THE 2003 VINTAGE IN CHAMPAGNE

It is at last beginning to be time to evaluate the much-discussed champagne vintage of 2003 at this point when almost all the wines of that vintage have been out on the market for a while since they are now eight years of age. In Champagne, most people were in agreement that they would not make any vintage wines at all from that year’s vintage which was at first considered to be a failure, and if they tried to do so anyway contrary to expectation then they viewed the wines mostly as curiosities and experiments. I personally consider that this year of summer heat is particularly interesting to follow up since this curiosity of a wine might well turn out to be a normal vintage in the future if the greenhouse effect develops as dramatically as people prophesy. With the two most recent bitterly cold winters freshly in mind we might not allow ourselves to be convinced as unanimously by the worst terror scenario that has been presented, even if it is impossible to reject the changes in climate completely as being the fruits of natural cycles without the influence of human beings. Regardless of conviction and climate ideology, it is most probable that extremely warm years with harvests as early as August like in 2003 will appear more often than before and that classically slender, dry, slowly-developing, graceful beauties harvested at the end of September will become more and more rare.

The normally slow and tradition-bound people in Champagne have been surprisingly quick on their toes this time and immediately taken the tolling of the warning bells seriously. They are highly aware that the unique greatness of Champagne lies in the combination of perfect geological terroir conditions and a cool border climate in which the vines have to fight hard for their survival, where the roots are compelled by their austere living space to suck in every single subtle mineral and nuance from their place of growth and to let it be reflected in the unmistakeable elegance of the exuberant wines. In order to avoid Californian vintages, they have rapidly worked out how they can cope with a rise in temperature and purely technically or practically keep the wine cooler and fresher. With more shade plantation and protective foliage as well as altered distance between rows along with other sun-subduing measures, they assert that they can manage to produce subtle elegance in the future even in hot years of the same calibre as 2003. The limit must however be somewhere around there. If they end up with over 43 degrees centigrade (considerably higher than this in the blazing sunshine) which was the maximum temperature that summer with weeks at a time over 38 degrees then not even modern cooling techniques can resist the shortage of acid and elegance. Now it is of course true that the foremost places of cultivation in Champagne with their pure belemnite chalk produce wines characterised by minerals even if they become sweet, oily and bursting with alcohol. It would definitely be possible to make Montrachet-like still white wines from Avize, Cramant, Oger and Le Mesnil or red Clos de la Roche-imitations in Aÿ, Verzenay and Ambonnay, in a warmer climate, but since the mellowing carbon dioxide demands an excess of needle-sharp malic acid, the great sparkling wines are in the danger zone even in these communes that are perfect when it comes to terroir.

Back to the year 2003. After a year of extreme weather conditions with temperatures around 11 degrees below zero in April, hailstorms and heat records, the harvest was reduced to a minimum. An interesting detail is that when it was absolutely warmest and they were convinced that a large number of vines would die and the plants would dry out completely, the strongest of the threatened vines responded by drawing their sap back down under the earth and living on a kind of minimum energy almost like a skier buried by an avalanche who has a pulse of one heartbeat per minute and who still survives thanks to her or his backburner behaviour. When the grapes were finally harvested and the first juice, and later on the wines, were tasted, everybody was in agreement that they were far too mature and flirtatiously delicious from the very first. The still blending wines of Champagne must de facto be grimace-provokingly raw and acid in order to have any potential. Yet there is an extremely interesting paradox to reflect over. Why are all the earlier super-warm vintages considered as belonging to the greatest and most long-lived in the history of wine? The next-warmest year in the history of Champagne is 1959, a vintage that stood out as the most eminent in the eyes of the jury during the Millennium Tasting in 1999, with Billecart’s 59-er as the clear winner. 1947, 1976, 1989 and to some degree 1990 are other more or less closely related hot years with relatively low acid, and it is of course the acid that everyone talks about when storing a champagne for a really long time. You only have to taste the difference between a young and raw Salon of about ten years of age compared with cracking open a heavenly walnut-nosed legendary mono cru from the fifties in order for it to become quite obvious that this is the foremost precondition for being storable.

