2003 and 2002 Sauternes and Barsacs

Compared to the powerful 2001 Sauternes vintage, which featured a rare combination of richness, complexity and acidity and should be cellared and forgotten for a decade or more, vintages 2002 and 2003 should offer considerably more early appeal. In fact, in my group tasting of these two vintages in early April, I was pleasantly surprised by the seductive fruit and purity of flavor I found in both sets of wines. The young 2003s, which I tasted from barrel, are wonderfully opulent, very sweet and quite low in acidity, while the 2002s are racier, less fleshy, more incisive. The 2002s could serve well as aperitifs or worked into a meal, while the broader 2003s are probably better off with dessert, or as dessert. Both vintages should offer the advantage of early accessibility, but both should last well, the 2002s on their acidity and balance, the 2003s on their sheer sweetness.

The vintages in question. Vintage 2002 began with a small crop due to coulure during the flowering. Following a cool summer in which slow ripening allowed the grapes to retain good levels of acidity, the best fruit was mostly picked under favorable conditions during the second half of September, with concentration coming as much from passerillage (shriveling of the grapes by sun and wind) as from botrytis. The weather turned rainy after the first week of October, and most of the best producers used little or no fruit harvested after that. The 2002s show lively acidity (négociant Bill Blatch of Vintex describes 2002 as a Côteaux du Layon style of Sauternes), and frequently more tropical and honeyed flavors owing partly to the element of passerillage. However, some of the finished 2002s seem softer than they should be. No doubt some château were scared by the high acidity levels into finishing their wines with lower alcohol and higher residual sugar. Some of the latter wines show more citrus fruits than baked apple and roasted peach.

In the heat wave summer of 2003, some rain during the second week of September triggered a rapid outbreak of botrytis on fruit that was already ripe and high in sugar. When it turned dry again on September 11, there was a fast early trie, or pass through the vines, to eliminate grapes affected by grey rot, and when temperatures turned very warm again by the 19th, most châteaux harvested fully botrytized fruit in an intense second trie over the following seven or eight days. The 2003 wines are hugely sweet—typically with record residual sugar levels of between 120 and 160 grams per liter. They are also very low in acidity, yet they show lovely elegance and surprising freshness and purity of flavor for such powerful wines, with stone fruits and citrus fruits dominating.

The 2002s are late arriving in the market, which until recently was focused on the 2001s. Prices seem reasonable. Note that many of the top 2003s are still available as futures.