Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Bordeaux 2003 Part I: The Right Bank

BORDEAUX 2003 – A Taste Odyssey

September 2004

Background

In 2003 Bordeaux had its driest, hottest vintage since records began. No surprise, then, if the reds have unprecedentedly high levels of tannin. The Cabernet-Sauvignon grape performed best, so most of the top wines are from the Médoc, where that variety dominates. The Merlot, the principal grape on the Right Bank (Pomerol, Saint-Emilion, and satellites) did less well on the whole and quite a few wines there have more tannin than is good for them. This did not stop Pétrus, the leading Pomerol, from making a great wine. This was partly because of their unique subsoil of moist clay, in which the Merlot thrived; and partly because of a crucial decision on the duration of the fermentation. In the northern Graves the First Growth Haut-Brion bucked the trend by making a majestic wine with an untypically high proportion of Merlot.

Early in 2004 Christian Moueix, who runs Pétrus, came to London to lead an unforgettable vertical tasting of Pétrus (see previous OenoFile). In the process he gave us a thumbnail sketch of the vintage. Great heat and complete drought were the main features, he said: at harvest time you could get sunburnt early in the morning. Many grapes were roasted on the vine and tannin levels were spectacularly high. Quite a few wines were clumsy and unbalanced while others were splendid. There was an enormous amount of variation. Those planning to come to Bordeaux in April to taste the 2003s, he said (not without relish), had a gruelling week ahead of them, as tasting hundreds of wines with so heavy a load of tannin would be exhausting.

Taking him at his word, I decided that April was far too early and resolved to wait an extra couple of months before making my way to Bordeaux. This would allow some of the dust – or sediment – to settle. When eventually I did arrive in the region, at the end of June, more than a few château owners assured me that I had been wise to wait.

2003 is what I call a “purple-lip” vintage. Nearly all of the 200 or so wines I tasted over six days are so full of extract, tannin and pigment that – were it not for their often fabulous aromas and flavours – you might well have been sipping ink mixed with the strongest espresso coffee. Within a mere hour or so your teeth are blue and your lips purple. But in spite of the powerful tannins in most wines a surprising number are extremely well balanced. It was only on the Right Bank that I harboured any real doubts: some of the samples there, while full of dense fruit, had the kind of tannins that may never soften. The 1975 vintage often sprang to mind – a year in which many wines dried out as they aged, simply because they lacked enough fruit to survive the tannins. As we shall see below, however, there are some exceptional wines in those parts too.

Almost every aspect of Bordeaux viniculture has improved in recent decades. In one area only has there been regression: yields. This is mostly because the vines are healthier and more prolific than in the past. Each square metre of vineyard can only give a finite amount of flavour. Each increase in yield means a corresponding dilution of that flavour. The clarets made in the first half of the 20 th century had a very special kind of concentration – an unforced density allied to great subtlety and profundity – that is rarely seen today. Because the yields were low.

But there is a tide in the affairs of wine-makers and in the recent past a number of leading châteaux – notably the First Growths and super-seconds – have set about reversing this trend. Much progress has already been made at the top level. And the drought of 2003 may well speed this development simply by bringing home to producers, by a force majeure object lesson, the crucial importance of low yields.

The “purple lip vintage” – tasting samples in the Médoc.

I visited 28 properties in the course of a week, tasting a couple of hundred wines, no more. Most were of Classed Growth or equivalent status, which means that many humbler, but often superbly-run, properties were missed out. This article does not purport to be a definitive judgment of the 2003 clarets, just an informal account of my adventures and impressions. The tasting notes below relate to the samples I tasted, many of which are provisional blends. The finished wines will not exist until fully “assembled”. This will happen shortly before bottling next year. Tasting infant wines, especially ferociously tannic ones like these, is a bit like trying to judge a half-finished sculpture even as the sculptor chisels away at it. And doing so without being able to walk all around the work, through 360 degrees, to see it “in the round”.

