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The 2003 Vintage Report

What to expect from key wine regions around the world

Dana Nigro
Posted: December 10, 2003

  Vintage 2003:  
  United States  

You could call 2003 the year of extremes -- even for winemakers, for whom inconsistent weather and uncertainty are a way of life. Few wine regions in the Northern Hemisphere had mild weather during the growing season. If it wasn't withering summer heat, it was a killer early frost, or perpetual rainy, gray skies. The vintage turned into a kind of Iron Chef competition for winemakers to see what they could make with the ingredients they were given.

Europe, as was widely covered in the international media, suffered under a brutal heat wave and drought that drastically cut the crop size. For normally cool regions, such as Austria, Germany and parts of northern France, this turned out to be largely good news, as grapes ripened more easily than usual and the wines may turn out to be atypically opulent.

But winemakers in warmer regions often struggled with sunburned or shriveled grapes, along with abnormally high sugar levels that could lead to overly alcoholic or otherwise unbalanced wines. Those who were successful in dealing with the challenges say they made very concentrated wines. There will be few sweet wines because of a lack of botrytis in the dry conditions, although Sauternes estates reported that quality was excellent.

In the United States, Oregon and Washington also saw very hot summers, which should lead to rich, powerful reds. California was dealt up-and-down weather, but was fortunate enough to wrap up with a beautiful fall; inconsistency may be the vintage's hallmark, with wines ranging from excellent to mediocre. And the eastern United States -- including New York and Virginia -- seemed to be on a different plane of existence altogether. Gray, rainy and cool weather rolled in during the spring and dragged on like a never-ending series of B-movie sequels. Summer heat? What summer?

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Austria: Vintners are optimistic about whites and reds, but few sweet wines were made.

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Alsace: Quality is high in a dry year that produced few sweet wines.

Bordeaux: Faced with dark, ultraripe reds, vintners are uncertain about overall quality.

Burgundy: Pinots are extremely concentrated; quality uneven for Chardonnay.

Champagne: Spring frost and summer heat mean small amounts of vintage wines.

Loire Valley: Region benefits from heat with full-bodied whites and reds.

Rhône Valley: Growers produce rich reds and wines, but fear some wines may lack acidity.

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Germany: Rieslings may be outstanding, but uncharacteristically opulent.

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Italy: High temperatures take their toll; quality hangs on site and selection.

Piedmont: Opinions are mixed on Nebbiolo; Dolcetto and Barbera fare better.

Tuscany: Merlot suffers, Syrah may shine and Sangiovese is variable.

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Portugal: With excellent quality, many Port houses expect to declare a vintage year.

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Spain: Vintners report inconsistent quality as a result of the heat wave.

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United States

California: Wines may range from excellent to poor in the state's key regions.

Eastern U.S.: Finger Lakes, Long Island and Virginia are challenged by rain and cold.

Oregon: Hot year produces powerful Pinots, but alcohol levels are high.

Washington: Vintners expect rich, ripe Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah.

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