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Champagne - a sucker bet?
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where I'll add hotlinks to each day's wine diary as I put them online this week.
For today's article, let's take a quick look at just one curious question I hoped to resolve by tasting along Burgundy's Côte d'Or: How would these classic wines fare during a torrid season like the summer of 2003?
You may recall from news coverage at the time that much of Europe crumpled under record heat last summer, with thousands of heat-related deaths reported in France. In the vineyards, grapes ripened fully and early: The harvest in Burgundy, for example, began Aug. 25, about three weeks earlier than normal, reportedly the first August harvest in 110 years.
Because of the heat, it would be a relatively small vintage with very ripe fruit. The heat fostered grapes so laden with natural fruit sugar that their potential alcohol content would rise to more than 15 percent. Producers had to choose between sacrificing some physiological ripeness (which confers depth and complexity) by picking early, or waiting until later to harvest, achieving maturity at the risk of over-ripeness, and running the risk of rain, which in fact broke the drought and heat in early September.
One thing seemed certain: These would be no ordinary Burgundy grapes, and it seems unlikely that they will produce ordinary Burgundy in the "classic" style of the region's Pinot Noir-based reds and Chardonnay-based whites.
In the nature of Burgundy production, the 2003 reds and better whites won't reach retail shelves for another two years, and even the more modest bottlings are at least a year away from your local stores. At this point, the wines reside in oak barrels in the winery cellars, still very immature and in many cases yet to be combined into final blends. Thus, barrel tasting is a tricky game: A glass of wine drawn from a barrel 10 months after harvest typically give only a very general impression of what the finished bottled wine might be like two years later.
Accordingly, any wine writer who pontificates about finished wine based upon early barrel tastings should be required to post a disclaimer. And that now being done, it's still fun to get an early peek at the wine of the new vintage, and barrel samples may give at least a glimpse of how the wine might fare. My tastings last week were very consistent: The 2003 reds are shaping up as big, bold and decidedly atypical, wines that seem almost more "California" in character than French.
Here are my quick observations on 2003 samples at three producers:
The 2003 Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Suchot was even more extracted. Pruney and Port-like, it showed aromas of tropical fruits and dried figs, sweet and intense. It's hard to predict how it will evolve, as even the experts won't have a basis of comparison for a Burgundy like this. But it's got promise, even if the promise proves to be a Burgundy more in the style of Santa Barbara than the Côte de Nuits.
At Domaine Prieur in Meursault, proprietor Martin Prieur generously opened several 2003 barrels for tastings, including several samples of '03 whites, which like the reds show a rich, concentrated, relatively low-acid character that's easy to like even if it invites comparing-and-contrasting with California Chardonnays.
The 2003 Beaune Champs Pimont 1er Cru showed an amazing pear nectar aroma and ripe and juicy pear and apple flavors with full body, good acidity and significant residual sugar. M. Prieur says the harvest was a full month earlier than usual, amid concerns that fast-ripening white grapes under this unnatural heat would yield a low-acid wine lacking freshness. He's happy, now, but says he'll likely rack it from the barrels right after the French vacation period in August, close to a year earlier than usual.
Prieur's 2003 Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes 1er Cru offers ripe, juicy apples on the nose and palate, framed by sweet, spicy oak. The oak isn't yet integrated, but it's easy to taste past it to find a tasty, fresh and powerful wine.
Among the reds, the Domaine Prieur 2003 Beaune Clos de la Feguine 1er Cru presents jammy, figgy dried-fruit aromas. Big and powerful, it's almost reminiscent of a big Zinfandel. It's not overly acidic, but substantial tannins fill in its structure. The 2003 Volnay Clos des Santenots 1er Cru is raisiny, dark and juicy, with concentrated black-fruit flavors accented by anise and lemon juice in a wine of noteworthy concentration and length. Finally, the 2003 Echezeaux Grand Cru shows delicate, not overwhelming scents of cherry, roses and spice, ripe and balanced and very, very long. Although a young barrel sample, it's already a delight, and Prieur notes that the Côte de Nuits, having less of an extreme heat problem in 2003 than the Côte de Beaune, is "almost classic." I'm not so certain about that, but if this impressive Echezeaux holds up its early promise, it will be a winner.
Finally, at Camille Giroud in Beaune, a small but respected negociant now run by the the well-known American wine merchant Becky Wasserman-Hone, wine maker David Croix offered several tastes of 2003. Camille Giroud 2003 Bourgogne Rouge was full and ripe, breathing spicy and floral aromas and jammy, sweet cherry and raspberry flavors lifted with fresh-fruit acidity and silky tannins, drinking remarkably well for an early barrel sample. When bottled it will be priced to sell at just 7 Euros, although I'm afraid it will go well above that price by the time it reaches your local store. Camille Giroud 2003 Santenay was opulent, cherry and fennel and brown spice aromas, big and bold on the palate, but no mere "fruit bomb," structured and minerally and long. Camille Giroud 2003 Clos Vougeot showed the vineyard's class with anise, truffles, smoke and oaky vanilla dancing with plums and dried fruit. Ripe and intense flavors, sweet black fruit, acid and chalky minerals and drying tannins come together in a very concentrated wine that shows a lot of character in spite of young-barrel awkwardness.
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This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles that I think you'll enjoy:
Wine Lovers' Discussion Group: The Slightly Misplaced Weekend II
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
Because of my travels in France, The 30 Second Wine Advisor was distributed only on Monday last week. Regular publication on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays) resumes today. Here's the index to last week's columns:
A wine shop worth a special trip (May 24, 2004)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, May 31, 2004