A wine’s colour often tells an experienced taster a great deal. But colours in 2003 are uniformly deep and lustrous. I shall only comment on this aspect, then, when the wine in question departs greatly from the norm. It is worth noting that, while many of the very best wines are impressively dark, more than a few are paler than average. This is often a sign that the wine-maker has gone easy on extraction in order to conserve as much as possible of the wine’s freshness and elegance.

The grape can brilliantly mimic a vast range of fruits, flowers, minerals, spices, and even meats. The way in which it does so varies greatly from one vintage to another. In 2003 the extreme heat resulted in a narrower register than normal. I make no apology, therefore, if there are many references to a very small range of such items as black cherries, damsons, chocolate, and coffee. Their scents and flavours are typical of “Saharan” years. I simply describe what is in the glass.

As to longevity: anybody who has tasted a great claret at its peak knows that it is an unforgettable experience. The wine opens up like the proverbial peacock’s tail. This process can take 20-50 years and cannot be hurried. It is this kind of maturity that I allude to in my notes. But this does not mean that many of the wines won’t be utterly delicious when much younger. And that’s when most of them will be drunk up.

I have deliberately chosen an informal way of marking the wines: between one and five stars. The latter rating is accorded to those wines that seemed to me to be the very greatest. But even one star is not to be sneezed at, since it signifies that the wine is a serious effort even if it has undeniable defects. No star at all means that the wine was either “dumb” or disappointing on the day.

The Right Bank

My marathon began in Saint-Emilion, where samples of the very best wines, the Premiers Grands Crus Classés (PGCCs), were assembled for me at Château Canon. The labels were carefully hidden from view.

2003 CHATEAU CANON *** (75% Merlot, 25% Cabernet-Franc)

Canon has an elegant, flowery nose of great refinement and only the slightest hint of oak (a sign that the wood has been used with restraint). The understated aroma, balanced and controlled, is a meld of bilberry, raspberry, and blackcurrant. The flavour is fat and fullish – sweet berries mingled with prunes and chocolate – and there is a subtle touch of cinnamon. The gentle grittiness on the finish derives from the tannins which, though powerful, are not really hard. The sweet, ripe fruit is intense enough to override them. The long and complex finish has lift. This should be left alone for 8-9 years and drunk around 2020-35.

2003 CHATEAU BELAIR *** (80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet-Franc)

The colour might be the lightest in the tasting but does not lack intensity, while the aroma is pure, vital, and full of fruit. It has both lift and elegance. The dominant scents are of plum, cranberry, and carnation (different from most of the others). The wine tastes of plum, prune and cherry, with good acidity giving not only freshness but definition. Though only medium-full there is no hollowness: balance is the keynote. So fresh is it, indeed, that I think of Chambolle-Musigny in Burgundy. The acidity on the finish is like that of wild cherries (griottes).

This is an example of very intelligent wine-making in the drought conditions of 2003. The wine could have been made bigger and weightier but proprietor Pascal Delbeck plumped for elegance and vivacity. Owners of bottles of this vintage will be grateful to him around 2010-28.

2003 CHATEAU MAGDELAINE *** (90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet-Franc)

The first of four very dark wines, Magdelaine has a concentrated, weighty nose with masses of thrust backed up by ample tannin and oak (the latter confers spiciness). Black cherry and damson jam dominate, but I also find prune, coffee, and cinnamon. Full and chewy in the mouth, the wine is very fat and ample tannins give a bitter edge to the very fruity aftertaste. The bitterness persists but so does the fruitiness, and there is lots of substance. This wine’s heyday will be around 2020-40.

2003 CHATEAU L’ANGELUS *** (50% Merlot, 47% Cabernet-Franc, 3% Cabernet-Sauvignon)

One of the blackest, Angélus has a full, oaky nose of great vigour that suggests ripe blackberry, crème de framboise, tar, smoke, and boot polish (the latter due to the interaction between charred oak and superripe grapes). The aroma expands to include truffle and chocolate.

