Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

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.

 

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

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.

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 than 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 my 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.

 

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

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.

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.

 

The Left Bank

 

Médoc I – Margaux

The Merlot, main grape on the Right Bank, is usually the first Bordeaux variety to reach maturity. Once fully ripe it needs to be picked quickly, over the course of a few days, or the fruit become overripe and the quality deteriorates. By contrast, the Cabernet-Sauvignon and Cabernet-Franc ripen at an altogether slower pace and the former, especially, can be enhanced by overripeness. Given that the Bordeaux weather improved quite a bit in the latter part of September (when most Merlot had already been picked) it is not surprising that the Médoc benefited, for the Cabernet-Sauvignon is its chief grape. Some properties actually think their 2003 may be their greatest wine ever, superior even to 2000.

Though Château Margaux itself came up with a fabulous 2003 (see below) the commune of Margaux as a whole did not perform as well as its sister communes Saint-Julien, Pauillac, and Saint-Estèphe. This is partly because weather conditions there were not quite ideal in 2003; but it can also be because fewer of the châteaux consistently give of their best.

Most observers would name Château Palmer the second greatest Margaux after Château Margaux. It certainly comes up to First Growth level in years like ’61 and ’59, despite being a mere Third Growth. The wine-maker there is M. Bouteiller, an unassuming, fresh-faced man with the kind of light blue eyes often found in sailors; the kind of eyes that might scan far horizons – or envision future vintages. He speaks slowly and deliberately, selecting his words as carefully as the bunches of grapes that go into Palmer. “2003 was an untypical vintage, the hottest ever. The Merlot suffered and we didn’t use much in the ’03 Palmer. Some grapes were scorched by the drought and we had to pick in two stages, using only the best fruit. The Cabernet-Sauvignon and Petit-Verdot have thicker skins and performed much better. The grapes were small, with excellent concentration.” Picking of the Merlot began on the 8 th September, the Cabernet-Sauvignon on the 16 th, and the Petit-Verdot on the 20 th.

 

Château Palmer’s exotic black-and-gold
label from the late 1970s.

The makeup of the ’03 Palmer represents a radical departure from the norm. The Merlot, which covers 47% of the vineyard, was relegated to a 20% share while the Cabernet-Sauvignon – also 47% – was boosted to 68%, with the Petit-Verdot doubling to 12%. As at Pétrus, the vatting time was reduced, in this case to 17 days.

2003 CHATEAU PALMER ****

This nearly opaque wine emits a rich noble scent of black cherry, violet, and date (the latter two probably deriving from the Petit-Verdot). At once dense and buoyant, the nose is a controlled maelstrom of swirling aromas with incipient finesse. The château and commune style are both very pronounced.

The flavour is focused and very pure, with masses of blackberry and damson fruit, the aftertaste refined and of great length. Sloe makes its presence felt too and the nuanced finish is fresh and long. Not as weighty as some, but beautifully balanced, this Palmer will live a good 40 years and will outlive many wines that at present might seem weightier.

Next a tasting of several Margaux Classed Growths at Château Rauzan-Ségla – a property that has made enormous progress since it was taken over by the Chanel group in 1994. It is now starting to taste like a Second Growth again.

 

Château Durfort-Viviens – “an expansive
aroma of black and red fruits…
blackberry aftertaste.”

2003 CHATEAU DURFORT VIVENS ***

The expansive aroma of black and red fruits shows typical Cantenac volume and succulence and is very homogeneous. The flavour is fresh and vigorous with generally ripe, partly oaky, tannins which are only slightly on the dry side. The flavour is compact, with good fatness, and the blackberry aftertaste is sustained. A wine for the medium term – 2010-18.

2003 CHATEAU CANTENAC BROWN ***

The nose is big, vinous, and briary with a mineral aspect (one feels there must be iron in the soil) and suggests damson, blackcurrant, peony. A second wave of scents is subtler and more quintessentially Margaux – cherries and flowers. I am greatly taken with this aroma.

The flavour is round and lush, with good acidity, the aftertaste long, expressive, and nuanced. It ends on a note of blackcurrant and truffle. Very well put together. A little sturdier than the preceding wine, it should drink best around 2012-27.

2003 CHATEAU RAUZAN SEGLA ****

You’re immediately struck by the ripe sweetness of this round, harmonious aroma of cherries, raspberries, violets, and peonies. With this degree of glossiness and depth you simply know that it will be viscous and complex on the palate. It is a nose of Second Growth authority.

This is borne out by a lovely nuanced, lushly fruity flavour of cherries and raspberries, with (it seems to me) the Château’s Cantenac plots showing in a fleshiness and fullness balanced by tannic sinew. The oak has been used so deftly that its presence only shows on the finish, which gives a faint rasp of clean woodiness. This is a lovely poised wine that, after some 9 years getting into its stride, should drink beautifully until around 2035.

2003 CHATEAU LASCOMBES

This is the darkest, fattest, weightiest wine to date in the whole trip: a bit of a monster in fact. It reeks of jammy black fruits, soot, smoke, molasses, dried fig, boot polish, melted dark chocolate. I sniff again, perplexed by aromas I usually associate with Australia. This time I note brown sugar and vintage port without the brandy. It smells as if three or four bottles have been crammed into one.

But if much has been crammed in a lot has been left out: freshness, elegance, lift. The flavour is just as overwhelmingly dense and tannic as the nose promises, with an aftertaste like that of the bitterest espresso coffee. I find no Margaux (or even Médoc) character here. This might work with game stews in 20 years’ time.

2003 CHATEAU D’ISSAN ***

Red and purple fruits dominate an aroma that is weighty and emphatic yet also shows typical Cantenac roundness and lusciousness. This is confirmed on the palate, which is viscous and chewy and extremely fresh. The finish is quite long and bolstered by firm ripe tannins. The d’Issan charm is waiting to emerge round about 2012-25 and this vintage may well turn out like the delectable 1985 but with a little more punch.

2003 CHATEAU GISCOURS ***(*)

Made of slightly sterner stuff than the preceding, Giscours has a full, voluminous, ripe nose of mature blackberries, morel mushroom, black cherries with stones, and cinnamon. The latter has a faintly cosmetic aspect that derives from oak that has been toasted a little too much. This is a pity, as the wine is too well constituted to need it.

The wood is less evident on the palate which has real density, with ample cherry and blackberry fruit and a chocolaty finish. This is a wine with a commanding presence, ample substance, and real depth and harmony. The espresso-like tannins are not unduly bitter and the wine should evolve well for a quarter-century or so.

Of the rest, D’ALESME-BECKER * shows its customary lightweight charm and will provide pleasant enough drinking in the second decade of this century; DESMIRAIL ** is both flowery and fruity with some real refinement (there’s a faint touch of sweet almond on the figgy finish) and will outlast d’Alesme-B. by several years; MARQUIS DE TERME * is lushly fruity on the nose and does not lack vigour but is a bit short; DAUZAC (which has made progress of late) has dynamic nose but is a bit hollow on the palate; and DU TERTRE * has a pure, perfumed scent and is quite full in the mouth but a little simple on the finish. It has enough substance, though, to live at least two decades.

A little farther south, close to the suburbs of Bordeaux, Château La Lagune stands in splendid isolation in its own large park. It is a little apart in other ways too. Emile Peynaud observed to me years ago that La Lagune, while sited in the Médoc, is really a Graves in essence, with its chocolaty spice and gout du terroir.

M. Moulin, who has fashioned this characterful wine for 32 years, tells me that the ’03 wine is composed of 60% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and a high 10% Petit-Verdot. His best vintages, he says, are ’82, ’83, ’90, ’96, ’98, and now 2003.

