Summary of the 2003 vintage
The vins clairs below were selected to impress of course, and do not tell the whole story. Neither do the notes reflect the characteristics usually found in vins clairs from the best vintages, which are generally not as seductive as many of the above notes suggest. Three factors determine the extraordinary character of Champagne’s 2003 vintage:
- Spring frost destroyed 50% of the potential crop, concentrating on the Côte des Blancs, thus the Chardonnay harvest was 70-80% down. Picking commenced on 21 August, the earliest Champagne harvest since at least 1822 (when records commenced), thanks to the pan-European heat-wave, which resulted in very ripe grapes, low acidity and the highest pH known. A second crop, which is not uncommon in Champagne, as new buds develop after the spring frosts that regularly occur in this region’s marginal climate, but it seldom ripens, and is left for the birds (bouvreu in champenois dialect). However, the second crop in 2003 was an exception. I have known only two ripe second crops – in 1989 and, to a lesser degree, 1990 – but neither was of the scale of 2003, which was as ripe as the first crop, yet superior in acidity.
Some truly special 2003 Champagnes will be produced. Of that there is no doubt. But there will more Champagnes that are simply weird or ugly. But with such a small crop and the shortage of Chardonnay, the number of producers declaring a vintage is likely to be small. However, most of those who do not declare will in fact make a small amount of pure vintage for their own in-house purposes.
The 2003 vintage is very strange, but with global warming a distinct possibility, the champenois might face equally strange vintages in the future, thus only a fool would not want library samples to see what they did right and wrong. There is general concern about the low acidity and high (in some cases disproportionately high) pH. The average pH region-wide was 3.28, when it should be 3.0-something, and the likes of Bollinger are 2.9-something. I have heard of some wines in the Aube being 3.7, which I cannot imagine. The highest I tasted was 3.4 from the Aube and that was bizarre enough!
The vins clairs of Jacquesson best reflected 2003’s sumptuous richness, while Krug (tasted separately) and Roederer displayed exceptional acidity for the year. But as the best 1976s, 1959s, 1947s and 1929s demonstrate, we should not be alarmed by individually crafted Champagnes with very low acidity. Low acid Champagnes can be balanced in their own right, and it is these wines that will provide us with 2003s of the greatest and most extraordinary quality.
Tasting the 2003 vins clairs
I don’t normally report on vins clairs because I seldom take notes. In the first place, I only taste vins clairs from potential vintage years. There is simply no point in tasting vins clairs from a non-vintage year, when the winemaker’s skill will be employed to blend everything to a house style. On the other hand, in a vintage year, the base wines for a millésimé Champagne will be selected to reflect the character of the harvest, thus it is important to know what that is. Even so, I seldom take notes because the point, as far as I’m concerned, is to get an overview, to discern which districts, villages and varieties have excelled, rather than to try to make sense of individual wines that will represent just a few per cent of any final cuvée.
However, I requested houses to submit vins clairs to this particular tasting, and made notes on my computer, which I thought might be of interest. The fact that I could taste vins clairs in November is in itself an indication of the unusual character of the 2003 harvest, since they are not normally ready for tasting until the following January. The last time this was possible was in 1989, when Henri Krug asked me if I want to taste his vins clairs in November (although it should be explained that vins clairs fermented in barriques are always in advance of those vinified in stainless-steel, since there is no temperature control, and the fermentation process is much quicker (which is generally preferable for the first fermentation, whereas the slowest possible second fermentation is always favourable).
