The summer of 2003 in the UK has gone down in the British collective memory as famously hot – to be compared to 1976. While Mediterranean Europe has had other hot summers recently, we have not and so the memory of 2003 has grown rather than receded. Janet and I remember house sitting in that year in a friend’s property with a new garden we had helped to make. We had to change our working hours in the garden to those our warm climate friends would recognise – 6-10am in the morning plus the early evening – and we had to water feverishly to keep newly established plants alive.
For the wine maker, persistent high temperatures in the vineyard pose particular problems. Vines are tough and are adapted to survive but that is very different from producing perfectly ripe fruit to make high quality wine. For this you either have to be set up in advance – correct varieties, low density planting, choose cooler aspects, leave enough canopy on to shade the fruit – or adapt as the season progresses and hope you get enough breaks in terms of rain to produce good quality grapes. Otherwise the vines will shut down and what you could end up with is high alcohol levels but unripe skins with tough tannins plus low acidity, not a recipe for greatness.
Andover Wine Friends’ Fine Wine Supper was a perfect opportunity to test how good producers faired in the unusual conditions in Europe with a few glances beyond this continent. This tasting was based on an excellent Wine Society offer much augmented by the cellars of those who came to the tasting. As the English weather was trying to join in, we started the evening with a couple of tastes of inexpensive rosé in the garden from more recent vintages. Domaine de Sainte Rose, Coquille D’Oc 2012 is currently on offer at Waitrose and does a pretty fair job as a perfumed example, pretty typical of the south of France. It is a Syrah/Grenache blend and perhaps the Syrah adds more fruit than one often finds in a rosé. Chiaretto Monferrato, Araldica, 2012 (Marks & Spencer) is more food orientated, made from the Barbera grape in Piemonte and has pleasant plum fruit on the palate and a bit of grip. On to the serious business.
We started with trio of whites, one from a place that would benefit from a bit more summer heat, a second which had to cope with unusual heat in 2003 and a third from a location that had a dry but otherwise normal year. Given the cool, wet, disaster that was 2012 for English sparkling wine makers, hot 2003 must seem like a dim memory. Nyetimber Blanc de Blanc Brut 2003 is an unusually ripe and fat wine. The nose is a full on marmite jar and brioche affair, with a palate of crystallised peach and citrus. If compared with the block buster which is Dom Perignon 2003 this has greater freshness but I still find the finish a bit harsh. By contrast ‘Les Pierrets’ Riesling, Josmeyer, Alsace was pretty true to type. Ten years on it had a powerful petrol/mineral nose, some warm climate opulent fruit (lime, orange rind), decent enough acidity and a seriously long finish. Perhaps least developed was our single Australian example: Local Growers, Semillon, Rockford, Barossa Valley. 2003 was a dry season with low yields in the Barossa but not exceptionally hot. The wine showed some lanolin and floral notes, good lemon fruit and high acidity. For Semillon it still tasted youthful. On this (somewhat limited) evidence good growers could still make decent, balanced white wine in the heat of 2003.
In a way the real challenge is the reds. With whites you can more easily choose to pick early as there is little contact with the skins; with reds you have make sure that skins and pips are ripe before they are crushed as they will be in prolonged contact with the must. In general the wines here more than passed the test of 2003. Pommard 1er Cru, Clos des Epeneaux, Comte Armand, Domaine des Epeneaux was particularly successful given that it comes from vines grown on really shallow soil (20-50cm) and thus vulnerable to drought. They were perhaps helped by the very small crop, a result as much of spring frost and hail as of hydric stress, so that the vines were carrying less fruit. This bottle was all that red Burgundy should be (and often isn’t): outstandingly fragrant, with a velvet texture, plump fruit and good length. The fruit was slightly more plum with some dried fruit, rather than red berries you might expect of Pinot Noir. Tasted again a day late, it had become yet more expressive and exquisite. Also very good was Domaine du Grand Montmirail, Cuvée Vielles Vignes, AC Gigondas, but of course the difference is that it is normally very hot in the southern Rhône – Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre are well adapted to heat. The wine showed beautiful sweet fruit now well knit together, fine subtle texture and good length. Two Bordeaux blends followed, one very rustic, one sophisticated. La Badinerie, Domaine du Pech, Vin de Table comes in fact from Buzet and is a Cabernet Sauvignon/Franc and Merlot blend farmed organically. Warm, dried figs and black fruit, smoke and tobacco, some herbal notes, very good. Our final wine from France was another star to go with the Burgundy, this time a second growth claret: Château Rauzan-Ségla, AC Margaux, mainly a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend. Toffee and caramel on the nose, slightly pruney fruit (signs of heat), but then red and black berries, a sleek palate smoothed out with expensive oak, medium plus fine tannins, very fine, quite powerful.
Our final three reds were from pretty warm places. The great Lebanese classic Chateau Musar may be grown at 1000m above sea level but in 2003 its yields were reduced by by a third by a spring time heat wave. It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault (so ‘half Bordeaux, half south of France’) and it showed excellent intensity, black fruit and herbs with a touch of something in the chocolate or toffee register. On then to the Iberian peninsula, first stop Priorat. Clos Mogador, René Barbier, Priorato is a classic old vine Grenache blend (with Cariñena, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) again grown at altitude, if here just 450m. Medium ruby in colour, intense taut nose, remarkable intensity on the palate with gorgeous sweet, dense, red plum to fig fruit, soft tannins, mouth-filling. A great wine from one of the gang of five who launched Priorat as a quality denomination. After Priorat you might expect a wine from the Dão to be even bigger and pushier, but Quinta dos Roques Reserva, Dão, was remarkable for its balance and elegance – and great value for money at £20. This is a classic Portuguese blend led by Touriga Nacional (small berries, great resistance to heat, intense colour and flavour). The wine had intense dark fruit on the nose, but as noted already, an elegant almost red fruit character on the palate with good balance and very good length. They are of course used to coping with the heat here.
Generalisations serve us ill in the world of wine, as elsewhere. With really top producers, the challenges of the unusually hot 2003 in Europe either benefitted the wines (certainly England, perhaps Burgundy) or were coped with admirably (Bordeaux, S Rhône, Alsace). Of course that does not mean that every bottle of 2003 will be balanced drinking but the vintage should certainly not be written off. The next challenge then is to find great wines from the atrociously wet 2002 in Italy …