THIS SUMMER EUROPE SWELTERED in record-breaking heat. Dangerous bush fires devastated parts of southern France while England recorded its hottest day ever on August 10, the mercury topping the 38-degree-Celsius mark. So how has the temperature affected Europe's vineyards? In southern France, which accounts for 25 per cent of the nation's wine production, there has been almost no rain since spring. With only the winter rains to survive on, the vines have struggled. Grapes have ripened too quickly, resulting in low tannins, high alcohol and low acidity. Paris-based expert Philippe Carrant says: 'These factors will certainly provide a challenge to wine-makers, whose skill in vinification and maturation will be the key to good wine production.' Further north in Burgundy, where ripeness is an annual battle, the harvest started on August 19, five days earlier than usual. Again producers are battling unusually low levels of acidity, which traditional wine-makers rely on to prolong wines' ageing ability. It could safely be argued that the 2003 red Burgundies will be made in a New World style - high alcohol with good depth and concentration that will evolve far more quickly than typical Burgundies. Neil Donnan, owner of Bergerac's rising star Chateau Masburel, says comparisons with 1893, the last great vintage of the 19th century, are common. He is concerned about the lack of acidity but hastens to add that, for the first time, those in charge of the Appellation Controlee system have authorised the addition of acid to this year's wines. This must be regarded as a long overdue signal that the authorities are prepared to relax the stubborn rules of French wine-making. According to the more famous Bordelais, opinions about the 2003 vintage differ. Paul Pontallier of first-growth Chateau Margaux (pictured) reckons it will be 'very good', with the grapes having achieved extraordinary maturity. The boss of second-growth Cos d'Estournel in St Estephe, Jean-Guillaume Prats, is more cautious, predicting a very 'technical year'; yet another reference to the potential for unbalanced wines if the fruit is not handled correctly. I asked Donnan for his summary of the vintage from the region that really counts - Bordeaux. 'It could well be a great vintage, but it will help a lot to know the producer and rely on a previous track record to have full confidence in the quality. Eighteen ninety-three wines from the great chateaux are still drinking well today but 1961 wine (another classic vintage) from 'Chateau Leplonk' will be well past its sell-by date.' It is the vineyards in latitudes located at the furthest boundaries for wine-making that have arguably benefited the most from the hot summer. Exceptional levels of ripe fruit abound to create perfect balance, especially from old vines whose deep roots have had access to water in the drought. You cannot go much further north in Europe than Britain so I spoke to Thomas Shaw, managing director of the country's largest winery, Three Choirs in Gloucestershire. 'We're picking the 16 varieties we grow at least three weeks ahead of normal years. There's excellent ripeness and balanced acidity. The whites and sparkling wines will be terrific, while the pinot noir reds will be first rate.' He added that in the 26-year history of the winery, 2003 will be the best.