There is a plethora of fruit on the palate, with the Cabernet and Merlot each giving recognizably different components. The flavour is a blend of elderberry, damson, black cherry, and coffee. The finish is long, tannic and of Rhôneish power. The finale is just a little dry, which one hopes is a passing phase. If all goes well, the harsher tannins will fall out as sediment forms in the bottle and the sensuous fruit will come into its own. This will take time. Drink around 2014-34.

2003 CLOS FOURTET *** (80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet-Franc)

Clos Fourtet smells of jam but fresh jam. The rich aroma of black cherry, blackcurrant, and violet has a stony aspect and some minerality. Peony arrives on a second wave of smells. The flavour is jammy, too, being thick and sweet, and has force and sweep. As with most other PGCCs, it delivers a bitterly tannic finish but there is real freshness as well. This suggests that harmony will arrive in the future. Still brashly youthful, the wine shows little elegance now but this will doubtless change. Lock away for a decade; drink 2014-34.

2003 CHATEAU LA GAFFELIERE *** (65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet-Franc, 5% Cabernet-Sauvignon)

The round, sweet aroma of luscious black cherries is all of a piece with lots of vigour. Subsidiary scents include smoke, chocolate, cinnamon, and graphite. The flavour is mouth-filling, with a reprise of black cherry and the addition of sweet ripe damson. This is bracingly vital (peremptory almost!) with enough fruit to get the upper hand, eventually, over the tannins, some of which are a bit fierce. But even as you register the harsh finish you also notice the fresh fruitiness without which the wine would never attain harmony. A good 15 years will pass before it softens; 20 or more of growing mellowness should follow.

Owner Comte Malet Roquefort agreed with me that his ’03 might resemble the ’52 but preferred himself to compare it with the 1964. Only time will tell.

A mellow old vintage of Figeac, the Right Bank Château with the Left Bank grape-mix(roughly one-third each of Merlot and the two Cabernets).

2003 CHATEAU FIGEAC ***(*) (35% Cabernet-Franc, 35% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 30% Merlot)

Faintly less dark than the previous four, Figeac has an intensely fruity, very Merlot nose of cherries, crème de framboise, and red paprika. And this is only the first wave of aromas! The next brings carnation and peony. The aroma grows steadily more opulent, reflecting a thorough extraction of ripe, healthy fruit. Together with Belair, Figeac exhibits the greatest degree of freshness so far (it is illuminating that the two are lighter in colour than the rest).

The palate receives a great big mouthful of lusciously ripe fruit – cherry and raspberry with lurking chocolate – and there is pronounced fatness of texture. As with the others, the tannins confer noticeable bitterness but in parallel with a lot of freshness and ripe-grape sweetness. This is one of the best-balanced wines in the tasting. Figeac easily last 40-50 years in good vintages and I see no reason why this should be an exception.

Of the rest, I had a mild preference on the day for BEAUSEJOUR-LANGAROSSE over BEAUSEJOUR-BECOT because of its greater amplitude and density of fruit. The Bécot – which is usually very well made – seems heavy and over-extracted but this might be a passing phase. The same could well be true of Trottevieille, which is now made by highly dedicated people. I know that the owners are especially pleased with their ’03 but on this occasion it seemed heavy and graceless. This and many other Right Bank wines cries out to be re-tasted in a few months’ time.

From Canon’s mouth (or doorway, at least) to a tasting of some 40 Saint-Emilion Grands Crus Classés (GCCs) at the Maison du Vin in the town of Saint-Emilion. What emerged clearly here was that a majority of proprietors, like their PGCC confrères, had worked like Trojans to make the best possible wines in conditions which, in this part of Bordeaux at least, were far from ideal. Here again colours are splendidly rich and aromas have great intensity, much tannin. But a fair number are over-extracted. The best wines are those vinified with a light touch with the aim of bringing forth freshness and elegance.

I am usually in my element when tasting young claret. But I have to confess that I felt a certain uneasiness when tasting many of the 2003 wines on the Right Bank. A lot had much fruit but a great number also had extremely high levels of harsh and bitter tannins. As to the GCCs, only a minority have terroir quite as noble as that of the PGCCs so the drought conditions in 2003 were even more onerous for them. Over the decades I have noticed that most GCCs show real individuality in really good years but that the differences get ironed out in less propitious ones. Only a minority showed clear-cut Château character in 2003.

