Nitrate concentrations in streamwater of agricultural catchments often exhibit interannual variations, which are supposed to result from land-use changes, as well as seasonal variations mainly explained by the effect of hydrological and biogeochemical cycles. In catchments on impervious bedrock, seasonal variations of nitrate concentrations in streamwater are usually characterized by higher nitrate concentrations in winter than in summer. However, intermediate or inverse cycles with higher concentrations in summer are sometimes observed. An experimental study was carried out to assess the mechanisms that determine the seasonal cycles of streamwater nitrate concentrations in intensive agricultural catchments. Temporal and spatial patterns of groundwater concentrations were investigated in two adjacent catchments located in south-western Brittany (France), characterized by different seasonal variations of streamwater nitrate concentrations. Wells were drilled across the hillslope at depths ranging from 1·5 to 20 m. Dynamics of the water table were monitored and the groundwater nitrate and chloride concentrations were measured weekly over 2 years. Results highlighted that groundwater was partitioned into downslope domains, where denitrification induced lower nitrate concentrations than into mid-slope and upslope domains. For one catchment, high subsurface flow with high nitrate concentrations during high water periods and active denitrification during low water periods explained the higher streamwater nitrate concentrations in winter than in summer. For the other catchment, the high contribution of groundwater with high nitrate concentrations smoothed or inverted this trend. Increasing bromide/chloride ratio and nitrate concentrations with depth argued for an effect of past agricultural pressure on this catchment. The relative contribution of flows in time and correlatively the spatial origin of waters, function of the depth and the location on the hillslope, and their chemical characteristics control seasonal cycles of streamwater nitrate concentrations and can influence their interannual trends. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.