A vin clair should be intrinsically out of balance. If a base wine is to achieve balance after a second fermentation, with its additional alcohol and carbonic gas, and a dosage of sugar, it is obliged to be out of balance before the process starts. If you are lucky enough to find yourself with a chef de cave and 12 vins clairs, from which he wants you to pick the best, I respectfully suggest you stand a better chance of impressing him if you pull out the four you like least. That’s a serious tip, believe it or not! When tasting vins clairs, it is the very basic characteristics, such as structure, weight, and acidity that you should look for, rather than more specific flavour characteristics, which should be far more embryonic than in a still wine. The first fermentation of a sparkling wine is by necessity far more crude than the one and only fermentation for a still wine. Most of the more specific aspects of fruit, elegance, finesse and potential complexity that demonstrate the promise shown by a young still wine should not be present in a vin clair. Even when they are, their presence will be misleading, as it means that the first fermentation was too sophisticated, having leached out too much of the potential that should be left for the slow enticement of a long, cool second fermentation, which itself would wipe out any specific characteristics created by the first fermentation. Furthermore, the way in which the very basic characteristics are assessed is different. Not complicated, just different. Put simply, the structure and acidity of a vin clair should be constructed for a much greater weight than you would normally expect from a still wine. See end of vin clair tasting notes for a summary of the 2003 vintage.
De Castellane Aÿ Grand Cru 2003
Grape variety: Pinot Noir. Very soft, amylic.
De Castellane Cramant Grand Cru 2003
Grape variety: Chardonnay. Very fresh forward.
Henri Giraud Aÿ Grand Cru 2003
Grape variety: Pinot Noir. Very creamy-oak aroma, lovely fruit-acidity, oak dominating.
Henri Giraud Aÿ Grand Cru 2002
Grape variety: Chardonnay. Excellent richness and very good acidity, fabulous strawberry fruit.
Louis Roederer Chouilly Grand Cru 2002
Grape variety: Chardonnay. Excellent acidity.
Louis Roederer Verzenay Grand Cru 2003
Grape variety: Pinot Noir. Again excellent acidity, nice lean structure.
Louis Roederer Aÿ Grand Cru 2003
Grape variety: Pinot Noir. Fatter, but still superior acids. If these wines have been acidified, it has been achieved with great finesse.
Jacquesson Dizy Mi-côte 2003
Grape variety: Pinot Meunier. Fat, fresh, clean fruit.
Jacquesson Dizy Terres Rouges 2003
Grape variety: Pinot Noir. Some malo, again fat, but very fresh.
Jacquesson Dizy Corne Bautray 2003
Grape variety: Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Petit Meslier. Probably the best acidity, attractive soft.
Jacquesson Aÿ Grand Cru 2003 (diverse parcels)
Grape variety: Pinot Noir. Goodish acidity, noticeably weighty.
Jacquesson Avize Grand Cru Champ Cain 2003
Grape variety: Chardonnay. Very fresh and elegant, with fine acids.
Jacquesson Oiry Champ Braux 2003
Grape variety: Chardonnay. Incredible, Meursault-like richness, underpinned by fine acidity. Not Jacquesson’s best base wine, but so special without bubbles that I just had to order a case bottled as a still wine. It will probably end in tears, it usually does. Every time I have been impressed enough by the still wine potential of a vin clair to order a case without the bubbles, the freshness and fruit has never survived the bottling process. Champagne needs its bubbles. No wonder I seldom enjoy Coteaux Champenois!
Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 2003 élevé en fûts
Grape variety: Pinot Noir. Supposed to be non-MLF, but very caramel-malo aroma! Probably underwent MLF between the sample being bottled on 14 October and my tasting it on 27 Nov
Philipponnat Mareuil 2003
Grape variety: Pinot Noir. Delicious, fresh, very good acidity.
Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 2003 élevé en fûts
Grape variety: Chardonnay. Pithy, some aldehydic aromas, but nice crisp acids on finish.
Bruno Paillard Verzenay Grand Cru 2003 élevé en fûts
Grape variety: Pinot Noir. Very elegant, strawberry fruit, oak noticeable on nose, but not dominating. Very impressive.
Bruno Paillard Neuville aux Larris 2003 élevé en fûts
Grape variety: Pinot Meunier. Good acidity without the richness.
Bruno Paillard Chouilly Grand Cru 2003 élevé en fûts
Grape variety: Chardonnay. Fatter, creamy
Lanson Verzenay Grand Cru 2003
Grape variety: Pinot Noir. Quite soft, but still cloudy
Lanson Cramant Grand Cru 2003
Grape variety: Chardonnay. Good acidity, nice strawberry fruit.
Lanson Dizy 2003
Grape variety: Chardonnay. Fatter, creamy.