 

Troplong-Mondot is regularly picked out as one of the best GCCs and David Peppercorn avers that it is “better sited” than its PGCC neighbour Château Trottevieille and has the potential to be a PGCC itself. Another star is Canon La Gaffèliere. A decade or so ago I used to find this wine over-oaked in a cosmetic way but their use of wood has been transformed and the wine is now splendid in most vintages.

2003 CHATEAU CANON LA GAFFELIERE ***

The nose is elegant and intense, broad and voluminous, smelling like ripe damson, dried fig, and violets. There is a distinct impression of clay soil. This is a very smooth, focused, concentrated aroma, both fruity and flowery. If the nose is dense so is the flavour, and the Cabernet and Merlot components fuse together well. Liquorice and elderberry show on the palate and fresh acidity enlivens the long aftertaste. The tannins give rigour but not rigor mortis. As they recede, the wine will attain harmony around 2012-28.

An old label of Troplong-Mondot, whose 1975 is one of the more successful. Round and full, with ample fruit, it could still evolve for at least 15 years.

2003 CHATEAU TROPLONG MONDOT ***

Real nobility shows on the voluminous aroma of cherry, truffle, smoke, and bilberry. So do harmony and depth. Lightly toasted oak imparts a delicate hint of cedar. The flavour, which has the weight of a PGCC, is an amalgam of prunes in port, plum jam, and ripe damsons. The property’s oldest vines (some around 90) confer a special kind of stateliness and subtlety. The tannins on the long, vinous finish make their presence felt, being of the emphatic structured kind. But they are not so severe as to stop the wine growing softer and softer over the next dozen years or so. Troplong Mondot is usually a vin de garde (the ’90, while delicious, will go on for decades) and this ’03 should stay at its apogee 2015-35 or even beyond.

2003 CHATEAU LARMANDE **(*)

A little paler than average, Larmande has an incisive nose of black fruits and cinnamon and shows plenty of freshness and bounce. The black fruit character is also present in the flavour, which is luscious and lively. The aftertaste is very fresh and the tannins are milder than in most of the other GCCs (even if they do grow firmer in the glass). My guess is that the wine-maker kept the vatting short so as not to extract too much of the harsher elements. This is a clean-cut appetising wine that finishes on a note of Victoria plums and damsons. Drink over 2012-24.

I feel a certain affection for Larmande having once had a memorable vertical tasting of many vintages with former owner M. Mèneret. One of several reasons for its habitual excellence is a plot of century-old vines.

Other good wines in the tasting include CORBIN **(*), which has a truffliness which may derive from crasse de fer in the soil and whose tannins are of the more harmonious sort; CLOS L’ORATOIRE **(*), richly fruity if very tannic, with black fruit scents dovetailing with graphite; FONROQUE **, elegant, flowery, and noticeably smooth; L’AROSEE **, spicy, aromatic, well put together; CLOS DES JACOBINS **, mineral, dense, with a solid if somewhat stern structure; GRAND MAYNE **, with hints of crushed rock, smoke, and molasses on the long finish; LA SERRE, a bit hard but with enough fruit to make a good partner to barbeques around 2012-20; COUVENT DES JACOBINS **, sternly tannic but a workmanlike effort with good minerality; and LA CLOTTE **, with a solid nucleus of rich, old-Merlot fruit on the nuanced aftertaste.

As with the First Growths of the Médoc, you must make the pilgrimage to Château Cheval Blanc itself in order to taste the wine. Wild horses could not keep me away! Like a meal at a three-star Michelin restaurant, it really is worth a special journey.

2003 CHATEAU CHEVAL BLANC **** (56% Cabernet-Franc, 44% Merlot)

Many ’03 Right Bank wines are darker than this (depth of colour is easy to obtain in Bordeaux if you accord top priority to it) but none possesses the very special Cheval Blanc lustre and inner glow – the pigmental nuances found only in the very greatest wines. There is a regal quality to the exceptionally pure aroma of black fruits and raspberry, with a promise of velvety texture and great finesse (I think fleetingly of Le Musigny). A chocolaty aspect can be noted.

