2003 and 2002 Red Burgundies

Although it is far too early to know if a significant percentage of the 2003 red Burgundies will turn out to be monumental wines with real staying power, as some producers and wine merchants claim, it's not too soon to say that this vintage is something of a miracle.  Despite the earliest start to the harvest since 1893, and a number of extreme weather events, and the highest average growing season temperatures ever recorded in Burgundy, many of the region's top producers have come up with deeply colored, creamy-rich and surprisingly sappy wines that show no rough edges.  Comparing the 2003s to wines from past vintages and attempting to predict their future development are exercises in futility.  "If I tried to say how the 2003s will age, I'd be lying," noted Christian Gouges.  "There's no precedent, no reference vintage.  But the 2003s may outlive me.

As one who prizes precision, vibrancy and finesse in pinot noir, I feared the worst when I travelled to Burgundy in November for my annual tour of the best red wine addresses of the Cote d'Or. But I was surprised to find just how many wines managed to escape the roasted character of this extreme growing season, a summer that apparently was even more of a trial for France's inhabitants than it was for its vines. That so many wines are turning out well is a testament to the ability of great sites to produce interesting fruit under the most extreme conditions.

The 2003 growing season and harvest. Burgundy began the 2003 growing season with good reserves of water in the soil—a factor that would prove critical that spring and summer. Record-breaking sunshine through the month of March led to a very early bud-break. Then damaging frosts struck in early April, with the cold spell culminating in the frigid nights of April 10 and 11. Chardonnay, especially vines low on the hillsides and on flatter land on the Côte de Beaune, was generally more affected than pinot noir due to the stage of development of the young buds. But frost caused damage up and down the Côte d'Or. Ultimately, many pinot producers would report that their yields in 2003 were reduced by frost more than by the extreme summer heat that followed.

From mid-May until the end of August, average temperatures were sharply above the mean, with late July and, in particular, the first half of August brutally hot. Two locally severe thunderstorms, one in mid-June and the other in mid-July, caused hail damage in some vineyards, but through most of the summer relentless sunshine was the rule. As the berries dehydrated, potential alcohol levels soared, and exposed fruit suffered sunburn, with grapes unprotected by foliage (leaf-pulling was generally a bad idea in 2003!) often grilled on one side. Although many vineyards suffered from heat stress, and much fruit was literally burned and shriveled by the scalding sun, older vines and those on more water-retentive soils were generally able to get enough moisture from the ground. In many instances, though, the hillside vineyards that had largely escaped the spring frost were particularly vulnerable to the summer heat, due to their lighter, rockier, faster-draining soils and longer daily exposure to sun. In many spots, the foliage suffered and the evolution of phenolic maturity was blocked. The ban de vendange was set for August 19 for the Côte d'Or—barely 80 days after the flowering. But while grape sugars were already high, and acidity levels often alarmingly low, much of the fruit had not yet achieved phenolic ripeness.

Growers curtailed their summer vacations and rushed home. Some panicked at the prospect of vinifying thick-skinned, wizened grapes with 13% or 14% of potential alcohol and dangerously low acidity and started harvesting immediately. Others who wanted to pick were unable to do so because it took them a week or more to mobilize a team of harvesters. All across the region, Burgundy winemakers placed calls for advice to their friends in the Languedoc, asking, in essence, "What the hell do I do with these raisins?"

Many early harvesters picked only during the morning hours, and even then used various methods to chill their fruit and forestall the start of the fermentations. Some estates brought refrigerated trucks into the vineyards. Others used a variety of techniques for quickly chilling the warm grapes in the cuverie. Several winemakers told me they used carboglace, essentially a solid block of dry ice that turns to frigid carbon dioxide gas (-80oC!) as it warms. Others used carbonic snow, a similar but somewhat less extreme cooling system that requires more expensive equipment.

But numerous growers decided to wait, and most in this group are happy they did. Among the advantages they cited, better phenolic maturity of the grape skins was at the top of the list, with the riper skins giving richer, more complex tannins and a fuller expression of aromas and flavors. The late pickers also benefited by being able to harvest under less extreme conditions (temperatures slowly began to moderate after August 24), and the cooler grapes were less likely to begin fermenting immediately. Beneficial precipitation in late August, as well as some morning dew, reinvigorated the vines without swelling the grapes, and gave much of this later-picked fruit a healthier aspect. With some notable exceptions, it's the fruit from vines harvested from the last days of August onward that produced the richest and best-balanced wines. These are generally the wines with the volume and the phenolic structure to support their high alcohol and to permit a slow and stable evolution in bottle.

If there were two schools of thought on harvesting dates, there was much more agreement about vinification. Due to the high ratio of skins to juice, as well as memories of the brutally tannic '76s, most vignerons practiced gentler extractions than usual: shorter cold macerations (in many cases because warm ambient temperatures caused fermentations to start quickly); much less punching down (pigeage) of the cap to avoid extracting bitter tannins; cooler fermentation temperatures, and shorter total cuvaisons, or the time the fermenting wine remains on its skins. Most pinot noir producers added at least some tartaric acidity to their musts, in several instances for the first time in their careers, but they rarely needed to chaptalize.