Now it is alas not quite that simple. High acidity is perhaps the most important cog in the storage machinery, but factors like alcohol content, richness of extract, sugar quantity and the amount of carbon dioxide also need to have a say in the matter. Since the acid in warm years is still much higher than in most sparkling wines from the rest of the world it can be sufficient, although the heat has given the grapes an excess of sugar that in the end will result in high alcohol levels like those of the 59-ers, sometimes up to 14 %. Common to all these vintages with the exception of 1990, is that they were considered to be good and mature in the beginning but were later condemned as pleasant wines for quick consumption. Clearly one never learns one’s lesson. When the 76’s arrived and were copies of 47 and 59 I was there almost from the start and read my English guru’s reports about a young, dazzling, jovial beauty that was going to go out like a sparkler in a few years’ time. The 76’s were unchanged until their twenty-fifth birthday when they suddenly accelerated and changed to a yet higher gear of loveliness. Apart from the dazzling fruitiness, vanilla and coconut notes and their beautiful buttery exoticism, an animalish, slightly deeper taste layer arrived, making the wines monumental, which they still are moreover. Now 2003 is even poorer in acid and was extremely and pleasingly candy-corpulent from the start, which however makes me doubt that they might have yet another gear to change up to before the fruitiness dries out. However I would not be surprised if I am proved wrong. If we look at the development that has occurred up to now with the 03’s, it is very slow and only to the good. It will be a long time before we bump into any tired examples with tones of oxidation.

Before I go into the quality of the individual wines, I am able to establish that cultivation sites with very distinctive mineral character feel like a must for greatness in a year like this. Furthermore, Chardonnay has more freshness and potential than Pinot speaking in purely general terms while at the same time establishing that a number of heavy, Burgundy-like and plump rosé champagnes are causing the market to bloom and lifting Bresse chicken with that truffled cream sauce in precisely the same way as some great rosés from 1976 always have done. Growers in Côte de Blancs are the most interesting objects for botanising at the same time as my winner will have to constitute the exception that confirms the rule that the 2003’s should not be blended but have their greatest charm in the pure grape examples that have avoided malolactic fermentation and that were harvested early. Low harvest level is always important and in 2003 they were given a helping hand by a god (no, I do not mean the little Argentinian), at a point in time when dramatic weather conditions were claiming victims.

Blends of almost extinct grape varieties are interesting to follow. If one is interested in how super-mature Petit Meslier, Fromenteau and Arbanne taste one can happily check on wines from Moutard and Aubry.

Vintage champagne can be found from the houses Taittinger, Chanoine Tsarine, Mercier, Moët & Chandon, in the Meunier-dominated white version as well as a more Pinot noir-driven, Burgundy-like rosé version. The much spoken-of Bollinger by Bollinger, 89 points is a special wine from the fine old house’s foremost locations at Aÿ, Verzenay and on three small plots planted with old Chardonnay vines at Cuis. To mark that this is perhaps not a great but even so an interesting year, they chose to call the wine By Bollinger instead of La Grande Année. What is it like then? Yes, well, it is really difficult to prophesy where it is going to end up. To me it seems however to be slightly sweeter and simpler, though at the same time a very house-typical champagne situated somewhere between La Grande Année and a Vieilles Vignes in style, where the aromas are fairly classical considering the year and the concentrated, gentle fruit blossom structure is reminiscent of the latter. The Louis Roederer, 93 points, in a magnum by preference, is very fresh and lively with reductive toasted magnum tones. Feels in fact more like a 2002 despite the existence of a certain generosity. A slightly nutty and spicy style. A long, lively aftertaste of classical Roederer cut. Somewhat rounder and more toffee- saturated in an ordinary bottle of course. The Roederer Blanc de Blancs, 94 points is so exotic and gracefully lovely despite the year. Masses of pineapple and dried müsli-friendly fruits. Sweet, gentle and seductive. With the Roederer Rosé, 92 points, they have also succeeded in proving that 2003 can produce fine wines and elegant wines by means of selective harvesting. To me the rosé is very reminiscent of the vintage 1989 with its great, richly generous, toffee-draped, creamy fruitiness. Sweet tones without clumsiness right through the entire experience. Fine expressive Pinot from Cumières dominates.