2003 CHATEAU LA LAGUNE ***

The nose, which smells as thick and pulpy as must, is full and earthy, with black fruits and chocolate mingling with crushed rock and minerals. Truffles show too. The flavour – in total accord with the aroma – is so fat it coats the mouth. The tannins are ripe and one is struck, in this torrid vintage, by the fresh acidity. A noble earthiness persists on the palate. This excellent, vital wine will age gracefully for a good 40 years.

Château Cantemerle lies close by and is also surrounded by its own park. The buildings are completely invisible from the road, being hidden by thick woods enclosed by high walls and fences. M. Berteau, a vigorous man in middle age, has been in charge since 1987. He tells me that this Fifth Growth covered only 22 hectares in 1961 but now extends to fully 90 hectares with a yearly output of some 600,000 bottles. The equipment is all state-of-the-art and the chais are air-conditioned.

He declares straight out that his ’03 will not last long and, after tasting it, I agree. I do not however agree with his next statement: “Not many other ’03 Médocs will last either.” He explains his reasoning succinctly: “High pH, low acidity – fast ageing!”

2003 CHATEAU CANTEMERLE *

The nose of autumn berries and kirsch is smooth and intense and quickly expands to include blackberries, prunes, and spices. The flavour is round, fresh, and quite elegant and ends plummy, with a touch of minerals. As M. Berteau said, it is not for long keeping. It will be quite delicious in an uncomplicated way around 2008-15.

To show that Cantemerle is sometimes made of sterner stuff he then uncorked a bottle of 2000 CHATEAU CANTEMERLE ***. This is in a different league, being darker, fuller, deeper, and much more complex. It will outlive the younger wine by a good 20-30 years. Which just goes to show the importance of vintages.

I have been a great fan of the Petit-Verdot ever since I had a vertical tasting of this variety, in pure form (together with the other three), at Château Léoville Las-Cases 15 years ago. I convey this enthusiasm to M. Berteau who promptly takes me to a large map on the wall which shows the Cantemerle estate as it was in 1901. It was divided into many different plots, each with its own name. One of these, which covered two hectares, is inscribed “Petit-Verdot”. In the course of time, M. Berteau explains, the Petit-Verdot was uprooted and replaced by Merlot. But the pendulum has swung yet again and that same plot is now having Petit-Verdot grafted back onto it. “Here we have no problems with the Petit-Verdot” (and allusion to its occasional failure to ripen fully). “At Cantemerle it ripens a week earlier than usual!”

In the commune of Margaux all roads lead to Château Margaux – but never in a straight line. In point of fact the Château, one of the most beautiful in all Bordeaux, is completely invisible from the village that shares its illustrious name, being located in a hollow and anyway hidden by the bulk of the nearby church. In the past, the vinification of Château Margaux was often botched. The previous owners had the idée fixe that, because the property was in Margaux, which is noted for its feminine traits, it had to be a lightish wine with “finesse” (a lack of structure) and not much power. The great oenologist Emile Peynaud was called in as consultant in 1978 and was able to demonstrate, almost instantly (the ’78 Margaux is one of the top wines of the vintage) that, while Château Margaux is full of finesse, it is also one of the fullest and most tannic wines in the whole Médoc. He vinified the wine accordingly, transforming the quality right away, and this approach has been kept up with great diligence by Paul Pontallier. As a result Margaux has produced superlative wines ever since.

Paul Pontallier mimed surprise at the very suggestion that 2003 was a “difficult” vintage. “It wasn’t difficult at all. The vines were in perfect condition and there was no overripeness. True, the Merlot from lighter soils was more sensitive. But the great terroirs are always able to adapt. But it was an unusual vintage. But then, they all are! 2003 is exceptional, comparable to 2000. The only disappointing aspect is the volume. We overestimated the number of bunches. That’s typical: we overestimate in the small vintages and underestimate in the big ones! The main factors in 2003 are: one, reduced volume; two, great ripeness; three, very early picking.”

Picking had started on the same date as in 1989 – then the earliest harvest on record at Margaux – and there were absolutely no doubts about ripeness. The temperatures, while very high, were not higher than normal. What was unprecedented was the duration of the heat-wave – three weeks at 40 degrees C.

We simply didn’t know what to expect. But we ended up with the two most concentrated wines since records began. The acidity is lower than usual – I can’t remember harvesting grapes with such low acidity. But of course if you have less malic acidity than usual you have less to lose during the malolactic fermentation. I’m surprised at how high the acidity was in the end.

The heat didn’t affect the grapes as much as we’d expected. The vine adapts. In the end the Merlot here was nearly as good as the Cabernet-Sauvignon. In fact, we haven’t had such good Merlot at Margaux since 1985.”

2003 PAVILLON ROUGE ***(*)

The broad, close-grained aroma is mineral, very pure, and shows much subtlety. The Margaux character – finesse and harmony – is much in evidence and there are so many nuances that it is hard to pin down the separate aromatic elements – berries, damsons, liquorice, truffles, tar…

The flavour exhibits great refinement yet there is plenty of vitality too. A succession of fruits includes blackberry and damson and there is a hint of smoke and tar. The texture is velvety, with harmonious tannins giving just the right degree of grip. The middle palate grows both clayey and chocolaty and there is real weight on the faintly earthy finish. I am so impressed by this sample that I start thinking of it as Château Margaux itself rather than its second wine. It is so well-structured that it should be left untouched for 8-10 years and drunk over the following 15-20. “This wine is richer in tannin than any Château Margaux made over the last 40 years,” Paul Pontallier says.

 

In the panelled tasting room at Château
Margaux, where the great 2003 “allies
power with finesse” and may not reach
complete maturity much before 2050.

2003 CHATEAU MARGAUX *****

The fabulous aroma is not merely round, it is positively globular! It is a congregation of vapours that seems to form a perfect sphere. Like singers in a choir, the aromas can be picked out separately and in harmony: damson, bilberry, sloe, blackcurrant, violet, smoke, pine. Together they form a composite scent of great finesse, subtlety, and power.

Black fruits and autumn berries mingle in a flavour that is very homogeneous yet multi-faceted. If a great wine allies power with finesse then this is a great wine. Though weighty, it has a velvety texture; its richness recedes before it can overwhelm, and the delicacy that is an integral part of finesse is never far away despite the huge charge of tannins. The great Margaux terroir makes its presence felt in refined minerality, a subtle earthiness. This has as much sinew and structure as any Médoc, with all of the Margaux finesse one could wish for. The tannins on the finish remind me of the agreeable bitterness found in a perfect espresso coffee. This wine will undoubtedly be splendid around 2024; but only those lucky enough to drink it at full maturity, round about 2050, will experience its greatness to the full.

To make great wine,” says Paul Pontallier as I leave, “you need to have at least three weeks of great weather some time between 1 st August and 15 th September.”

 

Médoc II – Saint Julien

My first visit in Saint Julien – the commune with the highest concentration of well-run properties – was to its greatest estate, Château Léoville Las-Cases. I enjoyed many splendid tastings there with its late owner, Michel Delon (inclusive of the vertical tasting of the Petit-Verdot and the other three varietals) not to mention numerous lunches accompanied not only by wonderful old vintages of Las-Cases but also some of France’s greatest white wines (Bâtard Montrachet, Clos Sainte Hune, Haut-Brion Blanc, etc.). I hadn’t been back for some years so it was with a certain degree of emotion that I found myself once again in the company of M. Boissenot, the brilliant oenologist who is the architect of so many splendid vintages of one of Bordeaux’s greatest wines.

Some years ago the Delon family acquired Château Nenin in Pomerol so they now have a Right Bank to show alongside their wonderful trio of Médocs. I taste all four in the 2001 vintage as well as in 2003. All of the ‘01s are outstanding; yet the 2003s surpass them in every case.

