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French Grapes Love Heat 

Sweltering summer should yield swell wine

In case you're out of touch with your TV, radio or newspaper, France is rather heated these days, and not just emotionally at the US. An extended heat wave has the normally cool French sweating, and the grapes in their most prized vineyards maturing unusually early. Temperatures have soared into the upper 90s and low 100s for days on end, dousing the fruit with constant warmth, making harvest knock a bit early this year.

And apparently this has French grape growers grinning.

In mid August, French wineries in some areas like Bordeaux and Beaujolais began harvesting their bulging, ripe grapes -- the earliest since 1893. Some regions in the eastern reaches of French wine country, like Burgundy's Chablis, are happily declaring this harvest the earliest on record. Normally, harvest begins in mid to late September, but the weather has pushed up the "use by" date on the fruit.

Grapes need a long stint of warm, dry weather in order for the sugar and acidity to mellow. Heat transforms an otherwise tart, acidic grape into a plump, sweet grape, and that's what vineyard managers aim for each year. So when Mother Nature delivers the goods minus the angst, life is fabulous. An early harvest also helps avoid possible later weather-related catastrophes in the vineyards. If there is rain during a harvest, the grapes can become watery, diluting flavor otherwise present in the fruit. Or cold could shrivel the fruit on the vine. Or humidity could grow mold.

Not that this harvest is all giggles. One problem grape growers can experience is over-ripeness. Think of a banana as it ages on your countertop. There is one day in a week where the banana is perfectly ripe for your taste. One more day, and it tastes different, too ripe. French grape growers had to rush back from their annual August vacations to taste and test the fruit to make sure it wasn't already too ripe. And once they picked the grapes, they rushed them to the winemaking process before the semi-squashed grapes began fermenting in the hot sun.

So when aging quality is the name of the game, like in France, high temperature is their best friend. The extended heat drives up the sugar content in the grape, creating higher alcohol in the wine. Besides providing a quicker buzz, this trait allows for longer aging of wine.

It would be nice to run out and buy some of this greatly touted grape juice right now, but we won't be able to taste this harvest's gems for another two to four years. Mark it down on your calendar. Or better yet, maybe we'll see some proof in this year's Beaujolais Nouveau. Beaujolais Nouveau is a fruity drink-now red wine, and, released the third Thursday of November, is the first wine from each year's harvest. Maybe we can judge for ourselves.

Recommended Wines

Mumm Cuvee Napa Blanc de Noirs This silky sparkling wine from California is perfect for every night of the week. Yummy strawberry and cherry lull your tongue into happiness. $18. 1/2

Victoria Street 2001 Merlot Like eating a cherry dipped in bittersweet chocolate. Coy, this wine denies you its flavors at first, then opens up with some coaxing. $14.

Icardi 2000 Cortese Cortese is a white grape from the Piedmont region of Italy. This one is dry, simple and clean with a refreshingly citrus aftertaste. Deliciously floral. $13.

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