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Wine from a difficult year? Just ask Burgundy

2003's blazing-hot summer shriveled some of France's top vineyards. Jon Bonné considers what it means to you

2003 brought the summer of Burgundy’s discontent.

Like much of Europe, France suffered from an extreme heat wave that left nearly 15,000 dead. Crops withered. Grapes shriveled on the vine, and vines often shut down mid-summer, unable to keep growing in the withering heat.

Vintners struggled to salvage a severely reduced crop — perhaps nowhere so more than in Burgundy, where in a normal year grapegrowers would be begging for enough heat to fully ripen their fruit. Harsh conditions can produce great wines, and did in a few cases. But this was ridiculous.

Aside from being some of the world’s most rarified, Burgundy's vineyards are also notorious for being fickle: occasionally turning out transcendent wines, often producing underripe or harsh ones. Yet no one could have foreseen the trials of 2003. The comparisons reached back generations — to the esteemed 1947 vintage by some estimates, even as far back as 1893. Even the most skilled Burgundian winemaker was left puzzled about how to handle the sort of vintage not seen in a century, one that had more in common with the Sahara Desert than northern France.

“No one alive had seen a vintage like this before,” says Burgundy expert Allen Meadows, who publishes

The result: a tricky vintage that has polarized wine aficionados, perhaps more than any in recent memory. Fans insist Burgundy's 2003 red wines are lush and approachable, immediately appealing in a way that usually stoic Burgundies never could be, and closer to Sonoma or Santa Barbara than France. “The old classic style, where you had to wait 20 years to have your pleasure enhanced, is over,” veteran wine writer Terry Robards said recently. “This style of wine is the new standard.”

Yet the vintage’s critics — including traditional Burgundy lovers — have been scrambling to find even a few 2003 wines they can enjoy. Mostly, they’ve written it off as a frustrating freak of nature.

Perfect storm of a yearWhat’s not to like? Powerful flavors in wine need to be balanced out by a pronounced acidity, which is precisely what's hard to find when you have the sort of weather Burgundy saw in 2003. Both reds and whites are packed with lush, occasionally syrupy, flavors that can taste flabby and thick, out of balance and lacking brightness to make them dynamic and food-friendly.

“They’re just not my style,” says Robert Bohr, wine director at the New York restaurant Cru, which features one of the nation’s most extensive list of Burgundies. “I like classic Burgundy, and classic refers to finesse and elegance, rather than density and power and fruit and alcohol.”

For Burgundians, 2003 was a perfect storm of a year: temperamental grapes, horribly aberrant weather and occasional missteps by winemakers driven to frustration as they tried to cope with such a bizarre vintage.

Burgundy's red grape is pinot noir, which withers in heat; its thin skins can grow thick, making for tannic, chewy wines — especially when seemingly ripe berries have yet to mature inside. That’s precisely what can happen in the sort of extreme heat that 2003 brought. Unripe seeds inside add a harsh, green note.

Soaring temperatures were worsened by a persistent drought and hail storms, all of which followed a miserable spring, including an April 11 frost that crippled many pinot noir vines, which are known to sprout early.

Some growers, like Francois Mikulski of Meursault, described their grapes as drying, raisin-like, on the vine. Other unfortunate souls trimmed leaves off the vines, leaving the poor grapes unprotected in the scalding sun like a baby without a beach umbrella. The endless heat prompted Burgundy to hasten its harvest, with an official start on Aug. 19, the earliest in over a century.

Fearing the worst, many vintners scrambled to pluck still-unready grapes. Savvier ones waited a week or two until temperatures leveled off, then discarded dried or tough-skinned grapes. Some used refrigerated trucks or containers to chill the grapes after their long, hot summer and then kept the temperature in check during fermentation.

Rules don't applyGiven Burgundy’s tradition-bound ways, vintners turned to each other in a collective scramble for solutions. The net result was a lot of experimentation and wide variations in quality, with the occasional success. In Bohr’s view, winemakers who treated their wines delicately, and who exercised patience — both in picking and in finishing the wine — fared best.

