In what many believe to be the most unusual harvest season in the Northern Hemisphere in memory, the skills of the winemakers will be tested to the full to combat some stifling heat. Just-drinks brings you the first of this year’s investigations into the 2003 crop, with reports from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne.

Like most other major appellations in France the harvest in Bordeaux started unusually early after a very hot, dry summer. Temperatures across the appellation in August were more than 6 degrees centigrade above average at 26 degrees and rainfall was significantly down in August and September compared with the 2002 harvest with 36 and 32mm falling against 79 and 64mm, according to the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB).

While there are hopes for high quality Cabernet Sauvignon, there are fears that some grapes, especially in the northern Medoc, may have been harvested before full phenolic ripeness was achieved. This has happened because seeing the high potential alcohol already reached by mid-August some producers chose to pick while reasonable acidity levels could be achieved.

In Saint Emilion, most estates finished picking by September 20, bringing in a small crop of ripe Merlot grapes with relatively low acidity. The few producers who waited until later to harvest benefited from the rain that fell in the week beginning September 15 which increased the yield, pitifully low in some cases, and also resulted in a surge in acidity levels.

In the Medoc, Merlot was also generally picked ripe and early and there is the same problem in reaching a balance between high alcohol levels, phenolic ripeness and acidity. Cabernet Sauvignon in the Medoc looks to be the highlight of the vintage. It was fully ripe in much of the region and achieved good phenolic ripeness too while retaining reasonable acidity levels. Once again, those who waited to pick their Cabernet, achieved an extra degree of phenolic ripeness.

The hot dry weather has hit yields and brought forward the harvest in Burgundy. Some domains started picking on August 13 in the Côte d'Or where temperatures in the first two weeks of the month soared to over 40 degrees centigrade. The previous earliest harvest date ever recorded in Burgundy was August 24 in 1893. As a result of the sunshine, sugar levels are very high, mostly between 12.5 and 14% for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but balancing acidity is generally low and as elsewhere in France the foreshortened growing season has resulted in problems with phenolic maturity.

President of negociant Louis Jadot, Pierre-Henry Gagey said: "In spite of rather erratic weather throughout the year, the vines have turned out to be quite exceptional. The summer in France was unbelievably warm, and these conditions, coupled with strong storms, hail and frost in some areas in April, have resulted in a very unusual harvest. Volumes we are picking are low, in Beaujolais area we expect they will be 30-40% down, in Côte d'Or they will amount to about half the usual quantities.

"The high temperatures and sunshine has caused some damage to the grapes," says Gagey, "but have also had the benefit of concentrating the juices. Some of the grape skins have been slightly withered with a high and early sugar content but, unfortunately, low phenolic maturity and low acidity.

They started picking at Chateau de Meursault on August 27 and finished on September 3, according to cellarmaster Jean-Claude Mitanchey. "The quantity of grapes is around half that of previous years. The grapes are healthy, very ripe, but some bunches from the south facing slopes have suffered sunburn, while others show withered berries."

Because of the drought, Chardonnay on the very stony soils has produced as little as 20 hectolitres per hectare, while vines on deeper soils which are cooler and nearer the valley floor have yielded around 40-45 hl / ha.

Yields for Pinot Noir vary between 20 and 35 hl/ha.

The Champagne harvest had the earliest start since records began. In the Côte des Bar village of Bligny it began on August 18, two days earlier than the previous record which has stood since 1822. The official start date for Champagne's most southerly vineyards in the Aube department was August 21, but after the unusually hot weather with temperatures reaching 40 degrees centigrade in the day and remaining around 30 degrees centigrade at night over a three week period, vignerons in Bligny were given permission to begin picking earlier. August 25 was the official start date for the rest of the appellation.

An earlier than usual harvest was already expected after mild weather triggered premature flowering in early June. More unusually hot weather in August speeded things up however. The heat and almost complete lack of rain has also hit yields, already severely depleted by the ravages of frost in April.

Although the frost particularly affected the more advanced Chardonnay vineyards, yields are lower than expected even in the Côte des Bar, where mainly Pinot Noir is planted, as a result of the intense heat and lack of rain. At the start of August a potential yield of 9,000 kilos per hectare was estimated in this area but by the time picking began this figure had been revised to between 6,000 and 6,500 kg/ha. Laurent Gillet, head of the giant Alliance co-operative said: "A total lack of rainfall and consistent sun has resulted in the grapes exposed to the sun being scorched and to an extent dried out."

The harvest looks promising in terms of quality but much will depend on whether grapes were gathered quickly enough and winemaking decisions. While sugar ripeness and potential alcohol are high with some parcels picked at 12.5 deg and there have been no problems with rot, there are worries about low levels of acidity, particularly in the Côte des Bar region.

Head winemaker at Moët & Chandon Georges Blanck's main worries were, "limiting the risk of spontaneous fermentation (a problem because of the high temperatures during the harvest) and the acidity balance." He sees it as a difficult vintage to handle and believes "winemaking decisions will account for big differences in the quality of the resulting wine".