2003 has been declared a vintage by all the major the Port houses - and the wines look well-structured and certainly long-lived.
The year has a reputation of being the ‘hot vintage’ throughout Europe with some wonderfully atypical wines being made from Alsace to the Alentejo. But the Douro Valley is not averse to a blast of heat and in 2003 this was balanced by plenty of rain which fell at just the right time.
The previous winter had been abnormally wet, with 1,000mm of rain falling at Pinhão between November 2002 and March 2003. This is more than double the ten-year average.
Spring was mild and budburst was early, but yet more rain fell in April which caused some difficulties. Flowering took place in late May amid perfect conditions. Mid-June was hot, but heavy rain fell at the end of the month and again in mid-July. This proved to be enormously beneficial.
The notorious 2003 heatwave arrived in the first two weeks of August. While the Douro is used to daytime temperatures in excess of 40C, night-time temperatures staying above 30C are more unusual, and nerves were frayed. Rain fell again at the end of August. This was crucial to the quality of the fruit harvested a few days later.
In the eastern-most Douro Superior, the harvest began as early as 1 September and some growers undoubtedly picked before the grapes were physiologically ripe. With temperatures now back in the 20s, sugar levels rose rapidly in the first half of September taking many growers by surprise.
Taylor’s began picking at São Xisto in the Douro Superior on 8 September with the Cima Corgo growers downstream following a week or so later. Fine, abnormally warm weather continued until 29 September when the first autumn depression swept in from the Atlantic. By this time all the best wines had already been made.
The high ambient temperatures during vintage gave problems for those without sufficient temperature control and many traditional lagares consequently took little work before the musts were run-off and fortified. On the other hand carefully controlled fermentations yielded wines with deep colour, plenty of ripe fruit and high levels of tannin.
Tannin seems to be the hallmark of this vintage, making these wines hard to taste and appreciate at this early stage. They are much more difficult than the somewhat atypical, super-ripe and voluptuous 1994s, or even the 2000s. There are some solid, well-structured wines that, like the 1997s, will repay keeping.
One or two wines show the heat of the vintage but the best also have plenty of ripe fruit and flesh hanging from their tannic superstructure. On early tasting, my favourite wines fell into two distinct camps. There are those like Dow, Fonseca, Quinta do Noval and Noval Nacional which are massively powerful and impenetrable, giving very little away at this stage but certain to develop well over the very long term.
Then there are those wines like Croft, Graham, Taylor and Warre, which are more open at this stage, beautifully fragrant, floral with fine tannins and great purity of fruit. These wines will close up in due course but are certain to retain their elegance and finesse.
Although few shippers divulge the size of their declaration, in general the 2003 vintage amounts to about 30% less than 2000. Prices are up by a modest 2% or 3% so demand is likely to be strong when the wines are first offered over the summer months.
Written by Richard Mayson