The blistering heat in Europe during the summer of 2003 explains the character and the enormous variability of the wines made that year. Most parts of France recorded the earliest harvest on record as searing temperatures ripened grapes rapidly. Winemakers in Burgundy, Beaujolais, and the Rhone Valley all told me that they had never experienced conditions like those in 2003. They expected that some producers would make superlative wines from very ripe grapes, while others’ wines would have astringent tannins and be out of balance.
Locales within the southern Rhone Valley faired better than many other regions because the usual Mediterranean climate gives winemakers there more experience dealing with the heat. Still, there is significant variability among the wines labeled Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages. Vines planted in clay soil, which retains moisture, were less parched by the heat and drought than those planted in well-drained spots. Older vines, whose roots penetrate deeply, weathered the effects of the heat better. This is definitely a time to rely on advice of your local wine retailer, who has tasted and purchased only those wines from producers who handled this unusual year well.
In theory, wines labeled Cotes du Rhone Villages are supposed to be higher quality than those labeled Cotes du Rhone because they come from any one of 95 villages that have the potential to produce more distinctive wines. But the skill of the producer, especially in 2003, trumps location and many Cotes du Rhone wines deliver more enjoyment than their more prestigious cousins do. Winemakers use the usual cast of Mediterranean characters grenache, syrah, and cinsault, among others to make these powerful, ripe wines that have overtones of spice. Those from talented producers, such as the four listed below, are perfect for serving with casseroles and other hearty fare because the tannins are ripe, lack astringency, and balance the fruit and spice flavors.
Grand Veneur, Cotes du Rhone, 2003 (About $11, distributed by Atlantic Importing Co., 508-665-4274).
Roger Perrin, Cotes du Rhone, Vieille Vignes (old vines), 2003 (About $14, Ideal Wine & Spirits, 781-395-3300).
Chateau de St. Cosme, Cotes du Rhone, Les Deux Albions, 2003 (About $17, Classic Wine Imports, 781-352-1100).
Chapoutier, Cotes du Rhone, Bellaruches, 2003 (About $19, United Liquors, 800-445-0076).
February 3, 2005.