The only prestige rosés that I remember are a rather overloaded version of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé as well as Gosset Célebris Rosé, 94 points with wonderful dimensions and super-rich strawberry-saturated fruitiness. The only thing missing today in this impressive wine is a proper tail! The aftertaste is perhaps a trifle abrupt and heavily rounded-off, something that I am convinced storage will cure. The Comtes Rosé was unfortunately released far too early. Its barrel quality is raw and bitter along with the smokily burnt overheated style of the vintage. I can imagine that this very full-bodied wine will soon become much more enjoyable and I believe in a certain potential, but there is a class distinction between this and the adorable 2002.

The 2003 Selosse, 94 points is definitely going to be one of the absolutely most eminent 2003’s. Masterly Anselme has of course read the year correctly and has no problems with heat at all. The wine is certainly opulent, but enchantingly refreshing and majestic. The newcomer Selosse Le Mesnil, 95 points, with which 2,500 bottles of Anselme’s first pure Mesnil have been created, has more mineral, acid character and finesse than the Avize-based wines while having at the same time Selosse’s distinctive aromatic Marrakesh-smelling individuality. A great wine that is going to take a long time before it reaches its target. The mineral-characterised and acid-rich village of Le Mesnil is precisely where one can find many delightful wines like Robert Moncuit, Charlemagne or the very successful Philippe Gonet, 92 points. If one is to invest in a certain type of wine from 2003 I suppose that it should be a blanc de blancs from Le Mesnil. The wines never become clumsy here even in such a year as this. Gonet’s example is a buttery, toffeeish, smooth and oily version in a way that makes me remember the 76’s when they were young.

I grew very fond of the 2003 Pierre Peters, 90 points. A truly muscular, toffee-dripping goody. It has sweet mandarine and caramel in superabundance. Lots of oily butterscotch structure and voluptuousness. Not perhaps a classic Peters, but an opulent affair reminiscent of the 89. One grower who shines more and more beautifully for every new vintage is Selosse’s good friend Vergnon, who in his Confidence, 90 points has succeeded in putting together a real winner.

From Mesnil’s neighbour in the south, Vertus, comes a brilliant and balanced creation from 2003 in the form of Doyard-Mahé Blanc de Blancs in a magnum, 89 points. The most eminent wine from Cramant must really be Larmandier-Bernier’s reliable Vieilles Vignes de Cramant, 92 points. I assumed that the vintage’s exaggerated opulence and lack of finesse would be more distinct. The wine is certainly no ballet dancer, but balanced enough to breathe elegance during the intense fruitiness and the lightly smoked tones of warmth. Banana, pineapple, firewood and ripe apples are what can be most easily distinguished in this wine while still in its youth. Exciting to follow it up in the future. Do not say no to the luxuriously honey-scented and opulently buttery Lancelot-Goussard either, nor to a classically creamy Bonnaire. At Chouilly, Legras attains 89 points with his pure and stylish Cuvée Presidence.

Few Pinot growers have dared to attempt pure 03’s. The ones that stand out are Lamiable Meslaines, 90 points, a pure blanc de noirs from Tours-sur-Marne and Ledru’s pure Pinot from old vines at Ambonnay, Ledru Blanc de Noirs Vieillles Vignes which also has 90 points. Meslaines is a wine with sunny warm opulence and lushly voluptuous Pinot, but also with grace and purity like few others. I also like the fact that aromas that are as unusual for this vintage as newly-laundered sheets, melon and chalk assert themselves so strongly. Ledru Vieilles Vignes is a true giant with monumentally stunning sweet fruitiness and dark depths that are going to become animal and smoky with storage. A genuine Goliath with mellowness in the aftertaste. The 2003 De Méric Sois Bois Bouzy Rosé, 92 points is one of the more exciting creations of the vintage. A light and massively oaky giant made with peel contact from old vines at Bouzy. Only old barrels it is said, but I can sense a number of young barrel tones too, along with an almost corpulent fruitiness from this super-warm year. Very reminiscent of Bollinger’s rosé in every way except with regard to colour. Decant and enjoy with veal or a bird to get the most out of this fantastically impressive wine.

