While the Champagne harvest is officially due to begin on August 29, the precocity of vines means that for the first-time ever, each grower will be free to begin picking on the basis of the maturity of the grape.

The common view is that the 2003 crop will be small in quantity due to severe spring frosts with a yield of 5,000 to 6,000 kilos/hectare compared to the normal level of 11,000 to 12,000/hectare. The price of grapes per kilo is expected to rise from €4.10 in 2002 to €4.25.

The sector also risks a scarcity of grape-picking labour given the limited amount of work on offer due to the small crop.

There is also the problem of vines not maturing at the same time as a result of last winter's harsh weather Growers are worried this will mean having to hire picking staff a second time and outside the normal harvesting season.

The prospect of supply shortages for the major Champagne producers are still unlikely given the quality stocks that have been built up since 1998. However, smaller producers say the low-volume crop could put a brake on their commercial development.