"Exceptional", "exotic", "extraordinary", "extravagant". So the wine merchants reckon the 2003 burgundy vintage is pretty decent? Actually, "all over the shop" would more accurately describe this thrills-and-spills vintage now being offered en primeur. As one of the more candid merchants, Justerini & Brooks, concedes, "There is no easy way to pigeonhole this vintage."
Of all the world's great wine regions, Burgundy is the hardest to pin down at the best of times, and in the torrid vintage of 2003, the peaks and troughs were exaggerated. "In all my years I've never seen such a vintage as this," said an old crone I met in Beaune, the capital of Burgundy, in August. The harvest began earlier than any recorded since 1893.
Whereas the norm in Burgundy's marginal climate is to add sugar, the accepted practice in 2003 was to add acidity to retain some vibrancy in the wines. Burgundians are not entirely comfortable with this tactic, common throughout the New World. Should growers have picked early or late, added acid or not, or bottled sooner rather than later? With so many variables there isn't one rule for all.
After tasting, I have concentrated on reds this year because I think that's where the stars are. Where the wines are good, they are concentrated, fleshy and powerful, halfway to New World in their generosity of flavour, but still recognisably red burgundy. The most successful of the top wines are keepers, but with low acidity all round, they are the exception. There is a hardness in some wines where growers have added too much acid or where they've failed to tame the chunky tannins of a hot year. The delicate pinot noir grape doesn't appreciate such treatment.
Common-or-garden bourgogne and Hautes Côtes wines usually pale by comparison with Burgundy's exalted premiers and grands crus. This year, however, extra sunshine added a welcome boost of New World-like fruit and flavour to many an "affordable" £10-odd-a-bottle. Among the many, look out for Bret Brothers Viré-Clessé, Sous Les Plantes (BBR - for key, see below), Les Champs Perdrix, Hautes Côtes de Beaune (BBR), Guy Roulot Bourgogne Blanc (HR, HHC), Domaine Brintet Mercurey 1er Cru, Crets (G), Ghislaine Barthod Bourgogne Rouge (J&B) and Gérard Thomas 1er cru Murgers des Dents de Chien (CT).
At the highest end of quality, my pick of producers of great value or superb wines in 2003: Ghislaine Barthod (J&B, BBR), Jean Boillot (LS), Marquis d'Angerville (J&B, CT, JA), Alain Jeanniard (HHC), Louis Remy (J&B), Domaine des Lambrays (HHC, G), Domaine Anne-Françoise Gros (HHC), Domaine René Engel (HR, BBR), Domaine Robert Arnoux (HR, BBR, JA), Hubert de Montille (BBR), Patrice & Michèle Rion (BBR), Bruno Clair (Savigny La Dominode) (J&B), Clos de Tart Grand Cru 2003 Mommessin (LS, HR).
Quantities, always limited in burgundy, are down, so in most cases prices are up. The wines are still in barrel and being offered in the UK in bond (cellared and with duty and VAT deferred until next year).
Key to specialist merchants offering 2003 burgundy en primeur:
JA = John Armit Wines (020-7908 0600), BBR = Berry Bros & Rudd (0870 900 4300), G = Goedhuis & Co (020-7793 7900), HHC = Haynes Hanson & Clark (01451 870808), J&B = Justerini & Brooks (020-7484 6400), LS = Lea & Sandeman (020-7244 0522), HR = Howard Ripley (020-8877 3065), CT = Charles Taylor (020-7928 1990)