The 2003 wines. The more I tasted the 2003s, the more difficult it was to generalize about them. In principle, the character of the vintage is superripe if not downright roasted, with many wines showing exotic aromas and flavors more typical to the Rhône Valley, as well as tough or dry-edged tannins owing to thick skins with insufficient phenolic ripeness or excessive extraction during vinification. I frequently found a sweetness in the middle palate that is not matched by ripeness of tannins, an indication that sugar accumulation often ran far ahead of true phenolic ripeness of the grape skins. Certainly, wines like these are common at the level of Burgundy's second-rate growers and lesser négociants. But on my November tour—limited as always to the better producers—I found many, many wines that are altogether more interesting. Although the majority of 2003s will always be characterized more by their vintage than by their site, there are still a shocking number of wines with reasonably fresh and interesting aromas (tending more to black fruits than to red), adequate levels of acidity, very high natural alcohol, and extraordinary richness, with plenty of ripe tannins to ensure at least medium-term life in bottle (i.e., 6 to 12 years for premier crus and 8 to 15 for grand crus). It is entirely possible that the best wines will go on for considerably longer, but I would not advise collectors to bury these wines in their cellars. It is also possible that due to their sheer density and boatload of tannins, many of the biggest 2003s will shut down in bottle. Predicting the likely aging curve of this vintage is impossible, as the wines range so widely in style, concentration levels and balance.

Owing to the high percentage of small, thick-skinned grapes, including some later-ripening, second-generation fruit, many winemakers vinified whole, uncrushed clusters (often referred to as vendange entier), and, as noted earlier, practiced gentler extraction for fear of getting hard tannins. The result is that these grapes tended to release their sugars very slowly. Numerous vignerons told me that they finished their sugar fermentations in tank, off the skins, or even in barrel. At the same time, several winemakers noted that their initial analyses of the juice understated the true amount of acidity in the grapes, and that acidity levels seemed literally to rise during the fermentations as the skins gave up their riches. Later harvesters were more likely to have gotten any second-generation grapes reasonably ripe, and this fruit was often particularly concentrated and higher in acidity.

It may well be that the most fragile wines of 2003 will be those that finished their malolactic fermentations quickly, and then were racked off their lees, and bottled, early. These wines may turn out to resemble the majority of the 1997s. But many producers reported to me that wines that finished their secondary fermentation during the spring of 2004, and that remained on their lees through the summer, seemed to gain in freshness and energy, showing more typical pinot character as well as site specificity—and shedding some of their more exotic aromas—even as they gained in richness.

Sites and villages with a tendency to produce muscular wines with rustic tannins (e.g., Bonnes-Mares, Clos Vougeot) often benefited from the extreme heat of 2003, especially when they could be harvested late. Gevrey-Chambertin and Marsannay enjoyed the freshening effect of some rain in mid-August that petered out by the time it reached Morey-Saint-Denis. As a rule, I prefer the Côte de Nuits to the Côte de Beaune in 2003, largely because growers in the latter area were likely to have picked earlier under hotter conditions.

Some Burgundy insiders have compared the 2003s to the 1947s, whose handful of best examples were extremely rich, dense wines that went on for decades in bottle. This may be wishful thinking, but certainly there are some immensely rich, high-alcohol '03s that resemble the '47s, at least on paper. Others worried that the '03s could turn out to be like the '76s. But 1976 was a year of punishing, extended drought. In 2003, total precipitation from March through August was below average each month, but down by only about one-third over this period; in 1976 it was down by nearly 75%.

A look at the finished 2002s. They are delicious. The better 2002s are beautifully balanced wines with succulent fruit, plenty of mineral and floral character, healthy ripe acidity, and firm tannins that are rarely dry. A small segment of the market seems to be suspicious of wines that taste too good; these collectors continue to gravitate toward the leaner 2001s, which they believe show clearer terroir character. I am a great fan of the best 2001s, and I believe they will last well. But the 2002s may give pleasure over a longer drinking plane, and I suspect that upwards of 90% of the Burgundy-loving population will prefer them. While the terroir character of the 2002s can be muted in the early going by sheer sweetness of fruit, I predict that as the better 2002s shed some of their baby fat, their underlying soil character will become more apparent. Although many 2002s are utterly seductive today, they should be suited for at least mid-term aging, with premier crus at their best between 2010 and 2018 and grand crus from 2014 through 2020. For what it's worth, in my extensive recent tastings of another 200 or so 2002s in New York in January and February, I found that the overwhelming majority of the better wines were at least as good 24 to 48 hours later from recorked and refrigerated bottles. I have not always had such luck with past Burgundy vintages.

A word on red Burgundy pricing. Due to the small size of the crop and the weak U.S. dollar, 2003 red Burgundy prices are at record levels, and many wines will be difficult to find in the marketplace. Some of the best values will be among very good village-level wines, which can be unusually ripe and satisfying in 2003. While my own tastes normally lean to the 2002s, the best wines from this vintage are also far from cheap, and they are rapidly disappearing from store shelves.

Following are brief producer profiles and notes on the 2003s and 2002s, based on my visit to Burgundy in November and subsequent tastings in New York. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines that were not yet bottled at the time of my tastings.