Medoc and Saint Emilion 2003 Expert Analysis

First published Decanter March 2013

2003 is a vintage that got everybody talking at the time, and still does so today.

For winemakers who lived through the vintage, their memories are largely of sleepless nights. Partly perhaps because the temperature hardly dropped from 40-degree-plus day and night for May, June, July and August, but also because they were dealing with extreme viticultural, and then wine-making, challenges, grappling with rapidly-rising sugar and rapidly-dropping acidity levels in the grapes, and the subsequent issues that came with that in the cellar.

The white harvest started exceptionally early, in the extreme heat of 12th August, at Château L’Hospital in the Graves, followed by Haut-Brion and Laville Haut-Brion whites. This was the earliest start by far, including 1990, of any vintage since 1893.


Wine merchant Bill Blatch reported at the time that Bordeaux fared better than many places in France. ‘The peaks of heat were less violent and less absolutely dry than elsewhere,’ he wrote in his initial assessment of the vintage, ‘with the result that only some of the vines actually shut down and the grapes could keep on evolving, in spite of the extreme conditions’. The best estates waited for full phenolic ripeness before picking, and were able to bottle wines that were rich and fruit-forward, with soft tannins and high alcohol. In short, ideal for the dominant palates of the time; Robert Parker, James Suckling and the US consumer.

Other, more cautious (okay, European) voices, sounded notes of concern that the heatwave had led to high alcohol levels and drying tannins, with a lack of true ripeness – and that the resulting wines would age rapidly. A few became lightening rods for dissension, most famously Chateau Pavie, which was described as ‘big and powerful in the super-ripe mould’ by James Lawther in Decanter, and in rather less glowing terms by Clive Coates (who wrote ‘anyone who thinks this is a good wine needs a brain and palate transplant.’). Robert Parker lavished praise on Pavie, and generally said the best wines of 2003 were among the greatest he had ever tasted young. This was reflected in his scores. 2003 eventually had a greater number of 100 point scores than the exulted 2005 (including two First Growths; Latour and Lafite).
Most chateaux owners chose to price their wines according to the most optimistic views, and there seems little doubt that 2003 was priced as a vintage for collectors, with the expectation of wines that would age and develop in bottle. Pavie rose from €76 ex-Bordeaux in 2002 to €89 in 2003, Angélus went from €49.50 ex-Bordeaux in 2002 to €83 in 2003. Over on the Left Bank, Latour doubled from €78 ex-Bordeaux in 2002 to €156 in 2003 – making its way on to the UK market, as did most of its fellow First Growths, at almost £2000 per case.

As we approach the ten-year window, have the worries voiced by more cautious critics at the time come true, or were collectors smart to invest in the exotic, unusual tastes of 2003?

Frederic Engerer of Chateau Latour believes the best estates have demonstrated over the past decade that they did indeed cope well with the heat. ‘2003 shows what terroir can do. Latour managed to retain a freshness and acidity, and clearly both the terroir and the estate’s position next to the Gironde river had a crucial impact on the quality of the wine.’
Joe Marchant at Bordeaux Index, agrees, and sees this as reflected in the investment picture. ‘2003 will forever be an exceptional year. In many respects it marked the end of traditional Bordeaux pricing as the first year that highly rated Super Seconds sold for more than Firsts did in preceding years, and the ascent of exciting properties such as Cos d’Estournel, Montrose, Léoville Poyferre and Pontet Canet seemed inevitable.’

Price-wise, what felt like very steep asks in the spring of 2004, have been rendered more reasonable by the hikes of 2005, 2009 and 2010. And most of the bigger priced wines have held their value. To secure Pavie at the time, consumers would have had to pay around £90 to £100 a bottle to UK merchants, while it is now available through Fine & Rare for £170 a bottle. Montrose started on the UK market at around £800 a case, and is now available from Berry Bros for just under £2000 per case.

‘Returns over the long run reflect both the initial pricing ambitions of the individual chateaux and the broader macro trends over the period,’ says Marchant. ‘First growths, notably Lafite, dominate while Super Seconds that attempted to affect a paradigm shift have relatively underperformed.’

In many ways, this vintage marked the beginning of the professional wine investment era, with wine funds entering the picture in a significant way – concentrating stocks into a smaller number of hands than usual. The top 2003s have been amongst the best and the worst performing wines in the market with the major inflection points correlating more significantly with wider financial events than almost any other vintage.

‘This leaves us at an interesting juncture,’ says Marchant. ‘With prices for many currently sat around their 2007 peaks, we believe that certain wines present their strongest value in recent years.’

A bigger worry, however, is how much further they have to go. Many merchants feel, outside of the top names, that 2003 simply won’t have the staying power to justify long-term investment, particularly those on the Right Bank.
Chris Adams of Sherry Lehmann, says these wines are perhaps best seen as drinking prospects. ‘We have had good success selling 2003 Bordeaux this year, but for drinking not investing (Malartic, Gruaud, Beausejour Becot, Lalande Borie all do well here). And we’ve seen real softening in pricing for some of the Firsts, like Haut Brion and Mouton, leading to interest from buyers – something that can’t be said for all vintages of the First Growths recently.’

But if all this makes you think it might be time to offload a few 2003s, Simon Staples, of Berry Bros, cautions against getting out of any vintages right now. ‘As a general overview, and certainly from a specific Hong Kong and Japan point of view, it feels very much like Christmas 2008,which was the last “bottom” of the market. Is it a good time to sell these type of wines? My advice to most of our customers is, if you don’t need the cash now….don’t sell now, wait for the next upturn. History has taught us that there always is one.’

Best Performers, Worst Performers
Opening price (ex-Bordeaux merchants) against current market price (ex-Bordeaux merchants)
Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2003 – Currently €375 per bottle, opening price €144, (+179%)
Chateau Malescot St Exupery 2003– Currently €55 per bottle, opening price €17.50 (€21) +161%
Chateau Lynch Bages 2003 – Currently €128, opening price €33) (+239%)
Chateau Latour 2003 – Currently €800 approx, prix sortie €130 +507% (Parker 100 points)
Chateau Chasse Spleen 2003 - Currently €25.50, opening price €13.50 (+88.9%)
Chateau Angelus 2003 - Currently €194, opening price €83 (+163%)
Chateau Vieux Chateau Certan 2003 - Currently €90, opening price €44.50 (+102%)
Chateau Haut Bailly 2003 - Currently €55, opening price €23.80, (+122%)
Chateau Montrose – Currently €160. Opening price €45.50 (+229%)