Continuing our 2005 harvest report series, we turn our attention to the wine regions of northern France. Giles Fallowfield reviews this year's crop in Champagne, while Lyn Parry takes a look at the 2005 vintage in the Loire and Ben Cooper reports on the Alsace harvest.

Champagne
The Champagne harvest looks good both in terms of quality and volume, with yields in excess of 15,000 kilos per hectare. Few producers will have difficulty in reaching the maximum yield set by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) of 13,000 kilos per hectare.

With an area of productive vineyard just below 32,000 hectares, there will be around 312m bottles of Champagne produced from the harvest, only slightly more than was consumed worldwide in 2004.

Picking began in the second week of September and was mostly completed before the end of the month with Chardonnay generally producing the best quality. Before the harvest, there had been worries about rot developing in a damp humid early-September. But a change in the weather from 17 September brought dry sunny days and cool evenings, helping to save previously under-ripe Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, though a number of winemakers still commented that the Chardonnay was generally riper than other varieties.

Volumes were higher than was originally expected because of the unusually large bunches, according to Louis Roederer's winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon. "We expected yields to be around 13,000kg/ha but we got 15% more because of the bunch sizes," Lecaillon said. Roederer reckons it should be able to vintage 2005 but said it was too early to say for certain.


Loire
Healthy, fully-ripened grapes and a lower-than-normal yield were the result of a warm and dry growing season in the Loire. This vintage is declared to be "superb, similar to the great 1959s" by Bourgueil producer Yannick Amirault. "The small berries resulted in a drop in yield but there was great concentration of sugar and colour. Fermentation was more complicated than usual, and took a long time to finish due to these high sugar levels."

After a dry winter, the growing season fell into a gentle rhythm of warm days and cool nights, the calm was broken in the Central vineyards by some scattered hailstorms. All the processes of the vegetative cycle were in advance with bud burst, flowering and ripening all occurring around a week earlier than normal. The high temperatures during the day brought the grapes to perfect maturity, and the acidity levels were preserved by the cool temperatures during the night.  Ripening was more even across varieties than was the case in 2003.

At the time of harvesting, the whites were showing good aromatic character and the reds deep colour and ripe tannins. The bans de vendange were issued earlier than normal, beginning with Muscadet on 2 September and followed by Anjou-Saumur on 7 September and Touraine on 12 September. The Central vineyards kicked off with Reuilly on 13 September and continued through to finish at Menetou-Salon on the 27 September. Picking was carried out under ideal weather conditions without the threat of rain. This meant that the winemakers could take their time and harvest each parcel at maximum maturity.

"A text book vintage", says Didier Dagueneau in Pouilly-Fumé. "The wines have good acid-alcohol balance and body." The only blip in the proceedings is over-ripeness. Some wines risk being unbalanced if the producers have harvested highly concentrated grapes without enough acidity. However, there is great potential for quality wines. At first tasting, both whites and reds are rich and powerful with elegant aromas.


Alsace
The Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d'Alsace (CIVA), the governing body of France's north-eastern wine region, reports that the 2005 wines are "packed full of character". The wine council added that the Crémant d'Alsace will be fresh and fruity, and the Gewurztraminer will be very aromatic, while the Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Muscat are all very well-balanced and fruit-driven. However, the Rieslings in 2005 will be more varied, depending on location, with some instances of arrested maturity in areas with lighter soils.

The 'Indian summer' in October encouraged considerable noble rot (botrytis), providing ideal conditions for Alsace's famed late-harvest Vendanges Tardives and Selections de Grains Nobles wines.

Overall, production is expected to reach around 1.2m hectolitres, down 3% on 2004, comprising 270,000 hectolitres of AOC Crémant d'Alsace and 950,000 hectolitres of the still wines, AOC Alsace and AOC Alsace Grand Cru. In a bid to optimise quality and respond to difficult market conditions, CIVA has decided to place limits on production of both AOC Alsace and AOC Alsace Grand Cru.