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Sarah Marsh MW reviews Red Burgundy 2003 & 2004

If you cellared these vintages, you’re on to a winner – even the much-maligned 2004 has mellowed remarkably

Words by Sarah Marsh MW

close up of wine bottle wax cork
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Visiting the domaines in the Côte d’Or year after year and listening to them bemoan the speedy consumption of their wines, it seemed timely to gather bottles of older vintages for a tasting, dubbed ‘Time to Mature.’ These tastings allow for assessment of the vintages’ evolution and advice on their state of maturity. Should we be drinking these wines now? Is the window of opportunity closing? Are they past it or should we leave them longer?

Straight up – if you cellared your 2003s and 2004s, you did the right thing. Neither vintage was particularly appealing in youth, but both have significantly improved with age. Moreover, the assertive vintage characters have receded sufficiently to allow the terroir to show through, making them more interesting as older wines.

If you cellared your 2003s and 2004s, you did the right thing

This was a tasting of extremes – 2004 from a cold, wet and late vintage and 2003 from a hot, dry and early one. They are polar opposites in style. 2004, which struggled to ripen, was harvested in October. It had high acidity, green tannins and leanness, coupled with a very specific herbaceous and tomatoey profile which might be attributable to a plague of ladybirds which went into the vat at some domaines (vibrating sorting tables were not commonplace 15 years ago). Very few 2004s in our tasting have retained those assertively unpleasant aromatics. Most have mellowed to a pleasantly herbal profile with a slightly smoky note, possibly a reductive character from liberal use of sulphur that year.

The leafy tannins have refined quite surprisingly and most 2004s are still lively and fresh. However this is a vintage that always lacked substance and the structure is lean. Some are really quite thin and others are drying on the finish. You may have missed the boat with some smaller wines, but for the most part (top villages in the Côte d’Or at premier and grand cru) this is a good moment to drink them, ideallly accompanying a meal. The freshness and slightly herbal note make them useful with greener flavoured or tomato-based vegetarian dishes, and any light dryness should be indiscernible with food. A good choice on a wine list and not too expensive. Be warned though – don’t wait too much longer.

Burgundy wine

Now to the infinitely more intriguing 2003 vintage. After a drought and a canicule, when temperatures hit 46 degrees and remained hot at night, the wines emerged heavy and lacking in acidity, with rather coarse tannins, baked-to-burnt flavours and prune-like fruit. Even the producers themselves advised us to drink them within three years. Sixteen years later and the wines in our tasting have slimmed down and become more precise. The tannins have smoothed. The burnt character has assumed a more attractive brûlée note which works with the creamy, thick texture. The tertiary aromatics are very sweet – sweet mature, hoofy notes with sweet mulch and forest floor. They are often exotic in an attractively aromatic way.

The grands crus, given time to mature, have emerged triumphantly

With age, 2003 has upped its game in style and quality, but is it worth splashing out on grand cru in anything but the best vintage? It’s true that the appellation hierarchy may seem to be compressed in rich vintages… at least in young wines. But the grands crus here, given time to mature, have emerged triumphantly to show their quality.

I feel that the evolution of 2003 should give us confidence in the ageing potential of recent hot vintages, including 2018 and 2019. Moreover, during the intervening years the Burgundians have become more adept at managing these hotter spikes, and it’s possible that the vines themselves are becoming conditioned to extremes.

So anyone who held on to these wines will reap the rewards of patience – or of simply forgetting your 2003s, though most are ready to drink now. Enjoy them over the next two or three years. There is no great hurry and some of the richest grands crus may continue to evolve advantageously.

I would not decant either vintage, for there is very little deposit. Decanting will simply hasten the demise of the 2004s, but I would certainly recommend using a large Burgundy style glass for the 2003s and give them time to breathe. There were some faults in both vintages – 15-20 per cent of the samples either had a problem with TCA or with oxidation (not surprising given the crumbling corks). Where possible I managed to source another bottle.

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