The summer of 2003 was dramatic for the majority of Europeans. The elderly suffered, crops withered, water was scarce and accusations of administrative bungling abounded throughout the continent. However not everyone was grumbling. The high temperatures were welcomed by the winegrowers of Europe. Wine experts are saying that 2003 could become a mythical year for wine lovers, like 1997 or 1976 or 1947. The extremely hot weather has triggered two phenomena, early ripening and fewer grapes, that wine growers across the continent say could make 2003 a truly memorable year.
Over the last few decades there has been a significant shift in wine drinking habits throughout the world. Wine drinkers used to be divided into those who were satisfied with cheap plonk and a headache (the Bulls Blood, Frascati and Retsina of our childhood) and those who knew what good wine was and could afford it. However, those who grew up on cheap and horrific wine are now prepared to pay those few extra euros for a decent bottle. Palates are a little more sophisticated and wallets are a little more swollen.
There is now much more of a middle ground of good and affordable wines but more often than not they will be from Australia or the United States which have out-marketed, out-priced and out-manoeuvred their French and Italian counterparts. Nevertheless, Europeans still traditionally consider their wines to be superior because of their lean, earthy, flavours, and they turn up their noses at sun-soaked California wines; those ''fruit bombs'' that are sickly sweet and garish.
However, this year, the competition may be a little fairer as French and Italian growers are set for a partial revenge as mother nature has aided their cause by giving a significant boost to quality and ensuring limited quantity which will reduce supply and stabilise prices.
Thanks to the high temperatures throughout Europe, the heat eliminated mould and parasites from the vines and strengthened the skin of the grapes, which gives wine its aroma and raises its sugar and alcohol content. The intense heat which was 17 degrees higher than usual for the first ten days of August, resulted in the early maturity of grapes. In Bordeaux, picking began on 12 August, nearly a month ahead of schedule and it was the earliest harvest since 1893. Vineyards in France had a moment of panic when they had to get hold of their grape pickers at the beginning of August. They were all off on holiday. The previous year, harvesting had started on 10 September. This early ripening has meant that grapes are sweeter and contain less water.
Wine makers are also pleased because European production will almost certainly drop this year. Europe is set to produce 15 per cent less wine than usual. France's wine harvest for 2003 will be the lowest in a decade at about 6.3 billion bottles, almost entirely due to the heatwave and lack of rainfall. French wine producers who are competing against US and eastern European low price wines will breathe a sigh of relief because retail prices should remain steady as supply has been reduced. The low end of the French market has been struggling recently as a result of both over production and foreign competition.
In Germany, it has been forecasted that the Pinot Noir will be of excellent quality but there is not such unqualified enthusiasm about the Riesling where experts are being more cautious.
Italian wines such as Chianti, Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino are forecasted to be of very high quality. Most northern producers, especially those in the regions of Trentino and Alto Adige where Merlot and Cabernet are the main red varieties, have given excellent verdicts as well.
In Spain, the wines grown in areas most affected by the extreme heat are being considered of above average quality but Hungary seems to have been the exception, where the high temperatures have not guaranteed exceptional quality. But as any expert will tell you the proof is in the drinking and the ageing and bottling will have to run their course over the next three years before it will be possible to tell if the 2003 vintage is a truly legendary year.