2003 CHATEAU POTENSAC ***, Médoc, Cru Bourgeois Exceptionelle (47% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 23% Cabernet-Franc, 30% Merlot)

The vital aroma exhales Médoc character, showing distinction as well as balance in a fine, smooth meld of black and red fruits, violets, and liquorice. For a Cru Bourgeois (or almost any wine!) the flavour shows considerable depth, and the long aftertaste is dense and structured, with classic Médoc balance. A wine to enjoy between 2011-26 (I’m told that Potensacs from the 1940s are still in good shape).

2003 CLOS DU MARQUIS ****

Even in so richly coloured a vintage this “robe” is impressive, an almost opaque black-purple. The nose – a medley of black fruits, red roses, and sweet damsons – shows exceptional subtlety. The flavour is beautifully balanced (as with Pavillon Rouge one forgets one is tasting a second wine), with density and complexity, and the aftertaste is very long and full of incident. I find smoke, coffee, and damson on the finish. Only those owning many cases should start on this in less than 10 years; bottles broached thereafter will give growing pleasure for another 20 or so.

2003 CHATEAU LEOVILLE LAS-CASES *****

Still darker than the preceding, this wine has a vast, harmonious aroma that is so complex it gives an impression, almost, of infinity. Fine-grained, with exceptional finesse, it delivers wave after wave of scents that include all of the black fruits, cigarbox, truffle, and violet. There is a seamless quality to this complex network of aromas – one of the most flawlessly balanced of all in this vintage.

Though the flavour has innumerable facets it too is seamless, with all components fused together into a unified whole. There is an optimum concentration of Las-Cases fruit (which now includes bilberry) and the aftertaste, like all the other very top ‘03s, displays great structure and restraint. The result is a degree of subtlety that one rarely sees in this life. It will still be young in 20 years, with 20 or so more of further development.

2003 CHATEAU NENIN ***

As dark as Las-Cases, despite its 80% Merlot, this has a full, velvety scent, very balanced, of black fruits and cigarbox and is distinctly vinous. The flavour is vital, slightly tough, and chocolaty, with a hint of chalkiness. The dominant taste is of very ripe blackberries. The finish is very long. If not as complete as the three Médocs (as we’ve seen, conditions on the Right Bank were less favourable) this is a superb wine to enjoy around 2015-30.

Another very distinguished Saint-Julien is Château Gruaud-Larose, whose exuberant director, M. Pauli, roundly declares that his aim is utterly to disregard the current fashion for super-glossy, over-extracted “sexy” wines of the kind so popular in the USA and to remain faithful to the more austere, tannic tradition for which the Médoc is renowned. Wines made in this classic way, he avers, can be aged for decade on decade, gaining in complexity all the time. He also steadfastly refuses to adopt the modish practice of using a very high proportion of new oak (up to 100% of often highly-toasted wood), feeling that 30% is quite enough for Gruaud-Larose.

By contrast, the cuvaison or vatting (maceration and fermentation) is pushed to the uttermost limit, lasting for as long as four or five weeks. During this phase the infant wine is lodged in vats lined with inert epoxy resin. The grape mix is 65% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet-Franc, with an eccentric addition of 2% Malbec – a thoroughly unfashionable variety that has all but disappeared from the Médoc. “We might even plant some Carmenère!”says M. Pauli recklessly, referring to another relic of the Médocain past.

Of the two latest great vintages, M. Pauli says that 2000 resembles photography, in that all the wine-maker had to do, quite simply, was make use of what was right in front of him; while 2003 was “a work of art”, by which he meant that you had to bring all your creativity and ingenuity into play in order to transform the raw material into something remarkable.

I was lukewarm about the three vintages of the second wine, Le Sarget, that we tasted first, not least as so many second wines in ’03 elsewhere had been so exceptional. All of the trio are pleasant enough, with good structure and ample fruit, but none makes a lasting impression. All doubts vanish, though, when the grand vin lands in our glasses.

2003 CHATEAU GRUAUD LAROSE ****

The soaring aroma of cherries, prunes, raspberries, and chocolate is mature almost to the point of overripeness (of the Cabernets, not the Merlot), giving a tantalising hint of controlled decadence. It promises Saint Julien smoothness with Pauillac thrust. It is a very voluminous smell.

The flavour is massive, with chocolaty thickness, and gobbets of fruit seem to move over your palate like melting jelly. Then you register a sequence of tastes, moving from blackberry jam, through bay leaf and cloves, to dried fig, prunes, and damsons. The aftertaste is long and elegantly earthy. There is such an exhilarating quality to this wine that I want to stand up and cheer (M. Pauli, as vocal in his admiration as I am, nearly does so!). This splendid wine will improve for 35 years at least. It is one of the most characterful 2003s of all.

We next sample the magnificent 2000 GRUAUD LAROSE **** and the admirable 1999 *** and 1998 ***. All three display clear-cut personality traits. “That’s how Latour used to be made 20 years ago!” M. Pauli declares with great emphasis.

Two more top Saint-Julien wait to be tasted at Château Langoa-Barton. Some 20 years ago the late Ronald Barton, who ran this estate, used to tell me that, now matter how diligently they vinified the Third Growth Langoa, they could never quite get it to measure up to the Second Growth Léoville-Barton. All the same Anthony Barton, who has been in charge now for many years, has steadily closed the gap and Langoa is now of almost equal weight and depth.

2003 CHATEAU LANGOA-BARTON ***

Exceptionally dense, the aroma is thick and pulpy and calls to mind sloes, blackberries, violets, and liquorice. I do not think I have ever sniffed so concentrated a Langoa. The palate matches up to it, with all three varieties contributing to the taste of cherries, damson, soot, smoke, and coffee. More closed up than most ‘03s, the wine nonetheless shows innate balance on the finish, which gives off a faint hint of clay-limestone terroir. This is a Langoa for the second and third decades of this century.

 

An old label of one of Saint Julien’s
greatest properties.

2003 CHATEAU LEOVILLE BARTON ****

Opaque and quite as black as Las Cases, this has a rich old-style aroma of tremendous vigour and density: black cherries, sloe jelly, crème de mûre, and violets. This is an archetypical Léoville-Barton (and Saint-Julien) nose. The flavour has real body and thrust, yet with the classic restraint one expects of this property, and it would be hard to cram any more fruit into a wine so full of natural extract. As with many of the best 2003s there is a noticeable lack of acidity, which is not surprising given the extreme heat of the vintage. This is where the excellent ripe tannins come into play, partly assuming the role of acidity to give structure, definition, even freshness. This emphatic, complex Léoville-Barton should be at its peak around 2015-35. A very dynamic wine that will easily last 35 years.

Médoc III – Pauillac

The first visit in Pauillac was at Château Lafite, widely seen as the most complete of all clarets. Wine-maker Christophe Congé was there to receive me. He quickly declared himself not at all sure about how his 2003 wines would develop, as the vintage was so atypical.

2003 CARRUADES DE LAFITE ** (the second wine of Lafite)

The colour is not of maximum depth but brilliant, and the nose is fresh and vibrant, with the kind of fullness and exuberance typical of fine wines from younger vines. The scent of damson and raspberry comes from the Cabernet, that of prunes and leather from the Merlot. Another shake of the glass brings out new scents: damson and cherry.

Only medium full on the palate, the wine proves to be supple, elegant, and pure, with a balsamic aftertaste. A poised and elegant wine with very smooth tannins which will give hedonistic pleasure around 2008-2015.

2003 CHATEAU DUHART MILON ROTHSCHILD ***

A very dark wine with a fabulous, very Pauillac aroma with real authority, with a meld of sweet black cherry, truffle, peony, carnation, and leather. The flavour is wonderfully balanced, with a velvety texture and real profundity. Suave in the best sense, with a bracing freshness, the wine is buoyant and has a longish, harmonious aftertaste with a clayey aspect. A wine to enjoy around 2010-2018.

 

Château Lafite, “a wine of
outstanding finesse and breed.”

