These two great recent vintages – the underrated elegant 2002 and the powerful, rich 2003 – have been somewhat overlooked. STEPHEN BROOK explains why

For sauternes, 2001 was a dream vintage. Everything went right. Everyone, or almost everyone, made terrific wine. It even sold, perhaps aided by the fact that the 2000 had been washed out by rain, and Sauternes fanciers were waiting for a great year. Having shelled out for a case or two of 2001, the buyers drew up the portcullis when the 2002s came round.

2002

Consequently, 2002 is an underrated vintage. After a cool August, September was mostly dry and sunny. Some rain early in the month provoked the first outbreaks of noble rot, and some fruit was picked in mid-September. It was high in acidity, pure and citrussy. There were more pickings in late September and early October, until rain interrupted the harvest. Cool nights retained acidity. It was stop and go, as often happens in Sauternes, and the harvest continued at some properties into mid-November. The later pickings were fatter, more orangey, and provided a useful contrast in the blend to the fresher, earlier-picked crop. But some late-picked fruit was uneven in quality and lacked concentration. Nicolas Heeter-Tari at Château Nairac found his 2002 similar to 2001: ‘Because there was no excessive heat in 2002, the wines have a great deal of freshness.’ That, indeed, is their charm. The wines are not as rich and complex, in general, as the 2001s, but they are elegant and beguiling. Some estates produced quite light wines that may not prove long lived; others made wines almost as structured as the 2001s.

2003

2003 was entirely different. By the end of August the grapes were fully ripe. Rain in the second week of September encouraged noble rot, and the alternation of rain, wind and heat led to exemplary concentration. From 12 September the grapes went haywire. With every day that went by the sugars rose. By 22 September bunches were being picked with potential alcohols of 25–30?. By the end of the month it was all over. Guiraud picked everything within nine days – usually two months. ‘You had to pick fast,’ confirms Denis Dubourdieu at Doisy-Daëne, ‘to avoid excessively high sugars. Some lots proved hard to ferment as the yeasts couldn’t work, and you had to blend them with lots with lower sugars.’ However, Michel Garat at Bastor-Lamontagne noted: ‘The botrytis was very pure, so fermentation was all over by mid-October. Nor were there problems with acidity levels, despite the heat.’ Some of the fruit was raisined, says Pierre Meslier of Raymond-Lafon, ‘so it was important to eliminate those berries.’

2003 is the richest Sauternes vintage since 1893 and 1929. Yannick Laporte of Lafaurie-Peyraguey says he spoke to some old-timers and none could recall anything comparable. Growers, and some critics, acclaimed 2003 as a truly great vintage. But richness is not the sole criterion of greatness in a sweet wine. When I began tasting them in the spring of 2004 I found many of them heavy and lacking in acidity. As time goes by the wines seem to be gaining in refinement, although many top wines are still in barrel. There will undoubtedly be some great 2003s, but time will tell whether they will have the balance and elegance of the 2001s.

Written by Stephen Brook