Essentially, the rules for Burgundy don’t really apply for 2003. Its rigid quality hierarchy of quality — from basic Bourgogne level wines all the way up through the refined grand crus – won’t be a terribly reliable guide. There are a few silver linings. Lesser appellations that often struggle to achieve ripeness or status, like Auxey-Duresses or Maranges, rallied. They can prove good bargains.

“It’s certainly a vintage where there aren’t very many rules of thumb,” says Meadows.

So don’t make assumptions: The 2003 red Burgundies offer great possibilities for wine lovers, but few are typical of what you’re likely to find in a more typical vintage like 2004.

In other words, when it comes to the 2003s, don’t necessarily believe what you drink. “Any honest person who’s selling wine to people,” Bohr says, “should explain that this is an anomaly.”

TASTING NOTESIndeed, there aren’t many good rules of thumb for the 2003s.  In tasting over 40 red Burgundies, we found some consistency among producers, but not always. Variations within appellations are huge, even among usually exalted communes like Vosne-Romanée or Gevrey-Chambertin. And among Burgundy’s relative bargains, like the basic Bourgogne rouge, you’re as likely to find wines that are unpleasant, even undrinkable, as you are to uncover great bargains. These nine offer a sampling of quality from a vintage no one can agree on.

Tollot-Beaut 2003 Aloxe-Corton Premier Cru “Les Vercots” ($43, Diageo Chateau & Estate): Ripe and redolent, with baking spice, truffle and black pepper, wrapped into layered, generous black fruit. With balance and just enough grip. Gorgeous and enduring.

Joseph Drouhin 2003 Aloxe-Corton ($43, Dreyfus, Ashby): Eucalyptus and moist earth, a nose driven by a sense of place. Sweaty and rich, with lush dark red fruit, ripe cherry and a hint of warm oak in back. Soft-edged, with a musky note that draws you in.

Jean-Marc Bouley 2003 Beaunes “Les Reversées” ($44, V.O.S. Selections): The Beaune appellation covers the large swaths of terrain surrounding Burgundy’s largest winemaking town. This offering brings focused scents of baking spices, pine needle and truffle, with a forward bolt of fruit and a relatively smooth ride down. Its density is built on the aromatics, and dominates a slightly peppery finish.

Francois Mikulski 2003 Volnay Premier Cru “Les Santenots” ($70, Veritas): Fresh mint and twig, with all the perfumed delicacy you’d want from a typically feminine, elegant Volnay. A meaty punch comes in midway through, and moves to a fine, tart finish. Elegance in a vintage that favored power.

Jean Grivot 2003 Nuits-St.-Georges “Les Charmois” ($45, Diageo Chateau & Estate): Cool and peppery, with mint notes amid the barnyard funk. Silky on the start, with concentration in its core and a fine tannin on the end. Well-built.

Louis Jadot 2003 Beaune “Les Bressandes” ($40, Kobrand): Toasty bacon note, with ripe fruit and a soft, engaging finish from one of the Beaune commune’s better vineyards. Nicely crafted — straightforward but pleasing.

Nicolas Potel 2003 Monthélie Vielles Vignes ($30, Frederick Wildman): A wine built on its aromatics, from one of the Cote de Beaune’s more obscure appellations near Volnay. Focused on delicate sour cherry, vanilla and dust, bolstered with 20 percent new oak. The end falls off, and the red fruit is muted, but it’s thoughtful and fragrant.

Joseph Drouhin 2003 Chorey-les-Beaune ($21, Dreyfus, Ashby): Ready and luscious, still on its bright fruit with brown spice in back. Expansive without being large or heavy, though there’s a bitter hint at the end. From a lower-elevation commune near Beaune, known mostly for its village wines.

Vincent Girardin 2003 Maranges Premier Cru “Clos des Loyeres” ($25, Vineyard Brands): From the southernmost village in the Cote de Beaune. Thick and carameled on the nose, with mushroom and pine needle. Great density in its core, though it finishes a bit grainy.