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The Seductive Appeal of 2003 Bordeaux

A hot, ripe vintage brings outstanding wines

James Suckling
Posted: February 6, 2006

What's not to like about 2003 Bordeaux? I kept asking myself that question as I tasted through some of the vintage's best reds and whites at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey in Los Angeles in late January.

More than 60 château owners and winemakers came from Bordeaux to pour their 2003s at the tasting, organized by the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux, an organization of some of the region's top names. It was the last in a series of tastings hosted in various major cities in North America; more than 5,000 people attended the tastings in total. About 600 attended the Los Angeles event, most of them wine merchants and restaurant wine buyers.

Most of the comments that I heard in the room were very, very positive about Bordeaux's newest vintage on the market. Some people might call the 2003 reds slightly New World in style due to their opulence and ripe fruit character, but they remain Bordeaux through and through. They are like clarets from other ultraripe, hot years, including 1990, 1989, 1982, 1961, 1959 and so on.

"Awesome!" screamed Allyson DePetrillo, an account manager for the Estates Group, a wine distributor in San Diego. The 20-something woman was literally jumping with excitement as she tasted some of the 2003s on hand. "There's just so much fruit in these wines. I love them."

I too love many of them for their delicious fruit and ripe tannins. I only tasted two dozen reds during my brief visit to the UGC event, but I found the wines as exciting as when I tasted them in Bordeaux in blind tastings in early December of 2005. I have now reviewed more than 500 Bordeaux from 2003, in independent blind tastings in Bordeaux and my office in Tuscany.

An in-depth analysis of my tastings, along with ratings for all the wines, will appear in the March issue of Wine Spectator, which will be available in just a few weeks. This information, plus exclusive bonus material such as video interviews with some of Bordeaux's leading winemakers, will also be posted on Wine Spectator Online, in early March. And feel free to join the extensive discussion of 2003 Bordeaux that is currently taking place in the Wine Conversations section of our online Forums.

We are giving such prominent coverage to the vintage because of its high quality and its enthusiastic reception in the United States. It's not often I taste young clarets with such muscle, such concentration. Yet, at the same time, they have a freshness and focus that make them thoroughly Bordeaux. This is why so many people at the tasting in Los Angeles were smiling. The wines were fun to taste! And they already give pleasure.

"People are really interested in the wines," said Michel Tesseron, owner of Château Lafon-Rochet in St.-Estèphe, who was pouring his 2003 at the January tasting. "They really like the wines. They are rich yet complex. They are already so good to drink."

Some of the Left Bank wines with high levels of Cabernet Sauvignon really are mind-blowing; I rated the vintage 95 points (on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) for the Left Bank, which includes the Médoc and Pessac-Léognan. The Right Bank wines (including Pomerol and St.-Emilion) are rich and exotic, although some verge on jammy, and I rate the vintage there at 94 points.

However, only a small percentage of the wines I tasted are truly of classic quality (95 to 100 points). Most of the big names in Bordeaux made outstanding wines (90 or more points), but they are not quite at the level of the 2000s. Regardless, many lesser-ranked estates made juicy and fruity reds that will give great pleasure when they are young and will also improve with some bottle age. But 2003 is not a monumental vintage such as 2000, 1990 or 1989—or, dare I say it, 2005, if early reports from Bordeaux are right.

A couple of wine merchants at the Los Angeles tasting voiced some concern about the low acidity of the wines. One even called the wines "not very Bordeaux." But I don't think the acidity is any lower than in many other hot vintages in Bordeaux. And I think that there is enough alcohol and tannin concentration to give the best wines of the vintage long lives. Just look at how the best wines of other well-regarded yet low-acid vintages are doing, including 1928, 1945, 1947, 1959, 1961 and 1982. Great bottles from these years are still glorious.

But somehow I don't think many people are going to age these wines for decades in their cellars. They are just too delicious not to drink them now.

The main drawback will be pricing, which may reach the stratospheric levels of the 2000s; the '03s were already expensive when they were sold as futures in spring 2004. Yet many merchants reported strong sales anyway. "These are really friendly wines," said Gregory St. Clair of K & L Wine Merchants in Redwood City, Calif. "We sold so much as futures, [and] we are still selling them."

Still, there will be many outstanding wines in the $30 to $50 a bottle range, and you should focus your attention on them for the best values in the vintage. For example, a few nights before I wrote this story, I drank a bottle of 2003 Château Talbot ($39) with a juicy hamburger and fries and it was delicious and satisfying. Talk about fun!

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