It tastes of plum, damson, and cherry and the acidity is of the kind found in a fully ripe Victoria plum. Smoothness and elegance are the keynotes and the flavour and aftertaste are long and full of subtlety. There is a real thrill to tasting this wine, even if it is an excellent rather than great Cheval Blanc. They could easily have vatted the wine longer to extract more fruit but that would have given more – and harsher – tannins. By choosing to favour freshness and fruit they have made a finer wine than would have otherwise been the case. Easily the best of the Saint-Emilions tasted by me (I did not sample Ausone) this will be a wonderfully poised wine from around 2015 and some 20 years on.

My one brief incursion into Pomerol is to the offices of J.-P. Moueix in Libourne. It is a heartening experience, for I find a range of really stunning Right Bank 2003s. As at Cheval Blanc, you see that excellence can be attained even under difficult circumstances.

2003 CHATEAU DE CARLES, Fronsac***

The refined aroma is ripe and very smooth, giving an impression of contained power. I think of crème de mure and molasses. Long and smooth on the palate, with an almost syrupy texture, it has excellent ripe tannins with no bitterness. A slight rasp of wood brings a touch of rigour. A well-balanced wine elegant enough to pass for a Pomerol. Drink 2009-15.

2003 CHATEAU MAZARIS, Canon-Fronsac***

The scent of black fruits and violets is smooth but incisive, with a flowery aspect. The flavour is concentrated and vinous, and the aftertaste broadens to include blackberry and damson. The structure is excellent, the tannins being reminiscent of perfect espresso coffee. Drink around 2012-22. Very good indeed.

2003 CHATEAU LE PRIEURE, Saint-Emilion GCC ***

The aroma of black fruit jams, cinnamon, red rose, and carnation jumps out of the glass. The flavour is dense and rich and its smoky black fruitiness is bolstered by tannins that have grip but lack bitterness. This is a well-balanced wine to enjoy over 2012-25.

2003 CHATEAU LA GRAVE ***

The nose of typically luscious Pomerol fruit – notably superripe plums – makes you think of the freshest of home-made jams. The flavour is of good but not maximum concentration and there is a pruny density to the chocolaty finish, which is clovey. The tannins, though assertive, are of the harmonious kind. I would expect this to drink best around 2012-22.

2003 CHATEAU LATOUR, Pomerol ***(*)

This, the darkest so far, has a thrilling, intense scent of ripe black fruits mingled with violets and purple roses. There is a feeling of great weight and power that is completely unforced – the hallmark of disciplined wine-making. This is confirmed by a strikingly precise, focused flavour which mimics a whole succession of ripe autumn berries. The refined aftertaste displays the sweetness of ripe bilberries and blackcurrants. This should be splendid with roast veal around 2012-25.

2003 CHATEAU VRAYE CROIX DE GAY, Pomerol ****

The nose, both flowery and fruity, is pure and dynamic, with sweet black cherry (stone intact) dominant, with a second wave of scents that includes blackcurrant and cinnamon. This is a very rounded aroma. If a pool were filled with this you’d want to jump in!

The flavour is velvety and rich, black fruits and spices, and very harmonious. It somehow succeeds in being both opulent and restrained. Chocolate, prune, and truffle mingle with sweet blackberry and cherry. This is very long. A superb wine to savour 2012-30.

This property used to give full, obvious, somewhat shapeless wines, always plump and accessible but never very refined. In this vintage one can see what it is capable of when properly vinified.

2003 CHATEAU LA FLEUR PETRUS, Pomerol ****

This has a splendid, distinctly Pomerol perfume of plums, cherries, and damsons with a rich inner core of ripe, focused fruit. Velvety and enticing, it is sensuous in a disciplined way. The sweetness is of perfectly mature grapes.

