In the second part of just-drinks' annual wine harvest review, Stuart Todd takes us to France, to look at Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley.

Bordeaux

Amid the prevailing gloom on the export front, and the turbulence caused by the implementation of a yield reduction programme to combat swollen stocks, Bordeaux wine federation's (CIVB) president, Christian Delpeuch, was able to deliver some positive news recently in describing the 2005 vintage as being of "exceptional" quality.

Almost perfect meteorological conditions - cool night-time temperatures and plenty of sunshine - resulted in optimal health in both red and white grapes. Since the beginning of June, the vineyards enjoyed beneficial summer weather, which continued throughout the harvesting period.

Tastings of precocious wines at Pomerol and St Emilion have since confirmed hopes of a vintage with considerable potential and, given its modest quantity - the CIVB is forecasting a global volume of 6m hectolitres compared to 6.6m in 2004 - the 2005 vintage appears set to position itself in a sellers' market.

This contrasts sharply with the lesser quality 2004 millesime, produced from a relatively big harvest and which struggled to find buyers on the world market due to inflated price levels.

Weather in the last two weeks of August played a crucial role in developing the taste of the white sauvignon, giving it outstanding aromatics and an excellent balance between maturity, acidity and freshness - all the necessary ingredients for the production of fine, dry white wines. 

As for the reds, the merlots and cots have produced thicker and smaller than average berries while other characteristics are said to be a depth of colour and a remarkable concentration.

However, perhaps the major talking point on the prestigious estates are the sugar levels - viewed as being the highest for many a decade and largely a consequence of prolonged dry weather.

Fourteen point five degrees has been recorded in some merlots (in one case as high as 15.2 degrees) and 13 degrees in cabernets. This is more than a degree higher than one would normally find in these types of grapes.

Meanwhile, the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cabernet Franc, with a later growing cycle, reached full maturity in the clement late summer and producers are predicting very good supple and fruity wines.

The Rhône Valley

Vines in the Rhône this year matured amid typical Mediterranean summer weather, according to trade federation, Inter-Rhône.

The mistral, the strong cold dry wind that blows through the Valley and southern France and down to the sea, was much in evidence and contributed to a significant period of drought. However, the absence of heatwave conditions kept the aromatics and freshness of the vines to a maximum.

The alternation of warm days and cool nights gave rise to very concentrated grapes with firm skins. As a result, maturing took place at a regular pace and without interruption. Although the good weather broke in the first week of September and a wet spell ensued, this did not disrupt harvesting or threaten the grape quality built up throughout the summer.

This year was an average-sized harvest largely due to limits being placed on yields. For example, a yield of 45hl/ha was set for Côtes du Rhône Regionales compared to 52hl/ha the previous year.

The first pickings revealed potentially high sugar levels and depths of colour "never seen before in such homogenous fashion," Inter-Rhône enthuses.

Each of the main grape varietals - Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan - appear to have been at their best and the optimal conditions for maturation means there is a lot of scope to produce wines from a melange of vines.

The first tastings brought superlatives in abundance - "rich, complex, elegant wines with a good deal of subtlety … remarkably harmonious on the palate with concentrated aromas combined with a singular freshness… the melted, silky tannins giving a full-bodied feel." But, says Inter-Rhône, what stands out above all is the degree of sweetness.

While the reds lead the way on quality, it is also a very good vintage for the whites and roses.

Wines singled out for their exceptional quality include Crozes Hermitage, L'Hermitage, the Côte-Rotie and Cromas and one retailer said he already has buyers lined up when they come on to the market in 2007.

Perrin et Fils, who grow and produce wines in southern Rhône Valley terroirs such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vinsobres, Gigondas , Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Côtes du Rhône, say the first wines from the 2005 crop "taste very good, have magnificent colours and supple tannins" and that "an excellent vintage is in prospect."