by Sarah Abbott MW

2003 Bordeaux: tales from the strip club

“You don’t go to a strip joint looking for a relationship”, says the young man defending the merits of 2003 at BI’s annual “10 Years on Bordeaux Tasting”. This is becoming the updated image of 2003: a floozy vintage, pneumatic and hot breathed. No extended courtship is necessary to enjoy the charms of these wines: they are ready to roll over and display the full extent of their plump charms if not exactly on the first date, then certainly much sooner than the norm.

It is a defence of sorts. There were certainly a good number of enjoyable, fruity, supple wines on show.

But Bordeaux, of all wines, stakes its reputation, and distinction, on age worthiness. The reason that people have, for centuries, been willing to pay a premium is that they are hungry for the magical aromatic and textural transfiguration of a great wine pent up for decades in a bottle. So fine Bordeaux is a wine for grownups – those who have travelled beyond the fruit wallowing of callow youth. A key characteristic of great Bordeaux is freshness and, as the incomparable Michael Schuster put it in his introduction the to BI tasting, “scent as flavour.”

Indeed, 2012 is currently being commended to us on just this basis, praised by producers as classic on the basis of its fresh acidity and cool, just-about-ripe, fruit. But then Bordeaux seems to be able to have it both ways. Heat and sun are still associated with top quality, whether in reality or perception. Hot sunny years, as 2009 and 2010 showed, are still greeted with excitement and expectation by producers and critics. This deeply rooted reaction is understandable in this marginal climate, in which vines stressing out on a healthy knife-edge are the source of both vintage fascination and frustration. We should not forget how dreary the wines of the cold, grey, wet years can be (yes, 2002, I’m talking about you). So it is not surprising, nor cynical, that 2003 was so highly rated on release, or that it sold well. The old association of “heat and sun equals good vintage” runs deep. Moreover, the youthful density, high alcohol and sweet fruit of these wines blandished many critics En Primeur. Plenty of serious wine buyers across the world have a lot of 2003 Bordeaux still in their cellars. Maybe they intended a stash of floosies, but I suspect not. Prices of many 2003s remain above those of 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2007, and are close to those of 2005.

But collectors with these 2003s are quite probably wondering what to do with them, and if they’re not, they should be. Although 2003 can be grouped with ‘hot vintages’ such as 1982, 1989, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2009, it was an unfamiliar, aberrant season, marked out by truly searing heat. The heat wave began in June, after a warm spring, which had made for an early start to the growing season. The heat continued through July, and intensified into a pitilessly scorching August (you may recall the news at the time of the many tragic deaths, from heatstroke, of the elderly in France). Across Bordeaux temperatures were in the high 30s to the low 40s degrees centigrade. Vine leaf stomata closed to conserve water, meaning arrested photosynthesis, vine metabolism and phenolic development. At its worst, this heat simply shrivelled and scorched grapes off the vine.

The effects were heterogeneous, and not equally impactful. The cold, wet winter of 02/03, and spring rain, had left good water reserves, especially in the more retentive clay rich soils. Merlot on sandy soils was the most vulnerable to heat stress. Cabernet Sauvignon on heavier clay soils was the most robust. The Northern Médoc fared best, and Saint-Estephe had some of the greenest looking vineyards even at the height of the August burn.

Harvest began on 12th August – the earliest for over 100 years. So in that sense at least here is a bona fide “vintage of the century”. Approaches to harvest varied: some estates picked in August, and had to deal with grapes of high sugar, low acidity, and immature phenolics. The best they have could make were pleasant wines in a light, pale style, or risk harsh tannins smothering fragile fruit if they used a heavier hand. Others – in general the top estates – waited, and picked grapes with much riper phenolics from the middle of a fine and relatively cool September.

But even for the best estates this was a technically demanding year. Cooling during vinification was a key issue. Fermentation could be slow and difficult, and the risk of volatile acidity from these high-sugar musts was high. This was not a vintage to buy from producers without the money or expertise to cope, as the subsequent evolution and premature maturity of many modest and mid-level Bordeaux wines proved. The key was to balance extraction and preserve vitality of fruit. Acidification was permitted, and (coyly) used by some. (I don’t blame producers for being reluctant to talking about this, given the habitually tabloid reaction of the wine trade and press.)

London-based brokers Bordeaux Index (somewhat tellingly expanding beyond Bordeaux, and rebranding as “BI”) gave their customers and wine critics an opportunity to taste nearly 70 top 2003 Bordeaux at the end of last month.

Ten years on is a great time to revisit a vintage. You start to see the eventual, adult character of the wine. In good vintages you expect to find all promise: aromas that are just moving past the primary, and the first slinky signs of evolving tannins. In lesser vintages, you find wines with more evolution, and with little more left to reveal.

At ten years old, the most successful by far of 2003 are the wines of the Northern Médoc.

Saint-Estephe was a sweet spot of this tasting. It has long been noted that the deeper clay soils here moderated heat stress in 2003. And there is also something about that wilder Saint-Estephe fruit, and grippier texture, that provides additional vigour and vitality. Montrose (£1445) stood out for its energy and drive. It was full and lively, but not facile. And – oh joy – some mineral scent on a long finish. It had much more vigour and typicity than Cos d’Estournel, which had expressively sweet fruit but slightly attenuated tannin. Cos crossed over to the dark side long ago. Like Vader, there is not much inherent (Saint-Estephe) stuffing left in it. It has become its own impressive but singular creature in pretty much every vintage. But the market seems to like it, and the price for this vintage is relatively high. Calon-Ségur was plump but vigorous, with hearty definition and resistant but ripe tannins. Les Ormes de Pez was a nice example of what 2003 can do quite well. It was honest, juicy, hearty and plump. I liked it because it was recognisably Bordeaux, albeit Bordeaux with a party hat on. £225 and pretty darn good. “Lovely, drinking claret” says right honourable Schuster, and he’s right.