2003 CHATEAU LAFITE ROTHSCHILD *****

Darker still, Lafite has a lovely, rich, weighty nose, very Lafite (lots of finesse), with soaring aromas of black cherry with stones, damson, smoke cigarbox, violet, and raspberry. Not the scent of a wine of maximum body but one of exceptional subtlety.

It is a delight to have one’s mouth full of this wine, despite its extreme youth, because of the exhilarating meld of berries, black fruits, truffle, and chocolate. One is again struck by the exceptional freshness on the palate, by the superb ripe tannins on the very long finish.

A wine of outstanding finesse and breed which should be left untouched for a dozen years; enjoyed in a middle phase for 15; then drunk at its full maturity around 2030-40. Going back to it after 20 minutes, I found that it had filled out and taken on still more complexity. This is only a faint hint of what will occur in the bottle over the next few decades.

A tasting of the 1993 Lafite put things even more into perspective. ’93 was a minor year, giving fairly compact wines which, nonetheless, did not have the structure or concentration for long keeping. This example should be drunk over the next 3-4 years, being fairly light, delicately scented, and very, very elegant. An ideal dish would be pigeon, left pink, with a delicate sauce containing truffles. Then the wine’s delectable aftertaste of cinnamon, prunes, chocolate, and plum jam would come into its own.

Back on the road, moving towards the town of Pauillac, I became sheepishly aware that the programme does not include a visit to Mouton Rothschild. I throw myself on the mercy of the reception staff at the Château who greet me like a lost sheep. The 2003 Mouton, I was told, was made from 76% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 8% Cabernet-Franc, and 2% Petit-Verdot. 85% of the estate’s total production went into the grand vin, which is being matured in 94% new oak casks, and the yield per hectare is a modest 28 hectolitres per hectare – the very type of yield that gave the world such fabulous Mouton vintages as 1926, ’28, ’29, ’45, ’49, ’53… The harvest started relatively late (as with most top 2003s in these parts), beginning on 15 th September and ending 11 days later.

2003 CHATEAU MOUTON ROTHSCHILD *****

The colour, as deep as that of Las-Cases, is like crème de cassis with a special nuance that makes me think of black truffles. The nose is dense, broad, and vinous, with quintessential Mouton character: weighty, opulent, and profound. There is a special generosity to it, an almost human warmth.

So complete is the wine that, the moment I’ve finished describing the aroma, I find myself re-writing it: “Huge, super-dense nose, black cherry jam, damson, violets, crème de mûre and cassis, bilberry. Extremely smooth, fat, suave, full of depth. Now coffee starts to show, and liquorice, truffle, cinnamon, smoke…”

The flavour has exceptional density (almost the volume of a port) and is long, structured, and faintly chocolaty. The aftertaste is nothing short of spectacular, with lovely smooth texture, huge grip, and a lot of vitality and exuberance. The chocolaty aspect grows when I re-taste the wine and there is a sudden surge of bilberry and black cherry. In addition, I am struck by the freshness of the stony, very mineral finish.

Going back to it five minutes later I again note the heavy charge of tannins, which give an almost furry texture. Though of the ripe kind they are powerful enough to ensure that this remarkable wine will close up for at least a decade (maybe two) at some future stage before blossoming into something which may resemble the unforgettable 1945 Mouton, one of the biggest wines ever produced at this property.

At Château Latour they use declassified casks from this First Growth vineyard to make a generic Pauillac that shows real quality at a fraction of the price of Latour itself. It used to be a fairly simple wine but shows growing distinction. It is now a better wine than some of the more lustreless Classed Growths.

2003 PAUILLAC ***

Dark and glittering, it has a poised, refined aroma, smooth and silky, with Pauillac authority and character, suggesting sweet black fruits and violets. Clean-cut and fresh in the mouth, it is slim but not thin, with ripe tannins of exactly the right strength for a wine of this constitution. 7-8 years are needed to reach maturity but it will still show well 20 years from now.

2003 LES FORTS DE LATOUR ****

This exceptionally dark Les Forts emits a super-concentrated scent, wonderfully suave, of black cherries, cigarbox, crème de mûre, and damson. Very fine-grained, it conveys an impression of effortless force and density. From the smell alone this must be one of the best Les Forts of all time.

The superb flavour has exceptional intensity (yet again I’m reacting to a second wine as if it were the grand vin!) with damson and sloe showing with especial vividness on the sustained, silky finish, which has so many nuances that I have to cut my notes short, to keep something back for Latour itself! This remarkable wine should be enjoyed around 2015-30.

 

The famous tower at Château Latour,
one of Pauillac’s three First Growths..

2003 CHATEAU LATOUR *****

Of maximum depth of colour, Latour has a wonderfully smooth, pure aroma that delivers a cocktail of black fruits of the richest yet most refined kind. Bilberry is especially in evidence. There is only the barest suggestion of oak, with the wood contributing the most delicate touch of cinnamon spice but no astringency. This is one of the purest aromas of the entire week.

The flavour takes total charge of the palate. The wine is no blockbuster but has all the volume, density, intensity, and length one could wish for. The long rippling aftertaste of cherry, liquorice, damson, truffle, and chocolate shows great nobility and the tannins have a subtle smokiness and great ripeness. The finish is, quite simply, majestic.

I would expect this great wine to become accessible around 2014-30 but not to attain true maturity – when every facet of its excellence is discernable – until around 2030-50.

A quick look at the 2002 LATOUR ***(*) showed this to be a finely fashioned wine with great freshness of fruit, capable of evolving for three decades or more (what Latour isn’t?) but without the length or concentration of the 2003; while the 1998 ***, which has had time to develop tertiary aromas, is well balanced and elegant and of good length.

Château Lynch Bages, while classed as a Fifth Growth, deserves to be a Third or even Second Growth these days. It has always had a good record on longevity but in quite a few vintages (I’m speaking of the 1960s and 1970s) was almost a little too plausible, with its plumpness of build and fruit-juicy charm. Over the last decade or two it has gained immensely in structure, depth, and Pauillac typicity. Their Cru Bourgeois Ormes de Pez, a Saint-Estèphe, is habitually excellent.

2003 CHATEAU LES ORMES DE PEZ **

This dark and vigorous wine has a nose that promises a satiny texture and a flavour that delivers it. Sturdy in a very Saint-Estèphe way, it is three-quarters full and about 80% concentrated. The fruit that went into it is clearly totally ripe. Drink 2010-20.

2003 CHATEAU LYNCH BAGES ***(*)

The aroma, which bursts with Lynch Bages personality, tells you that great control was exercised by the wine-maker, being succulent, compact, pure, and very smooth with no hint of dryness. Though there is ample flesh and charm there is also restraint and subtlety.

The flavour too has a disciplined feel despite the sheer exuberance of the fruit. Black cherry, liquorice, and damson dominate, leading into an aftertaste of coffee-and-chicory. The tannins are gritty but not bitter. Though closed it is a long, stylish, fresh wine with a promise of real complexity. The wise will not pull a cork for a dozen years or so. Bottles should then be spaced out over 15 more.

Gildas d’Ollone, who helps run Château Pichon-Lalande, tells me that they initially thought that picking in 2003 would begin before the end of August but, like all who made the best wines that year, they changed their minds when it became clear that the tannins were not really ripe even when the grapes appeared to be. “We have sixty different vineyard plots. And the nature of each plot – its microclimate, geology, age of wines – matters more than what variety happens to be planted there. Some Cabernet-Franc needed to be picked very early on; others much later. And some of the Petit-Verdot” (usually the last to be harvested) “was picked before the Cabernet-Sauvignon.”

In the second half of the 1990s the estate acquired a nearby Cru Bourgeois, Château Bernadotte, which has great potential. It lies just outside the Pauillac boundary but shows Pauillac traits.

