2003 Vintage Overview

2003 Vintage Overview


This was the freak vintage of a lifetime – or at least we must hope that global warming does not turn this into the norm. Prior to the 21st century there was normally one vintage per century harvested in August – 1976, 1893 and 1719, for example. It was really hard to predict what the 2003 wines might turn into, but so far our worst fears have not been realised and the outlook is more positive than expected for both colours.

The weather After near-drought conditions in 2002, the water-table filled up with copious rain in autumn and early winter. However, February and March were extremely dry and warm, causing the vineyard to start its cycle early. As a result, an unexpected cold snap in early April caused significant frost damage. It snowed on Thursday April 10th and the temperature dropped unexpectedly to -5°C in the Côte de Beaune vineyards in the early morning of Friday 11th. As in 1998, it was mostly the white-wine vineyards which were affected, hitting cooler sites all the way from the Mâconnais to Chablis.

Although the red vineyards were hardly affected, these suffered instead from noctuelles – caterpillars which come out at night and eat the new shoots. They exist every year, but normally the caterpillars arrive before the buds do and damage is minimal. Not so in 2003, where it was significant in some vineyards.

The all-important wind on Palm Sunday was from the south- east – a wind never before seen in Burgundy. It combined the dry character of an easterly with the heat from the south: a sign of the hot, dry summer to follow. Late April and most of May were cooler, windier and with some rain – slightly slowing down the cycle which nonetheless was still well ahead of normal by the time flowering finished in a warm week at the end of May, indicating a likely harvest date of September 10th even in the Côte de Nuits. There were a few storms in the Mâconnais though, causing severe wind damage (by breaking off the young shoots) in some vineyards on Monday May 19th.

June seemed to get hotter and hotter and, some storms aside, drier and drier. Records were broken on Sunday June 22nd and the average daily temperature was way above the norm for the month. July began cooler and wetter, repeating the pattern of recent years, but soon reverted to the characteristic hot, dry weather of 2003. A few storms at the end of the month brought some welcome rain – though not enough to stave off the hosepipe ban which came into force on July 29th.

August however began hotter than ever. The all-time top temperatures were not quite matched but never before has there been so long a stretch of heat of this intensity. Every day from August 4th to 13th topped 40°C (well over 100°F). Reports suggested that the heat was responsible for several thousand more deaths than usual across France, and cold-rooms were being appropriated as reserve morgues.

As the month started, it seemed likely that harvest would begin during the first week in September, or just possibly August 30th. However Chandon de Briailles brought in its white Corton on Friday August 15th because it was already at 14.5 per cent potential alcohol. There was nobody to ask for permission – the authorities were on holiday. However, on their return to work on Monday 18th, they immediately declared the Ban de Vendanges for virtually all wines for the following day. This was little more than 80 days after flowering, an extraordinarily short period for ripening to take place.

Meanwhile the really hot weather had finished on Wednesday 13th, but it continued warm and dry until a slight break in the weather on Thursday August 28th with the new moon. From this point on, morning dew returned and more normal conditions all round. But by this time only the habitual late- pickers of Gevrey-Chambertin had not yet started.

The early harvest caused many practical problems. Growers and employees were still on holiday; their wineries were not prepared; picking teams and the general paraphernalia of harvest were booked for early September and could not easily be assembled at short notice. Tanks might be full of the previous harvest awaiting bottling. Furthermore, it was too hot to pick after lunch and grapes were coming in to the wineries warm, with a risk of immediate fermentation if they were not cooled down.

The decision on when to start was difficult. Some grapes were ripe (but not uniform – some plots were still well short of ripeness) and needed picking as they were already showing the same acidity as the finished wine in bottle would normally have. Though sugars might already be high, the stems, skins and pips might not be ripe: in general, the pips were and the stems were not, and decisions could best be made according to the skins and taste.

Some preferred to hold off, arguing that acidity could hardly drop further, a little rain would do good rather than harm, it was better to pick in cooler weather, and for true phenolic ripeness it was necessary to get close to the traditional 100 days after flowering.

Making the wine Those who picked early and listened to the counsel of their oenologists added significant amounts of tartaric acid. The option to retain acidity by blocking the malolactic fermentation of the whites was not really possible, because there was no malic acid in the grapes.

Growers were aghast at the theoretical balance of the red juice, with low acidity and high pH, and again many were tempted to add acidity. Most opted for short and light extraction during the fermentation, avoiding punching down – though a couple of producers, Nicolas Potel and David Croix at Camille Giroud– went against this trend, figuring that the tannins were the hallmark of the year so they might as well make the most of them.

However, the most important decision to make was when to bottle, especially for the white wines. Some producers panicked and brought the bottling forward to May or June. I have the feeling that this approach succeeded only in trapping the imbalance of the year in the bottle. Those who normally bottle late, after 18 months, expected to advance the date but as the élevage wore on they noticed that the wines were settling down, depositing their most ungainly aspects in the bottom of the barrels and even beginning to show a trace of vineyard character which had been absent at the start. Those who were paying attention ended up putting back their bottling to the usual date.

First impressions Red-wine makers were generally more optimistic than white, though nobody really knew what to expect. Those who picked early and those who picked late were both sure they had made the right decision. Those who acidified and those who did not were equally sure that they had taken the right path. Early analyses suggested very low acidity, but in fact there was often more than appeared to be the case.

There was a tendency for red wines throughout France to taste like Gigondas, and the predominant fruit notes for most red burgundy were elderberry or mulberry. Yves Confuron of Domaine de Courcel considers that the taste profile of the 2003 reds resembles the flesh and skin of an overripe peach.

The wines in bottle I hardly dared try any white wines for quite a while, but they really seemed to have settled down in much better fashion than we imagined possible, and I have had several good experiences over the last ten years. They will certainly always be weighty wines with a distinctive sunshine opulence, but perhaps not as hot and heavy as we expected. Maybe there will be some great bottles which will last 50-plus years and astonish us in the same way that some 1947 whites have done.

The reds were clearly marked by the vintage but they got over the first hurdle by not falling apart in the first years after bottling, as so many 1983s did. Slowly but reasonably surely, the vineyard characteristics of a given wine began to become discernible behind the hot notes. Nothing much has changed over the last ten years, with few if any wines having ‘fallen over’. I still find myself not selecting them if there are other options but that shows a lack of flexibility on my part. I recommend regular health checks for this vintage, but it does seem possible that some wines will last for the long haul.


Tasting Notes

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Click to read tasting notes on wines from 2003

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