LYON, France, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Bad weather that hit French vineyards last winter has more than halved this year's output of Beaujolais wine and is likely to raise prices of the traditionally cheap wine that kicks off the new vintage season worldwide.
Two weeks after the start of the grape harvest, due to last until early October, winemakers in the region famous for its "Beaujolais Nouveau", peg their losses at around 50 percent of production.
"In the memory of winemakers, this is unheard of," said Jean Bourjade, managing director of Inter-Beaujolais, which groups the regions' producers.
The Beaujolais vineyards are expected to produce just over 400,000 hectolitres this year, against 852,512 last year when it produced what was considered a good vintage.
Adverse weather troubles began last February with severe frosts that damaged old vines. Hailstorms from April to August then destroyed some vineyards, and rain has slowed the development of the remaining plants.
Wine production is expected to fall in all major producing regions in mainland France this season with the average fall pegged at 8.7 percent, farm body FranceAgriMer said in its latest estimates, released in mid-July.
"We want to alert the market right away to this situation," Bourjade said. "We still have stocks of 2011 but wholesalers and suppliers who would only like 2012 may not be supplied."
The new Beaujolais traditionally hits the bars and shelves of France on the third Thursday of November, accompanied by a massive marketing campaign to celebrate the new vintage.
In 2010, 35 million bottles of the wine were sent to market, of which 15.5 million were exported. The remainder were sold to bars, stores and restaurants in France, where the biggest consuming region is Paris with 1.3 million bottles.
As a consolation for Beaujolais lovers, this year's smaller crop should produce higher quality wines. "Weather conditions meant that we harvest this year small grapes, which will give very concentrated flavours," Bourjade said.
The smaller harvest could lead to a rise of around 10 percent in price for Beaujolais wines, but Bourjade noted that with an average price of 4 euros ($5.2) per bottle the rise would not be significant.
Winemakers' revenues are likely to fall sharply, however.
"This is a very difficult year," said Bourlade. "What business can withstand a drop in turnover of 50 percent?"
Growers with reserves from previous vintages should get by, he added, but the year could prove fatal for weaker growers. ($1 = 0.7715 euros) (Reporting by Catherine Lagrange, additional reporting and writing by Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris; Editing by Catherine Evans)