Outside the grand cru villages we find even fewer examples. Not so strange considering that the pure, elegant mineral at the best cultivation sites is the key to success when boiling the fruit. Without any doubt it is David Léclapart who has succeeded the best with his unearthly Apôtre from the foremost location at Trépail, 95 points. This wine is reminiscent of the best white Burgundies and has despite its incredible honey-dripping opulence a freshness that is unique. David asserts that his grandfather’s loving handling on horseback has laid the foundations for this strikingly unique terroir, but I believe more in David’s unique fingertip feeling for getting the best out of the old vines. Almost in the same class as Léclapart are the organic grower Maillart’s two vineyard wines from ungrafted vines and his clever use of new oak barrels as spice. His Les Chaillots Gillis achieves 89 points. In this oily vintage this wine outdid its dark sibling from Pinot first of all when it was released on to the market. Super groovy and explosive with masses of exotic fruits and dwarf banana. The new barrels are distinctive but not dominant over the opulent fruitiness. However it is beaten at present by Francs de Pied, 91 points, which is a monster of a wine not a little reminiscent of Billecart’s Clos Saint Hilaire from 1995.

Two odd but very concentrated rosés are Jacquesson’s vineyard rosé Terres Rouge at Dizy and Leclerc-Briant’s dark red, tannin-packed Rubis Rosé. I know that the Chiquet brothers are mad about fine DRC wines. Here they have succeeded in creating a sensual bouquet from Pinot Meunier at Dizy that is proceeding in that direction even though it is not at all that high-class. However, it is a very interesting and fascinatingly intense Pinot wine of high concentration.

Other wines from 2003 to keep an eye on are Telmont at Damery, Larmandier at Cramant, Mailly Intemporelle which is more mellow if less complex than previous vintages, brilliantly reliable René Geoffroy at Cumières or Gobillard at Hautvillers.

I have saved the possibly most eminent champagne of the year to last. We will have to see when it is time to launch this dainty morsel which I have only tasted in advance with the winemaker ”Richard number one” himself. It is perhaps surprising to many people that my first choice for this year is Dom Pérignon, 96 points. However it is actually quite natural if one considers that they have far and away the most extensive acreage to choose from and can control their style better than anyone else. Add to this the fact that Dom Pérignon’s greatest problem nowadays is lack of concentration as a consequence of overproduction then you will understand that it is only a blessing when Nature concentrates the fruitiness as occurred in 2003. Contrary to what is going to be the general consensus, I am convinced that this powerful and extra-opulent wine is going to be at its best if drunk when it is really old. Thirty years old is probably a suitable age despite the low acid. The wine is massively reminiscent of the 76 and it will be a joy to see if more wines are going to age as beautifully as the 76’s, which in that case can mean that climate change is not only for the worse, something that I from my narrowly egoistic perspective am otherwise completely convinced of as I sit here snowed in and longing for warmth in my house in Siberian Scandinavia.

2003 Top 10

1 2003 Dom Pérignon 96 points
2 2003 Selosse Mesnil 95 points
3 2003 Leclapart Apôtre 95 points
4 2003 Selosse 94 points
5 2003 Roederer Blanc de Blancs 94 points
6 2003 Gosset Célebris Rosé 94 points
7 2003 Roederer 93 points
8 2003 De Méric Sois Cois Bouzy Rosé 92 points
9 2003 Larmandier-Bernier Cramant 92 points
10 2003 Philippe Gonet Blanc de Blancs 92 points

 

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