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If you can't stand the heat... A 2003 Burgundy Retrospective

by Guy Ruston (Managing Director Asia Pacific)

A guy told me one time, "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner."
- Heat (1995)

“No Burgundian will forget the summer of 2003. Trains melted. Streams dried up. Wine producers moved their beds into the cool of their cellars in search of sleep, or took off early in their annual search for sea breezes in the expectation of a grape harvest that might take place as early as the first week of September.” (Jancis Robinson)

Burgundy’s 2003 harvest actually began in earnest on 14th of August. Following pretty much two weeks solid of 40C+ temperatures, with many estatesfinding their grapes rapidly turning into raisins, winemakers had two choices: take your chances and pick now or roll the dice and wait. This dynamic was the ultimate game of chance. With sugar levels already high and acidity low (roughly 20% down from the norm on the Chardonnay) - not to mention a devastating spring frost in April which had already lent the grapes that survived thick skins and large pips - the ripeness of the tannins was also a huge concern. Some late rains at the end of August provided welcome respite and a pay off for those who waited. That said, with yields - give or take - halved, 2003 will go down as a vintage of extremes.

“He knew the risks, he didn't have to be there. It rains... you get wet.”

The aspect of the vineyard, the orientation of the rows, the level of clay content in the soils; these small factors determined big outcomes in this vintage. Therefore this is not a year one can make generalizations about, as has often been the case with ’03. The heat was most definitely on. Forced by mother nature to stick or twist, some winemakers gambled and it didn’t pay off whilst for others it did. Some were dealt a dud hand long before harvest began while others, blessed with the right kind of terroir, held all the aces and thrived. As such I find vintages like 2003 fascinating in their heterogeneity. Top-to-bottom ‘vintage of a lifetime’ years such as 2005 are of course what we all love but rarely are things in this world so easily compartmentalized into good/bad, black/white. Thankfully with wine the proof is in the drinking and so a group of us gathered to examine a cross section of wines from ’03 to see who got caught by the heat and who got away.

“I do what I do best: I take scores. You do what you do best: Try to stop guys like me.”

We kick off with a brace of Champagnes. Dom Perignon Rose 2003 represents the third vintage in Dom Perignon’s new era of Rose that began with the 2000 vintage. Gunning for a more Pinot-driven, vinous style, the ’03 is that, but turned up to 11. Bursting with berries and notes of blood orange, it’s a fantastic way to get one’s palate limbered up. The Dom Ruinart Rose 1998 meanwhile is a softer, more rounded beauty. Perfect for drinking now but with bags of energy and a delicious strawberry cream soda finish.

And so to all these ’03, served up in pairs:

Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) “You know, we are sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we've been face to face, if I'm there and I gotta put you away, I won't like it. But I tell you, if it's between you and some poor bastard whose wife you're gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down.”

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) “There is a flip side to that coin. What if you do got me boxed in and I gotta put you down? Cause no matter what, you will not get in my way. We've been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second.”

Flight 1

Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne

Surprisingly steely, with a crisp apple nose. Takes a while to open and display a bit more body. Nice citrus notes but that’s just it; it’s nice, nothing more than that.

Pierre-Yves Colin Morey Batard Montrachet

Is super zesty and limey. Very un-PYCM and un-Batard like. This would trip everyone up if served blind, as one of our crew points out. Again, like the Bonneau du Martray, it is reaching for an extra gear that isn’t there.

Flight 2

Chevillon Nuits St.Georges 1er Cru Vaucrains

Big, bold, brambly and bloody delicious. I try and leave expectations at the door at these kind of tastings but this possess a ripeness and power oft-associated with ’03. Lovely mocha notes on the palate and an exquisite texture that leaves me thinking why we don’t drink more NSG and certainly more Chevillon, one of the great value stars of Burgundy.

Faiveley Clos des Cortons

One for the grandkids methinks as this is a big, tannic behemoth. It’s “Of a style” says Mr.P, very diplomatically. While it’s not my style, there is enough structure and matter in this wine for it to one day shed its cloak of tannins and reveal itself.  

