The Les Cras vineyard is essentially the backyard of the Domaine Bertagna. I followed our host from the estate through the rows, back towards the main building. In the cellars throughout Burgundy, the barrels were filled with the 2004 vintage, but 2003 was the year that dominated the conversations amongst the growers. The American market was skeptical of the vintage and distributors were having a difficult time selling the wines. “But, 2003 is a great year,” declared our host. That view was not uncommon amongst the producers, but it was certainly not a universally accepted. The controversy stemmed from the extreme weather conditions of the year. The heat was intense during the summer of 2003. Thousands of people died throughout Europe and the harvest in Burgundy was the earliest since 1893.
My first taste of the vintage was out of the barrel at Chandon de Briailles in Savigny-les-Beaune. Surprisingly, the domaine’s red cuvees did not show any noticeable effects of the heat. I was immensely impressed with the concentrated, powerful Cortons, especially the Clos du Roi. However, the whites were rich, tropical, and flabby. They would prove to be consistent with the other wines I tasted in the region. The heat had a disastrous effort on the Chardonnay grapes and the bottled wines were far from typical. Temperatures had spiked in late July, early August of 2003 and the vineyards suffered a great deal of stress. Many grapes burned under the intense sun and were transformed into small, dehydrated berries. With their extremely low acidity levels and super ripe flavors, the whites reflected the climate conditions of 2003.
Initially, many red wine growers talked positively about the harvest and compared it to the legendary warm years of the past, such as 1947. August 19th was declared the harvest date (Bans des Vendages) for both the Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits. Some growers harvested even earlier in an attempt to obtain the grapes before they lost their acidity. Chandon de Briailles was the first to pick their grapes on August 15th. Others waited until September believing that the grapes were not fully ripe, despite the high sugar levels. It is possible that some of the vintage’s red wines might become modern legends, but the quality in general is spotty. At their best, the wines are dark, intense powerhouses that have the potential to last decades in the bottle. Yet, many 2003s taste of roasted fruits and alcohol. From my experience, the wines harvested in September often show baked fruit flavors and alcohol, while those picked earlier do not. That said, even the best wines show little resemblance to a typical Burgundy.