The just-drinks 2006 harvest round-up continues with a look at this year's vintage in France's most northerly wine regions of the Loire, Alsace and Champagne. Lyn Parry reports from the Loire, while Dean Best takes a look at this year's Alsace harvest, and Giles Fallowfield assesses the 2006 crop in Champagne.

Loire

The 2006 vintage in the Loire has produced subtle wines with elegance and finesse, aromatic qualities and good fruit. However, results are variable, and the quality of the wines will be dependent on how well producers coped with difficult climatic conditions which caused a considerable amount of mildew and rot.
 
There were chaotic weather conditions throughout the growing season. A long winter followed by a dreary spring meant that the vegetative cycle was slow in starting, and flowering was later than usual. March and May brought much needed rainfall after the dry extensive winter. June continued warm and dry which accelerated the growth pattern so that the vines caught up and blossomed on schedule. Due to the warm weather, véraison arrived early in most areas.

July alternated between very high temperatures and cooler periods with sporadic thunderstorms, which triggered problems with rot in the vineyards. Mildew and black rot threatened throughout the growing season, with grey rot creeping in at the end of August. In Muscadet, 60mm rainfall was recorded for July, 70mm for August and 100mm for September. Careful selection was needed in the vineyards to ensure that grapes reached maturity in a healthy condition. August was autumnal and the development of the grapes slowed down, helping them to reach maturity.

During the first half of September, warm temperatures returned and the harvest started early, the first bans being issued on 4 September for the vins mousseux, followed by Muscadet on 6 September, Touraine Sauvignon, Gamay, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the middle of the month, and Côt, Cabernet Franc and Chenin in late-September.

The harvest progressed without any major problems, except for the vins moelleux where rain spoilt hopes. Heavy thunderstorms arrived on 14 September and rainfall was intermittent over the following fortnight. Vouvray and Montlouis sur Loire producers had to harvest in haste.

Chinon reports wines with youthful tannins that will age well. But Bourgeuil isn't so promising. Here the harvest started earlier than anticipated in order to get the grapes in before the rains came. The grapes did not have thick skins and therefore lacked strong tannins, but had achieved a good ripeness.

Muscadets show good fruit-acid balance and structure, while the 2006 Sancerres have round, fresh aromatic qualities and good balance. Due to the see-saw climatic conditions the yield is generally down and quality patchy for the 2006 Loire valley wines.

Alsace

The Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d'Alsace (CIVA) describes 2006 as a year of sharp contrasts, but the region's inter-professional wine body has given an upbeat summary of the vintage.

A relatively cool and rainy spring resulted in late budburst and slower than usual growth in the vineyards which, CIVA says, was followed by excellent weather conditions in June, in terms of sunshine and temperature, allowing the vines to make up for lost time and flower quickly at the usual date. A very hot and sunny July led to rapid ripening, but cooler weather in August meant Alsace avoided the risk of drought, with rain that month preserving an "excellent balance between acidity and sugar".

"Tests held during the first weeks of September gave rise to forecasts of a very ripe vintage with excellent balance," CIVA added.

The 2006 vintage for AOC Crémant d'Alsace began on 11 September, for all grape varieties except Riesling, which was only allowed to be picked a week later. Harvesting for AOC Alsace and AOC Alsace Grand Cru began on 25 September for all grapes except Riesling and Gewurztraminer, which began two days later. For the Vendanges Tardives and Sélection de Grains Nobles categories, the vintage began on 11 October.

CIVA says the harvest began well for the AOC Crémant d'Alsace but rain in late-September and early-October affected the quality of the grapes - particularly for Pinot Noir and Riesling. "However this will not compromise the quality of the vintage, apart from requiring a certain degree of vigilance for the clarification of the must and the monitoring of fermentation during white wine vinification," CIVA says.

The rain meant all winegrowers in Alsace picked up the pace of the harvest to reduce the quantity of grapes lost to the weather. Warmer weather from 7 October meant some growers could produce late-harvest Vendanges Tardives and Sélections de Grains Nobles wines from Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. "(These wines) often have extremely high natural sugar levels and great concentration thanks to noble rot," CIVA adds.

At the end of the season, Alsace wine stocks stood at 1.72m hectolitres, up 1.6% on 2005. "However, by adding in the estimated total volume of the 2006 vintage, which is lower than forecast, the total volume of wine available should be sufficient to meet the estimated requirements of the market for Alsace wines," CIVA insists.

Champagne

The Champagne harvest in 2006 was once again saved by a marked change in the weather in September. At the end of a very wet, cool August, which saw the grapes swell considerably in size, the prospects for quality (if not volume) looked bleak with some worries about rot. However, the start of September saw "a miraculous return to warm, dry weather that favoured final ripening", says Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, head winemaker at Louis Roederer.

The growing season got off to a slow start following a fairly wet cool spring with bud burst occurring a week later than the 25-year average.

"Unusually cool weather in May slowed development further but June brought warm, sunny weather, with temperatures higher than average promoting excellent flowering," says Lecaillon. "Warm sunny weather continued into July with some of the hottest weather in Champagne in living memory. Mean temperatures of 23.8°C set a new record for the entire month."

For Michel Drappier, based at Urville in the Côte des Bars, it was a season of extremes. "We had hail in early-June, practically drought conditions then until the end of July, followed by a wet cool August," says Drappier. "But picking started in early-September in near perfect conditions."

Generally across Champagne, the quality of the Chardonnay is highest, although some may be overripe. It was the first variety to ripen with picking starting as early as 6 September in some locations. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier were more variable, and average potential alcohol levels are generally lower for the black grapes, which ripened later.

At Roederer, the average sugar level at harvest was more than 10.3 degrees, with mean acidity of 6.9 g/l. "These levels were close to those recorded in 2002 and 1989, both outstandingly good years," says Lecaillon. "Early tastings are highly promising, showing clean aroma, rich fruit and a finesse and balance rarely seen at this early stage."