Flight 3

Cathiard Vosne Romanee Aux Malconsorts

In complete contrast this Cathiard is an absolute beauty. So seductive on the nose, with arresting aromas of summer berries. The palate is soft and silky with lovely depth and a spherical-like texture. It definitely leans more towards a ‘fun’ style of Malconsorts rather than an overly-intellectual one but that suits me just fine. Delicious!

Cecile Tremblay Chapelle Chambertin

Ripe with a capital R. Slightly vegetal on the nose with noticeably more stewed fruit rather than the fresh berry notes of the Cathiard but really lovely to drink. This is a domaine very much in the ascendency of late, though this ’03 is dividing opinions at the table. DW wisely reminds us that Cecile was in her late 20s when she made this and this was only her second vintage. Given the challenge even the most experienced and wily of winemakers faced in ’03, what Cecile has produced here is highly impressive in that context.

Flight 4

Dujac Clos de la Roche

Phwoar! Sweet, sweet barnyard deliciousness here. Really stunning. I do love Dujac and this is an absolute belter. Japanese strawberries and a hint of white pepper on the nose lead on to a generous and sappy palate. Rich and full but in no way over-bearing or lacking in balance. Just a down right delicious and hedonistic wine. Bravo!

Rene Engel Grands Echezeaux

A little VA on this one but I really like it. Again, like the Dujac and Cathiard, there is some sun-kissed fun to this. Lacks the framework and depth of the Dujac, perhaps displaying a little more of the vintage rather than the late, great Philippe Engel’s inimitable style but proves there are many sides to these 2003s.

Flight 5

Anne Gros Richebourg

Quite plummy and a little stewed on the nose. The heat of ’03 is really showing here. Spiced berries and some toasty oak notes come through with some air; there is an opulence and grandness to this Anne Gros, however. In a different context I suspect there is enough complexity and swagger to this Richebourg to blow most wines away.   

Meo Camuzet Richebourg

Wowzers! Not a million miles away from the ‘01 we tasted a few months ago. The Meo leans much more towards the fresh-summer-strawberry camp, rather than the darker, scorched berry notes of some of the other wines in this lineup. Exotic and hedonistic but there is a real elegance and refinement to this Meo. This pair personify both the challenge of 2003 to the winemaker and the challenge of 2003 to the consumer. Two sides of coin indeed.

Flight 6

Roumier Bonnes Mares

I’ve taken to watching people’s faces as much as listening to their words when participating in these sort of tastings. Much like a poker player has his ‘tell’, the involuntary smile or wide, misty eyed reaction of a wine lover when sampling a bottle such as this, speaks a thousand words. A chiseled and muscular Bonnes Mares, with a beguiling array of aromas, this is a hugely impressive effort from M. Roumier. Layers of spicy berries, rose petal and just a hint of lightly toasted mocha are wrapped in silky, though still taut, tannins. I would love to revisit this in a few years time, as would my companions tonight.   

DRC Romanee St.Vivant

A big, sweet and stylish RSV. If the Tremblay is ripe with a capital R then this is fun with a capital F. There is a warmth and generosity to this RSV that wraps itself around the explosive candied fruit. Wonderful length with a discernable freshness on the end. It lacks a little of the structure and composure of the Roumier and I suspect it won’t live half as long but does that matter? This is an RSV for the here and now.

I guess we need a conclusion to all this. 2003 is a mixed vintage. There are some absolutely classic wines, if of a certain style, meanwhile there are some more forgettable efforts. At the top end one feels that the vintage asserts itself more over the terroir or winemaker’s style than vice versa. I’m no winemaker but I feel that the more successful wines in this vintage have simply played the hand they have been dealt, rather than trying to fashion a wine that is impossible to make in a year like ’03. For all the wonderful and homogenous vintages Burgundy has given us for reds or whites (sometimes reds AND whites) I really appreciate, as a consumer, that we have outliers such as ’03 too. Tasted vertically, or horiztonally or in a mixed crowd of wines, these ‘03s will provide wine lovers with so much to discuss and enjoy. Which is surely the point of it all.

My sincerest thanks to R, our generous maestro, for another exceptional evening of wines and banter. We all took on the heat tonight and won! 

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