Reports from wine industry associations in the Rhône, Provence and Languedoc suggest that 2006 has produced a high-quality vintage across all three regions. Stuart Todd continues just-drinks' 2006 harvest round-up with a look at France's most southerly wine-producing areas.

Rhône

Trade body Inter-Rhône says the first tastings from the 2006 crop point to an "exceptional vintage" and one of "unparalleled colour and structure", borne out by laboratory analysis.

The Colour Intensity (CI) index is 12.60, an increase of 10% on average on 2005, itself a very colourful vintage. Preliminary testing in some cases revealed CIs as high as 20 to 25. Even at a CI of 15, Inter-Rhône notes, wines already have a dark red colour.

The tannic structure, Total Polyphenol Index (TPI) of the 2006 wines is also 10% higher than in 2005, a year which produced very structured Côtes du Rhône. With a TPI well above the average, the 2006 is set to be an excellent vintage for reserve wines.        

In the northern growing areas, the Crus des Côtes du Rhône are "remarkable". The grapes have matured very well and are exceptionally rich in sugar. The white wines are very aromatic, while the reds have a deep and intense colour and are well concentrated.

In southern areas, variable summer weather produced different degrees of concentration and generally good balance. There is a freshness about the whites - with aromas of exotic and citrus fruit - which develop a good deal of fullness and roundness on the palate. The rosés have frank and lively colours and strong aromas while the reds, always very aromatic, have an intense colour.

Southern Rhône Valley producer, Perrin et Fils, says that excellent weather over a period of ten days in early-October allowed the Mourvèdre to achieve "a perfect ripeness which is not true in every vintage due to the late ripening of this grape".
Perrin also says that mid-summer type conditions in late-September before harvesting helped the Grenache grapes to reach "perfect" maturity.

With fermentations recently finished, Inter-Rhône concludes that "one can already detect a very harmonious balance in Côtes du Rhône as a whole".

As for the size of the harvest, Inter-Rhône has yet to post its own figures but those from the Ministry of Agriculture indicate a moderate increase in volumes on 2005, an average year in quantity terms, largely due to limits placed on yields. In both of the Rhône Valley's main producing départements, Vaucluse and Rhône, global volumes are expected to show a rise of 8% on last year but are more or less in keeping with the 2001-2005 average.

Provence

The regional trade body of Provence wines, the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence  (CIVP), notes that the 2006 harvest is "of a very high quality and probably one of the best vintages of the past decade." Volumes are expected to be close to the average of the past three years.

Growers had little in the way of poor weather to contend with, and the hot, dry summer conditions - sufficiently windy to prevent diseases from developing on the vine - ensured excellent maturity in the grapes.

The first pickings got underway on 16 August in the Hyères area for the Côtes de Provence and in the four "precocious zones" the Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence. Harvesting began around 10 September for the Coteaux Varois en Provence. Heavy rainfall in mid-September interrupted harvesting briefly in some areas but in the hours that followed the Mistral wind had dried out the vegetation.

Didier Fritz, manager of the Château de Berne estate, located in the Var department, which produces AOC reds, whites and rosés, confirmed that the 2006 vintage holds a lot of promise. "Harvesting and vinification went well and the first indications are that is that the wines will be of a very good quality," Fritz says.

Fritz has high hopes that the rosés will be on a par with those of 2004 which he says are arguably the best the estate has ever produced. "Pale and aromatic are two characteristics consumers look for more and more in rosés and they are unlikely to be disappointed with our 2006 selection in this respect."

The very dry conditions, typical of the past three years, has produced grapes in excellent condition, the only drawback of the dry weather being its impact on the quantity of the harvest, Fritz adds.

Languedoc Roussillon

In contrast to last year, when harvesting was disrupted by thunderstorms and torrential rain in September, the 2006 crop was picked largely in optimal climatic conditions. This has resulted in a relatively precocious vintage featuring remarkably healthy grapes which have matured well, says the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc (CIVL), one of the four Languedoc-Roussillon trade bodies which make up the recently-formed Fédération Inter Sud de France.

The CIVL highlights an ideal meteorological pattern - a long, hard winter with abundant rainfall followed by hot and very dry weather, with ripening taking place from early-July, coinciding with a heatwave.

Strong northerly winds, accompanied by very cool nights helped the development of the aromatic aspect of the grapes, while thunderstorms around mid-August brought some welcome moisture at the right moment, allowing the grapes to mature in the best conditions.

The Chardonnays, now the principal vine of the region's crémant, are very fresh and fruity, while the favourable conditions in July and August have resulted in a very good sugar/acid ratio, which is set to produce an excellent vintage for very fruity sparkling wines. Syrah and Grenache reds are respectively "aromatic" and "colourful".

It is tempting to compare the current crop with the 2001 and 2003 vintages but water reserves built up in the winter have ensured an even better balance, the CIVL adds. In quantity terms, the Languedoc AOCs are expected to be down slightly on last year.

"2006 will be a good vintage," says Christophe Jammes, who heads up the CIVL's economic department. "In general, we don't have any worries on the quality side. Our problems lie in better managing the supply side of things in order to ensure that the quantities put on to the market for each category of wine - from the top end of the range to the vins de table - correspond more or less to what it can absorb," he adds.