Bordeaux 2003 at Ten Years
I have done more than my share of academic examinations in the past. So many, in fact, that they all now blend into one huge, amorphous, examination memory. The setting is always the same; a draughty school or university sports hall, the gym equipment tidied away and replaced with regimented rows of desks and chairs. An uneasy silence usually hangs in the air, broken only by the shuffling of papers, the scribbling of pencils and the occasional long, drawn-out and desperate sigh. And although there was never any illicit sharing of information (how could you even think such a thing!), you might on occasion unintentionally catch the attention of your neighbour, and in one furtive glance each of you would know that you had a comrade in despair. No words would be uttered; a roll of the eyes and a subtle shake of the head was all that was required to indicate that you, too, were suffering in a similar manner, and that you understood their pain.
Only a few months ago I relived this experience once again. Alright, the setting wasn’t a chilly sports hall but a rather swish tasting room, and the pencils have long been replaced by laptops and tablets, but the long sighs of exasperation, the eye-rolling and the long, soundless, pleading stares were definitely there.
It was March 2013, and it was time to revisit the Bordeaux 2003 vintage.
A Brief Recap
Although every vintage is more complex than mere soundbites can communicate, if we were to choose one word to sum up the 2003 growing season it would be heatwave. June and July were warm enough, but August saw the temperatures reach new and unprecedented highs; more than 40ºC was not uncommon. In combination with several weeks of drought, the effect of this torrent of heat was to dramatically lower acidities and to roast the skins of the berries to a hard carapace. The harvest was the earliest in living memory (although, as they will tell you at both Château Margaux and Château d’Yquem, their records indicate that the 1893 harvest was earlier) and the wines were set to be rich in tannin and low in acidity. Permission was granted to acidify the wines if desired, previously unheard of in Bordeaux, although many winemakers claimed it was not necessary as the acidities seemed to rise naturally during the fermentations. Such comments were naturally met with a healthy degree of scepticism in some quarters.
A decade has now passed and intermittently, over the years, the alarm bell has been sounded for this vintage. “They’re over the hill – time to drink up!” is the typical call. Statements such as these, as well as one or two chance encounters with unexpectedly mature bottles, prompted me to take a look at those wines in my cellar a couple of years ago, pulling them slightly earlier than I usually would. What I found in my rather limited tasting (I didn’t exactly wade in with a wide range of purchases – who would in such a weird vintage?) in 2011 was that the 2003 vintage seemed to have something of a split personality; the majority of the wines were aging nicely, tasting very youthful, but some did seem overly mature. I concluded – although the sample size was small – that the best wines had been made on the more moisture-retentive soils, while the wines from the better drained, gravelly terroirs were possibly in trouble.