2003 CHATEAU BERNADOTTE **

Vital, lushly fruity nose of raspberry, cherry, and damson with a touch of peony. The vigorous flavour makes me think of griotte cherries and cranberries, the aftertaste is long, vinous, and structured. The balanced finish is slightly spicy (a bit like red paprika in powder form). Drink 2010-18.

 

A mature vintage of the super second
Château Pichon-Comtesse de Lalande,
a wine of “inherent finesse and subtlety.”

2003 CHATEAU PICHON LALANDE ****(*)

The “nose” is composed of hovering, refined scents suggestive of jammy black fruits with a subtle hint of cinnamon. Velvety, very round, it is both richly fruity and structured. Behind this first wave of aromas are other, more ethereal, flowery ones. All will develop in harmony when the wine starts to age in bottle.

The firm, sinewy tannins give a certain sternness to the flavour, but within this phenolic carapace is an enormous volume of fruit that is satiny in texture. This is not a massive wine – as at Lafite and Margaux, finesse is favoured before sheer power – but all the material is there for 30-40 years of evolution. This splendid ’03 is another example of Pichon-Lalande’s inherent finesse and subtlety, but there is underlying sensuality too.

Pichon Comtesse de Lalande, to give it (almost) its full title, is owned by a woman, has a feminine name, and has feminine traits. Pichon Longueville Baron, which faces it from across the road, is correspondingly masculine in name and in character. About 18 years ago the AXA insurance group acquired this Second Growth and gave a tasting of some 30 vintages back (I think) to the 1930s. Only very few showed anything like the full potential of this great estate. Since then the wines have – after a brief flirtation with over-extraction – gone from strength to strength.

Looking at the Pichon Longueville complex from the road, you are confronted by one of the most incongruous architectural contrasts in all Bordeaux. To the fore, massive and windowless, the geometric bulk of the chais, which looks not unlike a desert fortress; to the rear, the elegant, if far-fetched Château, bristling with turrets, looking like something out of a fairy tale. The 2003 wines, for their part, have an architecture wholly their own – as beautifully proportioned as a gothic cathedral.

2003 CHATEAU PIBRAN *** (65% Merlot, 35% Cabernet-Sauvignon)

The excellent aroma promises lots of stuffing, which is borne out on the palate by an amplitude of specifically Pauillac fruit with a pulpy feel to it. There’s real volume and grip here, with harmonious tannins giving plenty of support to the fruit. The finish has a special Pauillac weight and decisiveness. A superbly-crafted Cru Bourgeois which will develop well for some 30 years.

2003 TOURELLES DE LONGUEVILLE ** (50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet-Franc)

This is a good wine in its own right, if a bit severe, but its chief value in this vintage is to allow good use to be put to the barrels of ’03 wine not quite good enough to go into the grand vin (it represents 36% of “Baron” production in this vintage). Dark and tannic, it has lots of matière and lots of tannin. Positively wiry in the mouth, it tastes of slightly scorched damson jam, underbrush, and bitter espresso. It could well partner game stews in 10-12 years.

2003 CHATEAU PICHON LONGUEVILLE BARON ****(*) (55% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 10% Cabernet-Franc)

Almost black, it has an explosive scent of black fruits, liquorice, and flowers. The superb silky nose, with precisely defined Cabernet fruit, signals a wine of outstanding harmony and depth. This is confirmed on the palate by a wonderfully fresh plethora of damson, black cherry, and bilberry fruit. The ripe tannins, in combination with unusually crisp acidity (that of perfectly healthy, ripe grapes) gives great sweep to the lingering finish. This powerfully structured, harmonious “Baron”, sinewy in an almost Saint-Estèphe way, but very Pauillac in its roundness, weight and depth, will develop splendidly for decades. The Château character is as pronounced as in the great 2000.

Château Batailley, a Pauillac Fifth Growth, is an attractive property located on a fine bed of gravel. The wine usually has plenty of body, good fruit, and ages well, but has seldom shown the distinction that might be expected from an estate at this location. It is owned by the Bordeaux firm of Borie-Manoux, whose other properties include Château Trottevieille in Saint-Emilion and Château du Domaine de l’Eglise in Pomerol. Philippe Castéja succeeded his father at the helm only recently and has already instituted a number of long-overdue changes. This is reflected in the 2003 wines, the best I can remember from this source.

2003 CHATEAU LYNCH MOUSSAS **(*) (68% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 32% Merlot)

The nose, like that of most good ‘03s, is intense and the big, balanced flavour is full of such fruits as damson, sloe, blackberry. On the finish, a chocolaty warmth with cinnamon spice. The tannins are a little mouth-drying, but this is more due to their strength than to a lack of ripeness. Long assertive finish. Drink around 2012-25.

2003 CHATEAU BATAILLEY ***(*) (72% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 2% each Cabernet-Franc and Petit-Verdot)

Full, vital nose of black fruits, underbrush, liquorice, and smoke. A slightly metallic accent from the tannins. The aroma quickly expands, with prunes and cloves (which I associate with very ripe Merlot) showing quite quickly.

Typical Pauillac density and vigour on the palate – a meld of black fruits, smoke, and cloves with real punch. It soon turns chocolaty, like many ‘03s, and the finish is long and satisfying. A Batailley with presence and authority, to set aside for a dozen years before enjoying up to 2040 at least.

At its best, the nearby Château Grand Puy Lacoste has the charm of Lynch Bages and the kind of power found in such a heavyweight Pauillac as Pichon Longeuville Baron. It is run by the affable Xavier Borie, who took over as long ago as 1978. The estate covers 98 hectares in the heart of Pauillac, with the 55 hectares of vines being split into two plots by a delightful wooded park just behind the Château. It occupies the highest point in Pauillac, quite close to Lynch Bages. The soil is the classic Médoc mix of clay and limestone. Xavier also vinifies another Pauillac Fifth Growth, Haut Batailley. The latter is often lighter than most other Pauillacs, its structure being more reminiscent of a Saint-Julien. That being said, bottles of the ’82 in my cellar have only just opened up and seem sure to improve for 20 years or more.

2003 CHATEAU HAUT BATAILLEY *** (72% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 26% Merlot, 2% Cabernet-Franc)

There is a lustrous tone to the deep colour while the aroma is smooth, quite oaky, and harmonious. Sloe and violet can be picked out, as well as black cherry and crème de cassis.

I find sloe and elder on the intensely fruity flavour, together with damson, and the aftertaste is well balanced, with tannins that seem particularly mild. A wine for the medium term – around 2012-28. Very trim.

 

Grand Puy Lacoste, whose 2003
has “plenty of Pauillac thrust
behind the voluptuous flesh”.

2003 CHATEAU GRAND PUY LACOSTE ***(*)

The nose is suave and intense, mostly black cherry jam with stones, but also bilberry, violet, wet earth. It is seductively supple in the mouth, full of succulent black fruits and berries, with bilberry to the fore. Of medium body, the flavour is viscous and buoyant. You register a lack of acidity, yet the wine is nonetheless very fresh and has good structure. Like its near-neighbour Lynch Bages, GPL can at times seem almost too full of charm. But this is nearly always misleading, for there is plenty of Pauillac thrust behind the voluptuous flesh. The tannins, though exceedingly mild, are ample. Over the coming decades they will assume the role of the largely absent acidity, giving rigour and definition. There is a haunting quality about the long aftertaste. If the wine will be delicious around 2015-20 it will surely be even better five or so years later.

I asked Xavier Borie about the Petit-Verdot grape, conspicuous by its absence at this estate. He seemed a little bemused by the question at first, but after a moment he said that it was not out of the question that the variety might be planted there one day. I even got the notion that one particular plot could well have been earmarked for just such an experimental planting…

One of my most instructive Pauillac visits was without appointment: to Château Pontet Canet. The sign at the entrance was not encouraging: “Visits by appointment only”. I pressed ahead and was welcomed with open arms by the very man who now fashions this increasingly excellent wine: Jean-Michel Comme. Slim and athletic (most wine-makers are), with short hair and steady blue eyes, he speaks with such cogency and conviction that you are sure that, for him, no effort is too great in the pursuit of perfection.

