The 2003 vintage will always be remembered for its extreme heat in the summer, but in Champagne, an equally significant event was a devastating frost in April that dramatically reduced yields across the region. The problem was that while the winter had been very cold, March was warm and sunny, encouraging the rapid development of buds. Between the 7th and 11th of April, however, the region was hit by severely cold weather, as low as minus 11°C (or 12.2°F), and it’s estimated that nearly half of the crop was lost in the Champagne region overall due to the frosts. Chardonnay, being the most precocious variety, was hit particularly hard, with many growers reporting yields of one-third normal or even lower.
Oddly enough, this extreme cold was followed by extreme heat, with May and particularly June noted for unusually hot weather. Unfortunately, further catastrophe would ensue in the form of severe hailstorms: between 13 May and 3 July there were eight separate incidences of severe hail, causing widespread damage to the already battered vineyards. The summer, as was the case in the rest of Europe, was extremely hot and dry, causing sugar levels to rapidly increase and acidity to decrease, as well as inflicting sunburn on both leaves and grapes. The harvest was the earliest on record to date, beginning in some areas on 18 August.
In such an atypical year, the results were unsurprisingly variable. The best wines, such as those by Louis Roederer and Jacques Lassaigne, show a succulent richness and depth, demonstrating the ripeness of the vintage while retaining an admirable balance and energy. Less successful examples often show an overtly roasted character and pronounced dried-fruit flavors, and sometimes the low acidity levels can cause the wines to feel overly heavy. Some people point to hot vintages of the past to indicate cellaring potential of these wines, citing years such as 1976 and 1959. I’m too young to have personal experience of these vintages at the same stage of their lives, but my feeling is that 2003 is entirely unique, and while I’m sure that 2003 will yield some positive surprises in the future, I’m not convinced that it will develop in the same fashion as either of those two. For one thing, the acidity is even lower, and by quite a bit: 5.8 grams per liter on average in 2003 (measured in sulfuric acid), as opposed to an average of 6.7 g./l. in 1976 and 6.3 g./l. in 1959. Acidity, of course, is only one factor when it comes to ageability, but a low-acid vintage like 1959 was supported by high alcohol levels—12 percent on average—that kept the wines alive, whereas in 2003 the average alcohol was only 10.6 percent. While the ’59s can still be delicious now, will the 2003s be as compelling in 50 years? Nobody really knows. Personally, I will have chosen to drink my bottles well before that time.