Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Dog-Days: 2003 in Europe

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Posted by Burke Morton On June - 18 - 2010

The dog-days of summer are relieving themselves on my front door. I hurried into the house just now, trying to elude the heat, and started thinking about the 2003 vintage in Europe. I don't want to sound like I think fondly of it--no one should, given the humanitarian toll exacted upon Europe, France in particular. Although many fine, idiosyncratic wines emerged that year, it was a tough vintage overall, as Europe hadn't experience that sort of heat in anyone's memory. More than a week of over 100ºF across a mostly non-air condidtioned continent...this wasn't good for anyone.

The wines of this vintage are difficult to read in a long-term/short-term sense, but the conventional wisdom is that the best made wines from '03 are still not worth keeping for an extended period (20-30 years--or more), because the acid levels never had much of a chance to build up, as grapes ripened quickly and were only minimally exposed to the cool temperatures of autumn that encourage acid development. Pundits got hold of this and pronounced that these wines would have unbelievably short lives, sounding more like a doctor telling a cancer patient how long he has to live. However, conventional wisdom regarding deleterious weather effects on wine is, at best, shoddy, and the generalized prognostication is thrown off a bit by those who dealt well the vintage conditions. However, there were a few European producers whose are always reliable that didn't get the vintage right, and what with all the heat and dryness coming out of nowhere, they're hardly to be blamed.

The 2003 vintage was relatively successful in Spain, the Rhône Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, Puglia, and Sicily--all places that are used to hot summers. The main worries of '03 for me were Austria, middle-to-northern France (especially Burgundy, Loire, Champagne, and Alsace), and Germany. And to narrow it down further, two varieties concerned me: the Pinot family and Riesling, which don't generally perform well in oppressive conditions without some extraordinary and prescient vineyard management. Because of the heat, the 2003 vintage produced wines that were larger-than-life with ridiculously thick textures and dense fruit profiles. German Rieslings were unbelievably full-bodied, like Barry Bonds between 1998 and perjuring himself. Burgundy seemed to suffer the most as far as reliability (I know, I know, those of you who follow Burgundy will say that this true in any case): there were far too many jam-on-toast, indistinguishable-from-one-another Red Burgundies from 2003 to permit much plauditory locution. These jam-on-toast wines were actually not bad, but if wine from one Cru tastes exactly like those from another Cru, then one of the principal and most compelling reasons for buying Burgundy is gone. However, the good Burgundies--red or white--possessed both some measure of subtlety and an impertinence that reminded you that they were from a normally cool climate.

Flash forward to now, and the well-made '03 Rieslings from Alsace, Austria, and Germany presently seem to have more acidity than they did through most of 2008. I have had many within the past year that have a surprisingly fresh acidity, such that I now wonder how much longer they'll make it. The 1973 vintage in Germany produced wines that few thought would live long lives, but here they are, still full of vividness and youthful vigor. The weather wasn't so extreme in 1973 as it was in 2003, but we might see a similar evolution (however, I'm not suggesting that you test this out, because if the wines are good now, there is no reason not to drink them). The well-made '03 Burgundies have also proven resilient. The '03 Bourgognes (entry-level wines) that I bought are still a bold and assertive smash, and even continue to have that saucy character I mentioned. This element usually mellows over the course of five years or so in the lower-end wines, but here we are after six years in the bottle and they're still motoring.

Why am I writing about this today? I see many 2003s still in the marketplace. I wonder why that is? I went to four different wine shops today, doing a little survey, and there are many wines from the south of France (mostly Gigondas and some upper-end Côtes-du-Rhônes, but also a few Châteauneuf-du-Papes), the Loire Valley (mostly Vouvray and Savennières, and some sweet wines, but a couple of Sancerres from the cousins Cotat, which are unusually long-lived...for Sancerre), Alsace, Burgundy, and Germany.

Do you still have '03s left in your cellar? Are you seeing them on shelves? I'd snap them up, particularly if you have some idea of quality, because the wines from this vintage may be extreme, but if they were well-made, then I don't doubt they'll be good.

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