Initially, he said, there was much talk at Pontet-Canet of starting the 2003 harvest very early. But that notion was quickly revised. “It would have been a big mistake.” It was finally decided to start around 20 th September, though some of the younger Merlot was picked a little earlier than that. The Cabernet-Sauvignon were left until 22 nd September, with picking then continuing for a further one and a half weeks. Everything was in at the start of October.

2003 CHATEAU PONTET CANET **** (65% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 4% Cabernet-Franc, 1% Petit-Verdot)

Just about as dark as can be, this has a huge, concentrated, balanced aroma of crème de cassis and mûre, with raspberries and violets showing too. A second wave of scents is more flowery, bringing a whiff of peony. It is a very pure, expressive aroma.

The flavour has real Pauillac power and density but is buoyant too, with striking freshness. Despite its considerable volume, the wine has “cut” and focus and the tannins are of the mild balanced kind. The wine is so powerful that they might have been tempted to use 100% new oak, which would have been a pity. Happily, they were content with 60% so the wood – noticeably toasty – does not dominate. Approachable in about a dozen years, it should peak around 2030-40.

An outstanding feature of the ’03 Pontet-Canet is its great purity. This is clearly a subject close to M. Comme’s heart: he spent the next hour showing me around the winery, describing the many new measures that have been introduced to bring this about. We stood at the arrival point for incoming grapes. “Twenty years ago,” he said, “a man would arrive here with a tractor and two tonnes of freshly picked grapes.” He paused. “And there’d be nobody here to receive them!” He did not need to add that, at many properties in those days, the bunches would be piled high, crushed and bruised under their own weight, covered with dust, leaves, and other detritus, and probably very hot too. A significant proportion might be either underripe or overripe; some might even be rotten.

Now, defective bunches are left unpicked and all the bunches arriving at the winery are carefully scrutinized for a second time as they move slowly towards the press on a special conveyor belt manned by up to a dozen people. Any inferior bunches that remain are removed at this stage, likewise leaves, twigs, or other debris. The bunches are destalked with extreme gentleness before being fed into the press. “We want a very soft fermentation with a very soft liberation of sugar. The vatting continues for three weeks, and we extract slowly, day by day.”

I often visited Pontet-Canet in the first half of the 1980s. Emile Peynaud had been called in to help improve quality and he did, indeed, effect a number of beneficial changes. But I had the feeling that his advice was followed selectively. There was a noticeable improvement in the wines made between 1982-86 but not the great leap forward that might have been expected, given Peynaud’s genius. Another decade was to pass before Pontet-Canet’s true potential began to be realized to the full. One has the feeling that this will always be the case from now on.

 

Médoc IV – Saint Estèphe

The consensus is that Saint-Estèphe performed brilliantly in 2003. I cannot comment on the commune as a whole but can confirm that its two leading château, Cos d’Estournel and Montrose came up with stupendous wines.

I arrived at Montrose on a bright, oven-hot afternoon. Dark shadows dappled the dazzling white gravel and not a soul was to be seen. I walked around this large property – a hamlet in its own right, even with street names – finding every door locked. A shutter creaked but nobody replied when I knocked. Total silence. Huge, mysterious shadows. I was reminded of paintings by Chirico. A very small sign hove into view. “When nobody here please proceed to chai”. A dozen doors were visible, but all were locked. The chai, when I eventually found it, was at the far end of the most remote courtyard. Suddenly the wine-maker, Philippe de Lagaurigue, appeared beside me as if by magic. But it wasn’t magic that conjured forth the glorious wines that soon cascaded into my glass – they could only result from hard work, superlative wine-making, and near-perfect harvest conditions.

2003 DAME DE MONTROSE ***

This dark wine has the Montrose stamp yet is made entirely with grapes not thought good enough to go into Montrose itself. The nose is velvety and intense, with black fruits in the ascendant. There are subsidiary aromas too: molasses, truffle, cough medicine. The Cabernet dominates at first in the mouth (black fruits) but the Merlot shows too (dried fig, prune). Big and harmonious, this exceptional second wine will drink beautifully around 2012-20.

Bulky though it is, it is but a foothill to the looming mountain of a wine that comes next:

2003 CHATEAU MONTROSE *****

Impenetrably dark, but with inner fire, Montrose has an arresting aroma of great power and smoothness, suggesting black fruit jams, peony, liquorice, and purple roses. This is a massively concentrated nose with underlying harmony.

A typical Saint-Estèphe trait is austerity. Montrose has this quality but, at its greatest, is always silkily smooth and lusciously fruity. One is caught up in a positive whirlwind of fascinating sub-flavours, with ample flesh articulated by sinew and muscle. The aftertaste, beautifully proportioned, is long and structured with firm, very ripe tannins and plenty of viscosity. The two main grapes, in perfect harmony, can nonetheless be identified separately, the Cabernet tasting of black cherry and damson, the Merlot of molasses, fig, and truffle. This is a great Montrose, with the Château’s typical meld of volume, power, thrust, and subtlety. Not to mention profundity. It will be memorable in 15 years; unforgettable in 40.

I have seen it scores of times yet always get a thrill when I catch sight of Château Cos d’Estournel’s weirdly beautiful Chinese-style chai as it looms on the horizon at the border of Saint-Estèphe. As long ago as 1838 the great writer Stendhal was greatly struck by it too, calling it “very elegant” and “a very pretty sight”. I first visited this exceptional property in the early 1970s, when I had the good fortune to meet the proprietor, Bruno Prats, a man who always had something fascinating, and new, to impart every time I met him in later years.

 

Harvest scene at Château Cos d’Estournel,
whose exotic Chinese-style chai so
impressed Stendhal in 1838.

Bruno Prats was succeeded by Jean-Guillaume Prats some years ago. Whether the 2003 wine reflects a slightly different approach or whether the vintage itself dictated the wine’s style I cannot say; but the ’03 Cos may well be the most massive of all the 200 or so wines I tasted during my week-long stay. But in spite of its great voluminousness, the wine has the underlying freshness and subtlety without which true greatness is impossible to attain. As at Montrose and other leading properties, the second wine is exceptionally good:

2003 PAGODE DE COS ***

How an aroma can be so dense and roasted yet so vibrantly, seductively fruity, is hard to fathom, but that is one of the salient traits of this wine. The meld of scents suggests damson and cherry jams, beef stock, truffle, and espresso coffee, with a hint of molasses. The flavour and aftertaste accord with this and the wine is so well balanced, so full of nuances, that I fear that Cos itself might be something of a letdown. This is emphatically not the case.

2003 CHATEAU COS D’ESTOURNEL *****

One of the blackest of all ‘03s (the very tears are purple), Cos has a spectacularly rich and powerful scent full of true Cos stuffing and vitality. “Voluminous” is the mot juste. I recall the dynamic, roasted smells of clarets from the ‘20s and ‘30s. A faint whiff of clay and chalk shows within the meld of plums, berries, dried fruits, and the freshest, purest home-made jams. After one minute there is a sudden surge of crème de cassis. This is a wine of fathomless depth and complexity. Even as the glass moves towards my lips I catch additional scents of violets and sloes.

The flavour is virile and masterful in a very Saint-Estèphe way, with a huge load of specifically Cos fruit – chocolate, prunes, damson jam. There is a fine, restrained earthiness on the powerful, harmonious aftertaste, which is hearteningly profound in an old-style way (the terroir really speaks!). The finish is very sustained, bitterness and sweetness in tandem, and though the wine is massive it remains beautifully balanced. The tannins are of the serious kind – giving all the rigour one could wish for yet without the harshness that would stop the wine from growing smooth over the years to come. Not to be broached in less than 15-16 years, it will blossom into epic maturity around 2020-50.


