By Sybille de La Hamaide
BORDEAUX, France (Reuters) - French wine producers said they were expecting a small but high-quality 2013 vintage after violent storms and the coldest spring in more than 25 years afflicted vineyards.
Output was expected to fall to some of the lowest levels in two decades in many parts of the world's largest wine-producing country, they said, as the harvest started in the south.
But dry and warm summer weather that helped ripen the grapes should keep up the quality, barring any more problems with the weather, they added.
"Everything is in place, producers are optimistic," Jean-Philippe Gervais, technical director of the Burgundy Wine Board, told Reuters.
Raging storms and hail destroyed up to 90 percent of the vines in parts of the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions this summer, while cool and damp conditions across the country in June hampered grape growth.
This prompted the agriculture ministry to cut its estimate for this year's wine output on Monday.
France is now expected to produce 44.5 million hectoliters (hl) of wine in 2013 - the equivalent of nearly 6 billion 75-centilitre (cl) bottles - above last year's weather-hit harvest of 41.4 million hl but well below average.
Prices should rise in consequence but only modestly as producers feared losing clients.
"In 1991, we lost part of the harvest of white (grapes). Prices rose and that made us lose some of our markets. The lesson has been learned," said Olivier Bernard, head of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, which promotes nearly 140 of the region's top producers.
MORE AND BETTER CHAMPAGNE
Champagne lovers were due to have a better year, producers said. "This year's harvest is looking very good and much better than in 2012," said Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, executive chairman of Taittinger champagne, one of the last remaining major family-owned brands.
He expected a 30-50 percent rise in output on last year, which was particularly bad in the north.
Further south in the Beaujolais region, Frederic Laveur, who promotes wines from the Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages areas, said a late-June flowering had led to smaller bunches of grapes and, therefore, smaller quantities of juice.
"To compensate it will ripen faster, easier, and the juice will be more concentrated," he said.
Overall, grape-picking will start two to three weeks later than normal because of the slow development of the fruit, said producers. Red grape picking was not expected to start until early October in the Bordeaux region, they added.
But, weather allowing, there was still time for good quality grapes to develop. "There is a great potential for red wines' quality but like in tennis matches, it is the last set that determines the winner," said Paul Pontallier, director of the prestigious Chateau Margaux label.
(Additional reporting by Catherine Lagrange in Lyon, Claude Canellas,; Gus Trompiz and Astrid Wendlandt in Paris; Editing by Ingrid Melander/Mark Heinrich)