It will be fascinating to see the effects of last summer's exceptional heat on the 2003 crop in Europe's cooler wine regions. Vignerons in England are already getting terribly excited about unprecedented levels of ripeness and in France, the Loire is the region most likely to be most dramatically affected by the summer heatwave.
The following is a report from Charles Sydney who, with his wife Philippa, moved from England to the Loire to be a wine broker in 1988. It is he who has already supplied this site with a few interesting images such as that strange insect. He seems hysterically pleased with the vintage but others are suggesting a bit more caution. As elsewhere sugar levels rose much earlier than other components genuinely ripened. There was a high incidence of grape burn. Will the wines turn out to be in balance? Etc, etc.
Those who would like to taste for themselves should take a look at the Angers Wine Fair, 2-4 February 2004 (www.salondesvinsdeloire.com) It is a great showcase for this undervalued region. I'd love to go but I really must stay at my desk alas.
2003 Loire Valley Vintage Report by Charles and Philippa Sydney
Wow... Certainly the earliest harvest in the Loire since the quasi-mythic 1893, 2003 is quite some vintage, breaking all records for ripeness and precocity...
But is it good? Is there enough acidity?
The answer is simple... this is going to be a truly great vintage, one that confused a number of oenologists at the time, but where the harvest ripened to give a natural balance of fruit-degree-finesse that is quite astounding.
But talk about nerve-racking...
By the end of March, with temperatures up to 22 degrees, vegetation had started with a rush....
And then, ouch... right from the first few days of April, temperatures started dropping, before plummeting further from the 10th through to the 12th, down to freezing in Muscadet, to -5 degrees in the Touraine, to -6 degrees here in Chinon... to -7 degrees in Sancerre... and down to -10 degrees in St Pourçain.
And at that stage of the vegetation, these sorts of temperatures would normally zap an entire harvest...
But then the sun came back, and before June the flowering was virtually over, with growers predicting harvest dates equivalent to '89 as hot weather and a little rain brought vegetation along to a 10 - 15 days advance.
By which time, Phil and I'd started to think we'd call this the Chicken Counting vintage !
Then, just to rub in the capriciousness of mother nature, temperatures dropped 20 degrees overnight end June... before going on to a hurricane strength storm on 15 July, with 80 mph+ winds stripping the bark from the plane trees along Chinon's river front.
And THAT was followed by the August heatwave, with temperatures regularly over 40 degrees in the shade... and with growers from Muscadet through to the Auvergne reporting brûlure - grapes being burnt - grillé - by the sun... (you'll see a bunch in the 'Monster' photo.)
And then - just enough rainfall in August and early September to prevent the vegetation blocking - and to bring the harvest dates forward to the earliest in over 100 years...
Pas mal as they say, but what are the wines like?
Last year Phil and I rated 2002 vintage as the best we'd seen all the time we've been out here. 2003 walks on it...
The wines are magnificent, rich, full and satisfying, with a natural balance that is really satisfying. The only 'hic' is that at the base end, oenologists encouraged growers to pick early to preserve acidity, often giving wines without that balance we've got with the likes of Douillard, Choblet and Saupin.
Samur-Champigny, Chinon and Bourgueil
The wines are... géant. The reds have a natural sweetness that comes with picking on the edge of surmaturité, with their structure and tannins being almost buried in the mass of fruit. To quote Bernard Pelé at the Château d'Eternes: 'Une année hors normes... en rouge, c'est balaise! C'est vraiment énorme!'
Vouvray, Anjou and the Coteaux du Layon
It was obvious that we were going to get some really ripe Chenins this year... But the treat is their finesse, with a search for balance over power on the part of the growers ('On ne fait plus des monstres,' said Claude Branchereau at Domaine des Forges 'mais des vins à boire') that was equalled by an early harvest of passerillé grapes (concentrated by the sun and the wind) giving fruit and finesse rather than the sometimes clumsy weight of botrytis. The odd cask picked at 30 degrees or more will keep the press tastings busy while we drink the more balanced cuvées picked between 20 and 23 degrees !
Overall, the potential is probabaly best expressed by Jacky Blot of the Domaine de la Taille aux Loups: 'C'est magnifique - c'est insensé. C'est vraiment top cette année!'
Touraine, Sancerre, Pouilly and the Centre
Some wonderful Sauvignons (and some grand reds too) - with wines from growers like Jean-François Mérieau, Vincent Pinard, Pascal and Nicolas Reverdy, Florian Mollet and Henri Bourgeois getting our top 'TPPL' (toujours un peu plus loin) rating. But things are a little more complicated as a number of wines seem overripe - quite honestly Sauvignons at 14 degrees vinified totally dry are not really our cup of tea - and their aromas are taking time to really develop fully.
In Pouilly, Katia Mauroy's: 'ça ne servait à rien d'attendre les 14 degrees ... Mais c'est très beau - une moyenne de 12.9 naturel, autour de 4.4 en acidité et 63 hectos hectare! Que demander de plus?!' was nicely complemented by Jean-Marie Bourgeois' comment that 'cette année il fallait chercher la typicité - et pas faire des vins à 14 degrees sans un seul gramme de sucre résiduel... Là, on a des arômes de pamplemousse, d'agrumes et de fleurs d'oranger...'
A wonderful vintage - though yields overall are pretty low - with that great hesitation 'when to pick' being complicated by the harvest ripening at a phenomenal speed. There's a balance of fruit and concentration making for some superbly ripe sec-tendres, demi-secs and moelleux (with some beautiful cuvées in nicely over 20 degrees at harvest) - and for a dirth of sparkling wines!
A great vintage, then... made all the better by a lot of growers showing a willingness to help counter the effects of a strong euro by keeping price movements to an absolute minimum - an effort we can only hope will be appreciated and reciprocated!
But there's one big (big) difference between 2003 and the Loire's earlier 'monster' vintages of '89, '90 and '97 - and that is in the way the growers are running their vineyards. Apparently, average temperatures have risen here by 1.5 degrees C since 1921... This has obviously had an effect. BUT this effect is still comparatively minor when compared to the extra ripeness and improved balance achieved through recent changes in vineyard management...
Changes that are regularly giving us wines with a higher natural ripeness (and lower acidities) at harvest than ever before. And that shows that when growers really work well, the Loire is blessed with a range of varieties that perfectly (well, let's not talk about gros plant, gamay and pineau d'aunis!) match the terroirs and micro-climates of the region.
In the words of Vincent Pinard: 'Deux vendanges comme ça par an, ce serait bien!' [It wouldn't half be nice to have a couple of vintages like this every year.]