Graves – Pessac – Léognan

The Médoc used once to be called the Graves (which is perhaps why the leading Graves Château Haut-Brion was included in the 1855 classification of the Médoc). The name is now restricted to wines produced in the Graves region to the south of Bordeaux. For quite some years now, however, the very top châteaux have used an even more specific name – that of Pessac-Léognan, the most northerly part. Some of these properties actually lie within the boundaries of Bordeaux itself – the city that Stendhal called “the most beautiful in France”.

A tasting of many of the best Pessac-Léognans was laid on for me by Olivier Bernard at Domaine de Chevalier. This showed that, while Pessac-Léognan did not enjoy the same excellent conditions as the Médoc in 2003, the most ambitious proprietors did all they could to produce the best possible wines.

2003 CHATEAU HAUT BAILLY ***

Often referred to as the “Pomerol of Pessac-Léognan”, because of a certain softness and suppleness allied to elegance, Haut Bailly has a fine complex nose of contained power: raspberry, cinnamon, plum, damson, freshly sharpened pencil (the impact of toasted oak on Cabernet-Franc grapes). The briary flavour is fresh and elegant, with a hint of green paprika. A faint hardness, verging on stalkiness, is registered, but the wine has so much extract that it seems sure to attain balance, if not perfect harmony, over the next 20 years or so. A good rather than a great Haut-Bailly.

2003 CHATEAU MALARTIC LAGRAVIERE ***(*)

The rich aroma of black cherry, cigarbox, truffle, and wild plums exudes distinction and promises lusciousness and depth. The flavour matches up to this and leads into a big succulent middle palate that is vital and decisive. This is a balanced, forceful wine, still in bud, with tannins of the ripe kind. It should be at its best around 2013-25.

In the 1980s the late owner, Jacques Marly (a charming host with a droll sense of humour) brought in his friend Emile Peynaud as consultant. Peynaud recognized the property’s huge potential and did his best to effect improvements. As at Pontet-Canet in that era, though, his advice was not always heeded in full. Only in the last few years have various long-overdue improvements been made and today Malartic is emerging as one of Pessac-Léognan’s finest estates.

2003 CHATEAU OLIVIER

This has a big, assertive mineral scent of dried fig, graphite, and blackberry. It is all of a piece but a bit rustic. The flavour is fullish and rich (Olivier is nearly always a hefty wine) and there is an initial freshness to the fruit. But the sample quickly turns astringent when exposed to the air, drying out the mouth like rhubarb. If the nose promises good things the flavour is more reticent. Judgment is reserved.

2003 CHATEAU PAPE CLEMENT

One of the blackest, Pape Clement has an expansive, balanced aroma of blackberry, truffle, molasses, and swarf (iron filings). This is a promising nose. The promise is not fulfilled on the palate, though, despite good body and richness of fruit. Behind the wine’s datelike density lies the kind of bitterness found in burnt prunes. And there is something spurious about the density of the finish, as if the wine had been partly saigné (when some of the juice has been run of the freshly-pressed grapes in order to achieve greater concentration).

Pape Clément is a great estate and the wine, at its best, is one of the most stylish and best-balanced in Pessac-Léognan. Other tasters have been more enthusiastic so it may be that the sample was out of sorts. Time (and a second tasting) will tell.

2003 CHATEAU SMITH HAUT LAFITTE ***(*)

Subtle and understated, the aroma suggests plums, autumn berries, graphite. A delicate smokiness provides its own aromatic tracery in parallel. The flavour is similarly understated and subtle yet has ample grit and sinew. The truffly aftertaste is very much in harmony with the nose and is long and nuanced. There is a haunting quality to the smoky finish. This is a serious wine with a good classic structure. If a cat has nine lives I foresee this as having three: the first, closed-up for 8 years; the second, 10-12 years’ of ostensible maturity; the third: a stylish apogee lasting at least five years.

This estate was run for many years by Eschenauer. In those days the wines were lamentable. Peynaud wrought beneficial changes in the mid-1980s but the real leap forward dates from the arrival of the new owners, M. and Mme Cathiard, a decade or so ago.

 

Domaine de Chevalier, which in 2003 has
a “noble, ripe, smooth aroma of great
elegance.”The white, too, is exceptional.

2003 DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER ****

Well-coloured if not as dark as some, this wine has a noble, ripe, smooth aroma of great elegance (the last is a hallmark of this estate). The first wave of scents conjures up violets and autumn berries and shows great precision. What might be called core aromas – black fruits, forest humus, wet earth – are soon in evidence.

The flavour is in concord with the nose, though more closed-up, with noticeable smoothness and fatness. Damson, raspberry, and prunes mingle on the earthy, refined finish, with a suspicion of elderberry at the very end. A slight tannic hardness can be picked out but, given the wine’s ample fruit, this should melt away as the solid elements in the wine fall out as sediment. Those who buy now will be especially glad to have done so around 2012-25.

Of other reds, BOUSCAUT has an attractively soft, pulpy nose and plenty of ripe fruit on the palate. But it tastes as if some green fruit got in as well, for the finish is a little raw. LATOUR MARTILLAC is big and weighty (as it always is) but the sample is oxidized. As oxidation mars the palate, I did not taste it.

I also tasted some of the whites. At their best, these are great dry white wines that can age for 30-40 years or even longer, showing great minerality and conserving their spring-water freshness for decade after decade. Here in the region they always decant the best ones, not least when they’re very old. They retain their vitality so well, indeed, that a 40-year-old can taste as if it’s only four! The malolactic fermentation is always suppressed in order to ensure good acidity. Most are fermented in oak barrels and batonnage (a Burgundian technique) is practiced. This provides for the thick lees inside the barrel to be stirred up at regular intervals so as to extract more flavour (tea-drinkers who stir the teapot are using the same approach). This is why some of the samples described below are cloudy.

2003 CHATEAU SMITH HAUT LAFITTE BLANC **(*)

Cloudy, with a full, intensely grapy aroma of greengage and fresh fig. The honeyed nose is round and pulpy (I think of greengage jam) and the slightly singed sub-scent must come from toasty oak. The flavour is luscious and enticing: fig, rhubarb, tart greengage. Some minerality can be detected on the longish finish, which is just a little tart. The latter effect is odd in so hot a vintage (scorching sun consumes acidity) so it is possible that some acidity has been added. If so, this is a pity. A life span of at least 10 years is sure, but it will probably last longer.

2003 CHATEAU OLIVIER BLANC *(*)

Crystal clear, Olivier has a firm, assertive aroma – very Sauvignon – of apricot, orange blossom, honey. Its innate richness and fullness are given focus by an austere stoniness. The flavour is orangey – the very acidity is like that of an orange – and the viscous aftertaste is mineral. I find lychee on the very finish. This is fat, fleshy wine, a bit lacking in rigour, not unlike the more heavy style of white Burgundy in structure. Drink 2010-18.

2003 CHATEAU MALARTIC LAGRAVIERE BLANC **(*)

Full of suspended matter – due to recent batonnage – this looks like a glass of grapefruit juice. The full, sulphury nose suggests this too, but behind the transitory smell one registers an amplitude of rich Sauvignon fruit. It is a smell that promises plenty of body and great vitality.

Grapefruit and lemon dominate on the palate and the finish is distinctly lemony. Though closed and a little amorphous (this will pass), the wine anyway leaves an impression of fullness and underlying complexity. As I put the glass aside, still writing down my impressions, I catch some of that special minerality of chalky-limey soils full of marine fossils. This should improve for at least 15 years.

