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“If you can’t stand the heat...” - 2003 Bordeaux 10 Years On

by Michael Schuster (Guest Blogger)

2003 was an extremely atypical year not just in Bordeaux, but across most of Europe. You may recall the scorching temperatures – a good fortnight of 30+C in the UK and pushing 45 in certain parts of the Med. For winegrowing regions, this causes serious problems...

The heat was relentless through June, July and August leading to red grapes that were small, with a high proportion of skin to juice, and which were high in sugar and low in acidity. In many soils (particularly the lighter, gravely /sandy ones) tannins that were less fully ripe than the grapes’ sugar and acid levels implied. Water was not a significant issue because water reserves were adequate; but the cooler, more water retentive clay and limestone soils appear to have allowed their grapes to ripen more evenly and harmoniously. Of the grape varieties Merlot suffered more from the heat than the Cabernets. Cabernet Sauvignon had longer to mature, under perfect conditions, and ripened more completely and evenly in the northern part of the Médoc especially - but even in the Cabernets phenolic ripeness varied enormously up and down the Left Bank.

Torrid conditions meant that sugar ripeness was easy to achieve but lowish acidity was inevitable as a result of the heat; adding acid, not something the Bordelais are used to, often made for a bright, edgy finish. Another consequence was an abundance of grippy tannin because the phenolics in the grapes simply didn’t have sufficient time to ripen fully in the extreme conditions.

So expectations were muted and, in many cases, the wines were simply disappointing. Fruit ripeness was on occasion counteracted by a greenness – the result of a lack of true phenolic ripeness – other wines' tannins were rough and acidities low, making for short finishes. Overall, one of the overriding characteristics was a lack of complexity which, at the price, one might be prepared to expect.

However for pure, in-the-glass drinking pleasure, many of these wines take some beating. In the main they are plush, lush, ripe, generous and drinking incredibly well now. On top of that there are some real stars – primarily Left Bank, Pauillac and St Estephe wines – which will drink beautifully for the next 10 years at least. Interestingly, value often appears at the £350-£600 per case level, with wines like Langoa Barton and Domaine de Chevailer massively overreaching their supposedly ‘humble’ categorisation.

-Michael Schuster 26th March, 2013


Not a Great Vintage

  • Because, for the most part, the wines lack aromatic complexity and scope.
  • But there is a handful of great wines: Latour, Margaux, Lafite, Ausone.
  • None of the 2003s could hold a candle to their expression of the decade’s great vintages: 2005, 2009, 2010. And probably not even to 2008, 2001, 2004 for, whilst fundamentally ‘sweeter’, they are less well defined, aromatically satisfying and complete than these three fine, middleweight  ‘classic’ years. The 2003s are better, mostly, than 2002, 2007 and many 2006’s (though the best of the latter are also very good.)

Atypical Clarets

  • Because of their unusually, deliciously ripe and juicy, if somewhat ‘loose’ core fruit.
  • Because so many Left Bank wines, even at the top of the hierarchy, are so ready to drink at just ten years.
  • Because in many wines the sweet bouquets and soft fruit often appear way ahead of the still tannic frames in their readiness to drink – a sort of maturation time lag discrepancy.

The Best are Drinkers’ Wines in the Most Positive Sense

  • Sweet, mature bouquets; ripe, succulent fruit; fleshy, juicy pleasure..... What’s not to like? Not wines of great stature, but plenty of pleasure in the glass.
  • I didn’t find levels of alcohol an issue, even if the indicated ABV on most labels was likely lower than what was actually in the wine!

The Left Bank / Right Bank Divide

  • Almost counterintuitively, the vast majority of currently attractive, accessible and drinkable wines come from the Left Bank, where Cabernet Sauvignon ripened particularly completely and evenly in the northern Médoc.
  • On the Right Bank full phenolic ripeness in the Merlot was much more difficult to achieve, and this was exacerbated by the tendency here to greater extraction and more aggressive oak regimes. You taste it. If a gentler tannin texture is important for you, (it is for me) many of the Right Bank wines are still pretty tough.

Overall Sweet Spot

  • Left Bank, the northern Médoc, St Julien and, especially, Pauillac.

[Join the conversation! Tweet us your thoughts on the 2003 vintage on @bordeauxindex.]

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