Exceptionally hot weather has brought forward the grape-picking season in a number of French regions.

Last Friday, saw the harvesting of around 10 hectares of Chardonnay in the Ardeche, while at the foot of the Pyrenees, the first Rivesaltes grapes were cut from the vine - around ten days earlier than last year's harvest.

In the sun-baked vineyards of the Rhone Valley where temperatures have consistently reached 40 degrees in the past week or so, the maturity of grapes is also ahead of the normal schedule and picking is likely to start from August 25. Cote de Rhone vineyards are reported to be similarly precocious.

Some would welcome a little rain before picking begins while others are crossing their fingers that the heatwave does not whip up violent storms before the end of the week and spoil the harvest at the end of an excellent growing season.

However, optimism that 2003 will produce an exceptional vintage is tempered in some regions, among them Languedoc-Roussillion, where there are fears that drought conditions risk preventing the full maturity of grapes.

Given the abundance of grapes on the vines, Bordeaux growers are also mulling over whether to go for an early harvest instead of waiting for the traditional deadlines of end of August for some whites and mid-September for reds.