Oxford Town Wines

John JuergensThe heat is on

I recently had the great opportunity to do my own version of the Tour de France through some of the most legendary wine regions in the world. One of my primary objectives - besides tasting as much wine as I could - was to get first-hand information on what effect the blistering heat of the 2003 growing season had on the vintage.

As you might recall, a large part of Europe suffered under a record-breaking killer heat wave for most of last summer. (Happily, 2004 seems back to normal.) By mid-summer 2003 I was seeing reports of great concern for the grape crop because some vines and grapes already were withering. Vineyard managers were doing everything they could to protect their crops, but some substantial losses were inevitable. On the other hand, I have also heard predictions that this could be the vintage of the century, which smacks a bit of marketing hype given that we are only three years into it.

A little background on the viticultural issues involved might help understand the impact of the heat wave on the 2003 vintage.

What it takes to make a good quality wine is balance of refreshing acidity to produce a snap of liveliness, suitable sugar levels to produce the right amount of alcohol, and, most importantly, well-developed levels of a group of compounds called polyphenols. These are a complex mixture of substances that are responsible for the flavors, textures, and color, particularly in red wines.

The problem is that if grapes ripen too quickly many of these polyphenol compounds are not produced or are underdeveloped, which results in a thin, insipid wine, even though it might have nice intense color. This is one of the main reasons that California wines have such big flavors: the growing season is long and fairly consistent with warm days and cool nights, which allows full maturation of all of these important compounds.

The growing conditions and the subsequent development of these chemicals are the major contributing factors in the differences between the new world and old world wine styles, and why there tends to be more variability in European wines. Wine makers in Europe have a shorter growing season with greater climate fluctuations, so they have adapted their vineyard management techniques and wine making to optimize the quality of their grapes under "normal" growing conditions. But their wines will almost always be more subtle and the complexities more elusive than wines made from grapes with an extended growing season such as California, Australia, and South American countries.

Because of the heat, what happened in most of Europe was very early ripening of the grapes. Many wine makers began harvesting the 2003 crop in mid August, a full two months earlier than normal. For some of the more northern regions such as Germany, the heat and early ripening meant unprecedented sugar levels, which could produce wines with higher alcohol levels and possibly much richer wines.

Another benefit of the hot, dry summer was the lack of damage caused by rot, mildew, and other fungal diseases that normally are a constant plague for wine makers.

The major downside of the dry season and early harvest of 2003 is that the grapes will be smaller than normal and, therefore, will contain less juice. So the crop will be small and the volume of wine produced per ton of grapes will be smaller than normal. As a consequence, the grapes will tend to have greater concentrations of chemicals contained in the skins relative to the amount of juice. This can cause the wine to be too harsh and concentrated with dried out fruit flavors.

A mixed blessing of early ripening is the sugar content. Although the heat will increase the sugar content and subsequent alcohol levels, in some cases the apparent increase in concentration might be due to a lack of water rather than a true increase. In either case the wine is likely to be out of balance because you will get alcohol but no complexity as a result of underdeveloped polyphenols and other compounds that contribute to the quality of the end product.

All of this forced wine makers to modify their time-tested techniques to deal with this aberration in their terroir. In some cases they are making decisions and adjustments on the fly to salvage the vintage. Others I talked to are sticking to their game plan as much as possible and will live with the consequences, because there are limits to how much they can do when dealt a challenging hand by Mother Nature.

So here is what I found in my tastings and what I was told by some wine makers in France.

A real red flag went up when I learned that while the 2002 vintage in Burgundy is still in the barrel, some of the 2003 is already in the bottle. When I tasted samples of the 2003 vintage next to barrel samples of the 2002, the 2003 wines had deeper ruby red color, but there was little fruit and the wines lacked depth and complexity. They tasted more like a modest rosé wine with very little finish. The 2002 wines, on the other hand, had much more complexity even though they were still quite young.

I was told by several wine makers that this was pretty much the pattern all throughout the region.

I have consulted several other wine authorities and they also indicate this is the pattern throughout most of the wine producing regions of Europe including Bordeaux, and the 2003 vintage is going to be a real wild card. Some wineries were successful in dealing with the heat and were able to make very good wines. Therefore, if you like French, Italian, Spanish, and German wines, you are going to have to be very careful because there will be a lot of variability across the board, and there is likely to be a lot of poor quality wine on the market in the near future.

Germany in particular has been making a lot of noise about the 2003 vintage, but specialists in German wines are skeptical because they say the numbers do not add up. The high heat and lack of water are likely to just produce very sweet wines without a lot of character due to underdeveloped polyphenols and low extraction, which is what happened in 1976 under similar conditions.

We are likely to see a fair amount of hype about the 2003 vintage just because it was so unusual, so be sure to do some Internet checking before you buy any European wines from this vintage. Wine shippers are going to have a boatload of wine on their hands and they will promote it so they don't get stuck with it. They might even hike up the price to in an effort to add some mystique to the vintage. Just be careful so you don't get stuck with a low quality wine for which you paid a premium price.

As far as I am concerned, I have tasted enough of the 2003 European vintage to know that there is more low quality wine than good, and I'm too lazy to work at finding those few gems in the slag pile. For my money I'm sticking with new world wines until things get back to normal in the old country.

To contact John Juergens, write him at wineguy@vista-express.com

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