In Pauillac, Latour was the star, although in this vintage the distance between the Grand Vin and Second Wine Les Forts de Latour seemed smaller than usual. Everyone there when I was tasting adored Les Forts, even the well-known critic who thought it was bretty. (Surely not!) It had that interplay between tannin and aromatics – in which the tannins carry the flavour – that is what makes great Bordeaux great, and which is harder than usual to find in 2003. Latour was impressive, dense and confident, even if its usual muscles were turning a little to podge. But Latour is certainly not a wine with a short life ahead. It was my pick of all the first growths and equivalents, of which more below.

Haut-Batailley and Grand Puy Lacoste were gentle, supple and understated wines with just enough freshness. They will drink well now and over the next couple of years. Purists may hanker for a bit more grown-up asperity, but these were friendly yet typical examples of Pauillac. Pontet Canet and both Pichons are examples of a more concentrated, extracted style of 2003, but Pichon Comtesse shone out for its vitality, disciplined ripeness, defined but succulent tannin and aromatic nuance.

Clerc Milon, d’Armailhac, Petit Mouton are high-class floosies. Petit Mouton was a star of the stable – voluminous, seductive, succulent and just delicious now. Mouton itself is in similar but more intense vein, but like many of the other First Growths struggled to wow. Heat is a leveller, and these finest wines of Bordeaux have so much more to lose. I can only assume that their market values are driven by Parker points and investment considerations, because if you are looking to spend eight grand on wine that will blow your mind, you can do better than 2003 Lafite.

In Saint-Julien, the best wines had definition and nuance, albeit in a ripe, forward style. The others were solid, straightforward and sturdy. Saint-Pierre (£400) was an unexpected delight, with lifted fruit, firm but fine tannins and long, focussed, mineral finish. It’s delicious now, but will keep for another 2-3 years. Beychevelle (£700) stood out for its elegant, aromatic style. Léoville-Barton is a huge success in 2003, and showed tamed ripeness, nuanced aromatics and a firm but supple grip with layered textures. It was balanced and lively, and will continue to develop for another 5-7 years. Léoville Poyferré is much more broad and ostensibly ripe, with sweet but dense fruit. Lascases is (to me at least) reassuringly obdurate, with a notably youthful colour and freshness. Its burly tannins and cool, leathery fruit made it the grumpiest of this commune, but I’m fascinated to see how this develops with time. (Yep, on shopping list. I love awkward characters.)

Of all the Northern Médoc communes, it is Margaux whose wines walk the line between delicacy and enervation. The delight of this commune is aromatic nuance, and the levelling heat of 2003 can blur the scented definition that makes Margaux great. Rauzan Ségla (£420) was surprisingly lovely: restrained but aromatic, with notably fine but supporting tannins and a real savoury, floral intensity on the finish. This was quietly serious stuff, with a supple, medium body, freshness and minerality. It’s at a great price for this refinement and quality. Brane Cantenac was another nice example of this understated, mineral style. Lascombes was a big, exuberant furry glob of a wine. You might struggle to recognise it as Bordeaux, let alone Margaux, but at least you’d have a lot of fun trying. Poor old Palmer (which I always adore) seemed dried out and tired by comparison, with very dry tannin and overt but evolved fruit. Château Margaux didn’t show well, especially in the context of its £4,975 price tag.

Saint Emilion was mystifying, and slightly upsetting. What twisted soul spanks the hell out of fruit like that? And then locks it in a rigid oaken prison wherein it cannot breathe? It’s perverse, if not perverted. Some of these wines were steroidal, facile mouthfuls of evolved, worked fruit and bitter oak. Noble exceptions were Figeac, which was severe but refined, and Clos Fourtet, which was firmly, furrily tannic but nicely fragranced. Cheval Blanc had gorgeously wistful, floral fruit but then teetered on the very edge of powdery astringence – you could taste the struggle in it.

Pomerol was generally amenable, and comfy, but quite forward. Clinet (£575) was a star, thanks to a striking brightness and purity so exceptional that at least two of the more cynical members of the press were heard to discuss whether it was entirely what is said on the tin. Petrus was hugely sumptuous and exotically, headily fragranced, with striking aromatic nuance and proper mid-palate concentration and density. There was real tension here, and nuanced texture. It was probably the wine of the tasting, but at £17,000 a case, it bloody well should be.

Graves and Pessac-Léognan were generally friendly and easy, but with a diffuse, louche structure and somewhat vague fruit. They definitely don’t have a long life ahead, and should be drunk on their own uncomplicated terms quite soon. Haut-Bailly (£410) was distinguished by much more focussed aromatics of bright cassis, and supple inky fruit on the finish.

Perhaps it was the wines of 2003 Graves and Pomerol that my more worldly friend had in mind for the strip-club. (Those of Saint Emilion would be sporting gimp masks and black PVC in one of those ‘alternative’ venues I gather are all the rage in Berlin.) The best wines, mostly from the Northern Médoc, deserve and will repay some time and consideration, even if they do drink a little earlier than the norm. The re-evaluation of the overall quality and longevity of this once-hyped vintage is seemly and appropriate, but I suspect some wine-trade snobbery about 2003. I would love to see the results of a blind tasting of top Bordeaux in which 2003 is tasted against other vintages from the 2000s. Anyone up for that?

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