2003 CHATEAU LA TOUR MARTILLAC BLANC **

Orange blossom, honey, and lanolin can be picked out on the big, round aroma. The flavour, which is corpulent, has great vigour too, and tastes of oranges and apricots. Both earthy and mineral, the finish is just a bit short. The sheer exuberance of the fruit, though, makes it quite attractive. It should be good with grilled lobster around 2010-18.

2003 CHATEAU COUHINS LURTON ***(*)

The limpid green-gold colour has a special subtlety found only in extremely well-made whites from good vineyards. Excellence shows, too, on the splendid nose of baked apple, elderflower, and acacia honey. Chalk and limestone from the soil are in evidence on the fullish, facetted flavour, which is vigorous and very mineral. Good malic acidity gives a cutting edge. This is a splendidly balanced wine, straight and true, with plenty of length. Not the faintest hint of artifice. Most bottles will doubtless be drunk up within 5-6 years. Those with the patience – and longevity – to wait 20-30 years will be richly rewarded.

2003 DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER BLANC ****

Slightly cloudy (batonnage again) this Chevalier has a complex aroma of great nobility, a composite scent of greengage, white truffle, white peach, yellow apple, rhubarb. There is a stony aspect too. One rarely encounters so balanced a bouquet. I can hardly wait to have the wine in my mouth.

The luscious flavour delivers the complexity and sappiness promised on the nose and the minerality grows apace. The wine contrives to be seductive and incisive at one and the same time (no easy feat) and the very long, nuanced aftertaste comes in waves, each longer than the one before. This is a great white Chevalier to relish in 8-9 years and cherish in 20-30.

The best wines were made in September!” declaims Olivier Bernard as I respectfully place my glass on the table.

Haut-Brion and other wines in the same ownership were tasted by me at the Château itself. As usual, it was worth the journey – even if you had to go there on foot!

2003 CHATEAU LAVILLE HAUT BRION **** (88% Semillon, 12% Sauvignon)

The limpid green-gold colour has that special richness and luminosity of great whites that have been fermented in new oak casks that have been toasted very lightly. Assessing it by colour alone one could easily take it for a top Puligny-Montrachet. The majestic aroma conjures up fresh fig, honey, pineapple, and vanilla. You have an impression of exceptional roundness, lusciousness, freshness.

On the palate, the dominant taste is of Muscat grapes (which is odd given that the wine contains no such variety) but fig and greengage can be picked out too. It is very much in its shell but there’s a lot of minerality. The oak, by contrast, is barely noticeable – a sign of the restraint with which it has been used. The ample flesh and high alcohol mask the wine’s innate structure and might encourage some to drink it soon. But while doubtless accessible from the end of this decade its real apogee won’t arrive for 15 or more years.

2003 CHATEAU HAUT BRION BLANC ****(*) (52% Semillon, 48% Sauvignon)

The colour is similar but even richer while the nose shows a somewhat different slant: lemon, grapefruit peel, honey, rhubarb. The flavour fills the mouth with succulent fruit, with pear and grapefruit to the fore, and there is a distinct chalkiness. The aftertaste is long and very fresh even if noticeably low in acidity. But there is plenty of flesh on the weighty finish, which is very mineral. This is fuller and richer than Laville Haut-Brion. It is a wine so harmonious that you could start drinking it in only 5-6 years but it should improve over several decades.

These two famous whites are as luscious as ripe melons so it might seem strange for me to refer to them as closed-up. But that is what they are. Their great volume and fatness serve to mask the muscle and sinew that is present but not apparent. There is an impression of sweetness too, even though both contain only negligible levels of residual sugar. This derives from the high alcohol and low acidity. It is an impression which will diminish as the wines age. Great wines that are voluminous to a fault when young nearly always slim down as they mature. I am certain that this will be the case here.

Now the reds…

2003 LA CHAPELLE DE LA MISSION HAUT BRION * (second wine of la Mission)

The elegant nose suggests cherry, elderberry, red rose, carnation. The flavour, of medium body, is deliciously fresh and fruity, raspberry-like with satisfying length. It does though turn a little dry at the end. A worthy, uncomplicated wine to drink around 2008-15.

2003 BAHANS HAUT BRION ** (second wine of Haut-Brion)

The colour is deeper, more concentrated, and with a more nuanced look – this suggests older vines. The nose is fuller and weightier, with a pulpy quality, and suggests berries, cherries, kirsch. As with a lot of 2003s there is chocolate, too. The crunchy tannins leave a residual hardness that might persist a good 10 years. This should be good to drink in the decade that follows.

2003 CHATEAU LA TOUR HAUT BRION ***

This dark fullish wine smells a little sawdusty – a passing smell that is dispersed by shaking the glass – and the core aromas of damson, blackberry, and blackcurrant soon achieve mastery. The flavour is dense and vinous, with good viscosity, and finishes on a note of raspberry sorbet with cinnamon. There is a sudden gush of delicious freshness on the finish – a lovely mouth feel. This very individual wine will give much pleasure from 2012 and 20 years on.

2003 CHATEAU LA MISSION HAUT BRION ****

Dark even for an ’03 (it is darker than the Haut-Brion that follows), La Mission has an expansive, rich, brooding aroma of liqueurs made from blackberries, blackcurrants, and raspberries. A chocolaty element quickly shows.

The flavour is big and weighty (the charged glass seems to weigh more!) and conjures up crushed raspberries, black cherry jam, ripe damsons. This is splendidly fruity, with great verve, and the stylish tannins are of the ideal kind. The aftertaste of raspberry and black cherry is long and delectable. This stylish, full wine shows great panache even if it lacks the classic austerity I associate with this estate. It has plenty of stuffing but not a specific La Mission kind of stuffing. I foresee two phases of maturity: one, around 2016-30 when it will drop random hints about its greatness; two, 2030-45 when its true majesty can be experienced to the full.

 

The 1989 Château Haut-Brion is one
of the greatest vintages ever made at the
Château. The 2003 is splendid too, though
the style is very different because of the
exceptionally high percentage of Merlot.

2003 CHATEAU HAUT BRION *****

If not as dark as La Mission, Haut-Brion has a richer and more potent aroma of cherry compote, blackberry, and blackcurrant. It is an enticing, luscious smell redolent of the very ripest, purest of black fruits. The flavour is mouth filling and long, complex, and vibrantly fresh. The wine’s finesse and velvety texture make me think fleetingly of Richebourg, the majestic red Burgundy. The long aftertaste has a thrilling intensity and again I register an exceptional freshness.

At this stage I have written copious notes but I goad myself (tasting is hard work) into analysing a second mouthful to make sure that I am not relaxing my guard. Time to look at the tannins again, to see what they are really made of. The first impression was correct: they really are of the ideal kind: fully ripe and without a scrap of astringency. This Haut-Brion may not be the most profound of the First Growths in 2003 but it may well be the most seductive.

The Haut-Brion segment of Pessac-Léognan was exceptional in 2003 in that it was the Merlot grape that gave the best results there, not the Cabernet-Sauvignon. This induced the wine-making team to resort to an audacious strategy in this “Saharan” vintage when many of the main parameters were changed by drought and heat. Their solution was to modify the grape-mix to give the dominant role not to the dense, structured Cabernet-Sauvignon but to the fleshy, sensuous Merlot. The latter in fact accounts for fully 58% of the composition of the 2003 wine (compared with the normal 37%) with the Cabernet-Sauvignon’s share falling from 45% to a mere 31%. The Cabernet-Franc supplies the remaining 11%.

It seems to me that this drastic departure from the norm was justified by the exceptional conditions that obtained in this precise spot in 2003. The 2003 Château Haut-Brion that resulted will no doubt intrigue and tantalise connoisseurs for at least 40 years to come.

And so will many other of the best wines from the hottest year in the history of the largest fine wine region on our planet.

Copyright © Frank Ward 2004

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