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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 October, 2003, 13:17 GMT 14:17 UK
French grape harvest withers on the vine
Harvesting grapes
Growers hope quality will compensate for quantity
This year's French wine harvest could be the lowest in a decade, after a summer of storms and heatwaves, an official producers' agency has forecast.

And while some have predicted that quality should be sufficiently strong that high prices will compensate for lost revenues, the Onivins association warned that nothing was guaranteed.

"The fragrance may occasionally leave something to be desired," Onivins said in a statement.

The prediction is another blow to an industry already troubled by foreign competition.

Over the past decade, once-mighty French producers have lost their global pre-eminence to more market-savvy Australian rivals, and prices for wines worldwide have been falling for years.

Less is more, usually

France's strategy in recent years has been to focus on the high end of the market, where prices - especially for the highest quality grands crus - have been rising sharply.

This year had been looking like a low-volume harvest ever since extreme heat hit France in July, but producers were always confident that quality could be good, or even exceptional.

Onivins' latest estimates put the 2003 harvest at a total of 47.5 million hectolitres, well down on the 56.9 million averaged over the previous five years.

And Onivins director Jean-Luc Dairien said that quality was far from assured, since the secret of producing great wine from this year's shrivelled grapes lay in the selection and blending.

Usually, hot weather reduces the overall harvest tonnage, but produces fine wine by killing parasites and raising the grapes' sugar - and therefore alcohol - content.

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