromas with beautiful acidity while the Sémillons have charming citrus overtones that considerably enhance the final blend," the CIVB notes.

Of this year's red wines, the CIVB says: "The red wines are deep-coloured with intense red fruit aromas (blackcurrant, blackberry, and blueberry). They are round, well-structured, and fairly concentrated on the palate. The Merlots are especially fruity and the Cabernet Sauvignons are aromatic, complex, well-structured, and altogether successful."

The sweet white wines are still fermenting, but are already starting to reveal promising, rich aromas. Botrytis cinerea, indispensable for this type of wine, developed well once the Sémillon grapes were completely ripe. Picking was completed relatively quickly, in several waves, from mid-September to mid-October.

Regarding climatic conditions, 2006 was a hot year, although less dry than 2005. The grapes had good colour and fruit. After a long, cold winter, the weather became more clement in April and stayed so partly into the summer. Good sunshine, high temperatures, and moderate rainfall (after a particularly wet March) were conducive to good vine growth. The flowering took place quickly for Merlot but was more spread out for both Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Yo-yo weather saw high temperatures in July which encouraged ripening during which the grapes changed colour and became softer. Rain and cool temperatures in August slowed down ripening and were largely responsible for a significant unevenness. The wet weather in August also greatly increased the problems of mildew. However, the unusually cool August weather had a positive effect on the development of aromatic compounds.

The first two weeks of September were exceptionally hot and sunny, which accelerated ripening considerably. In fact, the first ten days of the month were the hottest since records began. However, this was followed by stormy, rainy conditions. Some observers have suggested that the cooler weather in August and the heavy September rainfall have prevented 2006 from being the oustanding vintage that was being predicted by some, albeit somewhat prematurely, in late-July.

Despite the fickle weather pattern right up to harvesting, the CIVB concludes that "2006 has produced classic wines with good ageing potential".

However, Bordeaux négociants are already suggesting that prices for the 2006 vintage will have to fall to below those of 2004. Among those forecasting price pressure folllowing the 2006 vintage is winemaker and négociant Jean-Christophe Mau. "Selling 2006 will be difficult," Mau says. "Prices will have to fall below 2004."

Bordeaux prices over the past year or so have been fairly robust, judging from statistics published by the CIVB for the year to the end of July. Bordeaux export volumes rose by 4% in the 12 months to 31 July to 1.8m hectolitres, but revenues increased by as much as 24% to EUR1.2bn (US$1.6bn).

Exports to the EU were stable in terms of volume but rose by 17% in value. Underlining this trend, the UK saw shipments increase by 2% to 255,000 hl, but revenues leap by 45% to EUR212m. Outside the EU, exports to the US rose by 29% in volume terms but increased by 70% in value.