The flavour of black cherry and truffle is smooth and fat, with hints of chocolate and blackberry too. The aftertaste is harmonious and lasts long, with depth and many nuances. The finish is firm but resolutely fruity. Eight years to open, then 15 or more of pleasurable drinking.

2003 CHATEAU HOSANNA, Pomerol ***

This wine’s sumptuous raspberry perfume reminds me fleetingly of Musigny (as did the Cheval-Blanc) while the velvety flavour is full of harmony without a scrap of astringency. It tastes of cherry and raspberry and is highly refined. It is, though, just a little short on the palate and not quite as concentrated as its peers. This should not be taken to mean that it is anything other than a delectable wine that will give immense pleasure around 2010-20.

2003 CHATEAU TROTANOY, Pomerol ****

The big aroma is warm, round, and enveloping, but nonetheless restrained and firmly classic. The chief smell is of black cherries complete with stones, but there is also a distinct scent of red rose petals. Carnation and dried fig show too. This smell tells you that the grapes were ripe enough to eat.

The flavour is round and full of vigour and if the main taste is of damsons the many subsidiary ones include ripe plums and chocolate. That so big a wine is very closed at present should not surprise us. But there is considerable freshness on the harmonious aftertaste and, once again, the tannins are ripe. A wine to treat like buried treasure for 8-9 years and to relish, at suitable intervals, over the next 12 or more.

2003 CHATEAU PETRUS, Pomerol *****

The “robe” is splendid and the opulent aroma, immensely concentrated and very harmonious, is full of profundity. One is struck by the exceptional intensity of the Merlot fruit, which is of maximum ripeness. Chocolaty in its density, the nose presents a myriad sub-scents that include black cherry, truffle, cigarbox, blackcurrant. This is the smell of a First Growth.

It is equally splendid on the palate, with its meld of ripe autumn berries, cherries, plums, and cinnamon. Very long, it grows apace in the glass, becoming more and more structured. This is an extremely refined Pétrus, not as big as the 2000 or the ’98, but of great complexity. A wine of beautiful poise, beautifully vinified. It would be a pity to broach this in less than 14 years of so; it should then remain on a peak for 20-25 more.

If the ’74 Pétrus is a good wine from a difficult vintage, the 2003 reviewed here is an exceptional one.

Edouard, Christian Moueix’s 27-year-old son, explained how it had been possible to fashion such superb wines on the Right Bank in a vintage when many good properties failed to give of their best. Jean-Claude Berrouet, who has made all the Moueix wines for 40 years, Edouard says, has always kept copious notes on the order of battle for each and every one of the two score years in question. Every measure ever taken was carefully recorded by him.

When Berrouet began to grasp the true nature of the 2003 vintage, with its Saharan heat and unceasing drought, he looked through his dossier to try to find a vintage that resembled it to some degree. He finally settled on 1975, a year with not dissimilar traits even if not quite as extreme.

His notes from 1975 showed that in that year, in view of the conditions, he’d reduced the vatting time to only 11 days as compared with the normal three weeks. So in 2003 he decided to vat the wines for a shorter than normal time too – in this case 13 days.”

This allowed him to extract all of the magnificent fruit in the 2003 grapes without leaching out any of the harsher kinds of tannin that were the inevitable by-product of this exceptionally dry and oven-hot vintage. As a result, freshness, elegance, and fruit are in the ascendant. And that is why the 2003s from the house of Moueix are so good in a vintage where so many other Right Bank producers came up with disappointing wines.

It is worth recalling that the hot, tannic 1975 vintage had initially been greeted as an exceptional one and quite a few critics predicted many decades of steady improvement. As things turned out, all too many wines proved to have unduly harsh, unbalanced tannins and the fruit did not survive longer ageing. Only a few 1975s are unmistakeably great today (La Mission Haut-Brion in the Graves is one of them). In Pomerol, the ’75 Pétrus and Trotanoy from Moueix tower like mountain peaks. Thanks to Berrouet’s shorter vatting.

 

© Frank Ward 2004

Continued : Bordeaux 2003 Part II : The Left Bank

Bordeaux 2003 Part III : Graves – Pessac – Léognan

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