The 2003 vintage was certainly one that hit the headlines. This was Europe’s heatwave year, characterised by an oven-hot August and one of the earliest harvests on record. With such a warm vintage, it would be easy to imagine that fantastic wines would result, but the wise know that there is more to making great wine than hot weather. Such a vintage has the potential to create problems in the vineyard and winery, and the wines require careful assessment. The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting, held recently in London (and also in other European cities, with future meetings in Asia and North America scheduled) is an annual opportunity to taste the Bordeaux vintage of two years previous. This offers a great advantage over the en primeur tastings, as the wines on show are the finished product from bottle, not a well chosen and inevitably biased barrel sample representing a portion of the final blend, still potentially smothered in toasty oak. This tasting offers the best indication so far of the successes (and failures) of the vintage in question.
Bordeaux 2003 started well, following on from a cool, wet winter which allowed water reserves in the soils to build up after a dry harvest in 2002, so much so that measurements of local water tables were normal at the beginning of the 2003 season. The first signs that this vintage might be out of the ordinary came in late March, when some warm, dry weather prompted vigorous growth and early budbreak, at least a week ahead of schedule. The lack of rain kept yields down, to the disappointment of the vignerons, who were hoping for a more prodigious yield than 2002. Such an early start also meant the vines were at risk from frost (another potential cause of reduced yield), and when temperatures fell just below freezing in April there was some damage reported, although fortunately it was quite limited. Less than ideal conditions in a cool, occasionally stormy May did not help flowering one bit, yet another factor in depressing the yield, which by now were inevitably reduced, and the hot summer that followed only exacerbated this.
It was the sweltering summer months of June and July, followed by an August roasting, that really set the Bordeaux 2003 vintage apart. Temperatures in the latter month regularly exceeded 40ºC, an unprecedented event in the region. The heatwave, which saw three weeks where no rain touched the soils of Bordeaux, placed a significant hardship on the vines, and despite the presence of deep water many vines shut down photosynthesis in response to the stress. Such heat also has a direct effect on the berries, roasting and hardening the skins; the 1990 and 1986 vintages saw a similar burst of heat during the harvest, and at least one of those is still troubled by a very firm, tannic structure today. Acidity, a desirable characteristic that is depleted by such tumultuously hot weather, was another concern.