As this year’s barrel tastings in Bordeaux claim a record-breaking attendance, insiders’ opinions on the 2003 vintage are mixed.

The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, an association of 130 of the region’s top producers, will see 4500 people come from around the world to attend en primeur this year. A record, according to French newspaper Sud-Ouest. The attendance includes around 100 wine journalists who will be among those to taste the first offerings of the 2003 vintage straight from the barrel.

Wine expert and Decanter consultant editor, Steven Spurrier, says Chateau Latour is the wine of the vintage, noting its ‘elegance, purity of expression and total harmony.’ Chateau Montrose is also being considered by many as one of the great wines of 2003.

The tasters on the en primeur circuit in Bordeaux agree the vintage is remarkable in places but certainly not consistent. Winemakers concur. Some, like Chateau Poujeaux proprietor François Theil, told decanter.com it was ‘the easiest vintage he had ever made’, with very little pumping over necessary, and gentle maceration due to the grapes’ abundant fruit and colour.

Others are more circumspect, suggesting it was a ‘winemaker’s vintage’, with a battery of skills needed from vineyard to winery. At first-growth Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, senior sommelier Dominique Garcia highlighted this.

‘It was a very easy harvest but it was a winemaker’s wine. We were very worried until 8 August because of the sun but then the nights started to get cooler and a heavy dew came in the mornings so there was no problem with water. Nor were there any problems with acidity but they had to take extra care with extraction to avoid dry or green tannins,’ he said.

The interest in this year’s barrel tastings centres on the summer heat wave of 2003 which prompted early picking and reduced yields as the grapes ripened much faster than normal.

‘At first we were worried – along with our neighbours – that we were going to make “a wine from the south”’ – the heatwave of last summer produced super-ripe grapes with high alcohol and tannins but low acidity – ‘but as soon as we started the harvest, we realised we had fantastic maturity,’ said Christophe Labenne at Chateau Poujeaux in the Médoc

At Chasse-Spleen, director Jean-Pierre Foubet had the same story. ‘We were worried in August because we had 35 days of tres haut (very high) temperature – over 35 degrees – when normally we’d expect five days with heat like that. We lost 3% in volume each day.’

But then dramatic rain in September mitigated the effect of the heat and produced a ‘powerful, round, seductive’ vintage.

At Chateau Maucaillou, winemaker Philippe Dourthe dealt with the low acidity and high alcohol of the grapes by fermenting at very low temperatures. At other properties, stringent selection was needed at harvest to deal with bunches dried out by the heat.

Click here to view our coverage of the Bordeaux 2003 barrel tastings.

Written by Oliver Styles and Adam Lechmere