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Bordeaux 2003   
Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting, October 2005

Do we make too much of vintages? Discussions of vintages across a whole region such as Bordeaux, which covers such a wide spread of properties and terroirs, involves making large generalizations. Despite this, in the absence of other information (it takes a lot of hard-to-get inside knowledge to have a good idea of the relative performance of individual estates from year to year), the vintage is a short-cut approximation of quality that many people find useful, journalists love discussing, and merchants love to hype.*

In truth, Bordeaux has had a bit of a rough ride in recent vintages. Indeed, just two out of the last seven released can really be considered top drawer (1996 and 2000), with rather patchy performances in other years (1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002). 2003 was of course the freakishly hot vintage, at the time heralded by those with a financial interest in shifting wine, to be a brilliant one (hotter vintage = better?). Initially, I suspect many journalists at primeur tastings were fooled by the young wines and got it wrong, agreeing with the merchants that this was an excellent vintage. It’s now becoming clear that 2003 was actually very tricky, and relatively few top wines were made.

This was certainly my conclusion from this limited sampling of 21 different 2003 Bordeaux wines. I didn’t taste any of the first growths, so I can’t comment on what they achieved, nor the feted Cos d’Estournel and Montrose. Overall, the impression I came away with was that the dominant feature of the 2003s is a rather hard, tight tannic structure that isn’t completely offset by the fruit. And while you normally encounter more black fruit character in Bordeaux than red, in 2003 this was frequently reversed.

Don’t get me wrong: I usually like structure in wines. It’s just that considering these wines as a whole, many of them have structural elements that I’m guessing won’t resolve with time. On the whole, a wise purchasing strategy would be to buy sparingly after tasting, and drink these wines within the short to medium term.

Château Langoa Barton 2003 Saint-Julien
Nice freshness to the fruit on the nose. Nicely defined fresh red fruits on the palate with firm mouth-drying tannins. A savoury wine. Very good/excellent 90/100

Château Léoville Barton 2003 Saint-Julien
Very classy nose of bright red fruits combined with a savoury freshness: nice definition. The palate shows a lovely, crunchy, tight savoury structure with fresh red fruits and high acidity. It’s primary and tight knit at the moment with lots of evolution ahead. Very good/excellent 93/100

Château Léoville Poyferré 2003 Saint-Julien
Savoury, slightly earthy dark fruits nose. The palate shows nice fruit ripeness with good supporting structure. A nice dense, classically styled wine. Very good+ 89/100

Château Talbot 2003 Saint-Julien
The accessibility (and perhaps also simplicity) of this wine surprised me. It shows a sweet, dark, chocolatey nose with an open, supple character. Sweet, ripe, accessible fruit dominates the palate. A forward, well-mannered wine. Very good/excellent 90/100

Château Beychevelle 2003 Saint-Julien
Elegant open dark fruits nose, showing a savoury, spicy edge. The palate shows well structured, fairly dense red and black fruits. Nice fruit here. Very good/excellent 90/100

Château Gruaud Larose 2003 Saint-Julien
Dark, full spicy nose with good fruit and some new oak evident. The palate is dense with tight dark fruits and a firm, spicy structure. Mouth-drying finish. Quite a big wine. Very good/excellent 91/100

Château Lagrange 2003 Saint-Julien
Odd. The nose is a bit weird, with open, rather light red berry fruit. The palate is very tight with high acidity and drying tannins. It’s not terrible, but the overall impression is of a rather disjointed wine. Very good 84/100

Château Haut-Bages Libéral 2003 Pauillac
Very sweet supple fruit on the nose: blackcurrant, dark cherries. The palate shows a good concentration of forward fruit, under which there is lovely dark spicy structure. A nice forward style with a hint of seriousness too. Very good/excellent 92/100

Château Pichon-Longueville 2003 Pauillac
Sweet liqueur-like dark fruits on the nose, which leads to a palate showing more sweet dark fruit. A forward style but lovely balance too. Very good/excellent 91/100

Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse 2003 Pauillac
Quite a perfumed nose of sweet dark fruits: pure and aromatic. The palate is midweight with lovely supple fruit and a nice structure. Not big but nicely balanced. Very good/excellent 92/100

Château Clinet 2003 Pomerol
Sweet, supple dark fruits nose. The palate shows a good concentration of ripe dark fruits with a chocolatey spicy edge and structured finish. An attractive wine. Very good/excellent 90/100

Château Gazin 2003 Pomerol
Sweet, slightly chocolatey red and black fruits nose. The palate is dark, ripe and nicely structured. Good concentration; tannic finish. Very good+ 89/100

Château Figeac 2003 Saint-Emilion
Firm-ish spicy earthy red fruits nose. The palate shows nice balance, with generous red fruits backed up by spicy tannic structure. A nice elegant wine. Very good/excellent 91/100

Château Brane Cantenac 2003 Margaux
Sweet ripe berry fruit nose with a chocolatey edge. Vibrant, rich raspberry fruit on the palate which is dominated by a crunchy tannic structure. Hint of meatiness on the finish. Very good+ 89/100

Château Cantenac Brown 2003 Margaux
Bright, rather structured red fruits nose. The palate is savoury and full with substantial tannic structure. Very savoury. Nice definition. Very good+ 88/100

Château Kirwan 2003 Margaux
Ripe modern dark fruits nose showing a bit of roasted oak. The palate is modern styled: quite classy red and black fruits with a firm structure and noticeable oak. Very good+ 89/100

Château Labégorce 2003 Margaux
Bright fresh red fruits nose is well defined with a savoury streak. The palate is fresh and quite light with attractive fruit and a drying tannic finish. Very good+ 85/100

Château Malescot Saint-Exupery 2003 Margaux
Firm, savoury dark fruits nose with a ripe red fruit profile. There’s some noticeable oak. The palate is quite elegant with nice dark fruits and well judged oak. Rather drying tannic finish. Very good+ 89/100

Château Marquis de Terme 2003 Margaux
Nicely defined, well judged nose with savoury, slightly earthy characters. Nice ripe open palate shows good elegance with a savoury, tannic finish. Good weight and balance here. Very good/excellent 90/100

Château Montbrison 2003 Margaux
Savoury, firm red fruits nose which is nicely defined. Midweight palate is fresh and open. Quite charming in a light sort of style. Very good+ 87/100

Château Prieuré-Lichine 2003 Margaux
Inviting sweet, ripe, rather oaky nose showing a pronounced roast coffee edge. Nice weight on the palate, and again a fair bit of oak. Modern in style. Tight tannic finish. Very good+ 88/100

Château Rauzan Gassies 2003 Margaux
Savoury, quite dark nose. Dark fruit palate with good tannic structure and a spicy, earthy edge. Nice. Very good+ 88/100  

see also: Bordeaux 2002, the wines of Bordeaux

*As an aside: wine merchants, even some good ones, can tend to talk a lot of tosh about vintages. Indeed, their vintage reports can make for hilarious reading. Usually, they start of with the negatives, about how this and that happened that put the crop in jeapordy. But then, guess what? Everything turned out brilliantly! A subtle spin on this theme is when things really did go wrong and the merchant realises that even the dullest customers will have picked up on this. Then they admit that the vintage sort of sucks. Despite this, of course, the most conscientious or lucky growers still managed to make fantastic wines. And guess what, again? This merchant, by virtue of their superior tasting skills and dedicated hard work, has managed to source the best, most stunning wines that no one else has the ability to find. So take merchant vintage reports with a pinch of salt. 

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