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Published:  23 July, 2008

By Jack Hibberd

The excitement generated by last summer's record temperatures carried through to 2004 earlier this month, when record numbers of visitors from around the world descended on Bordeaux for the most eagerly awaited en primeur campaign since the 2000 vintage. Despite a (somewhat personal) spat between Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson MW over the quality and style of Saint-Emilion's Chteau Pavie, there appears to be an unusually high level of agreement among buyers and critics over the star wines of the vintage. It seems the majority of demand for top 2003 Bordeaux will be limited to Cabernet-dominant wines from the northern Mdoc - dashing hopes, particularly on the Right Bank, that the sluggish market since the millennium vintage could be forgotten. The vintage is clearly best in Saint-Julien, Pauillac and Saint-Estphe, with Margaux slightly less consistent,' said James Suckling of the Wine Spectator, an opinion mirrored by critics such as Robinson, and buyers such as Chris Hardy from Majestic and Stephen Browett from Farr Vintners (who called it a great vintage for the northern Mdoc'). Top marks have been awarded to all the first growths (with Latour and Lafite leading the way), while top estates on the Saint-Estphe/Pauillac border (Montrose, Cos d'Estournel) and Saint-Julien/Pauillac border (Pichon Baron, Las Cases and Pichon-Lalande) are particularly highly rated. With only minor chteaux having declared prices so far - and the top estates (hopeful of increased interest from the US) unlikely to until Parker releases his scores - early estimates point to a 10-20% increase on 2002 (similar to 2001). But as Robin Kick, marketing manager at Fine & Rare, points out: We may see these figures double as some proprietors speculate on demand at more significant price increases. We predict this vintage will then suffer a high degree of price volatility as demand chases the top wines creating an investors' market.' For Browett, despite increased demand, this campaign could prove to be difficult'. Unlike 2000, when everybody made good wines, you have about 30 chteaux that made exceptional wines, which are what everybody wants. However, there are about another 100 chteaux that have produced perfectly good wines, including on the Right Bank, but who may find it hard to generate enough interest to sell at the prices they want to. All the orders I am getting say the same thing: "a case of Montrose, a case of Cos" and so on.' On the Right Bank, the acknowledged star is Ausone, which some (including Fine & Rare) rate as the best wine of the vintage. Pomerol suffered worse than Saint-Emilion from overripe grapes (Le Pin will not be released as such), although, again, some great wines were produced. David Roberts MW, senior buyer at Lay & Wheeler, highlights Hosanna, l'Evangile and La Fleur Ptrus as good buys. The fiercest debate surrounds Pavie, which produced a New World-style blockbuster more reminiscent of California than Bordeaux. Suckling gave it 95-100 and Decanter awarded 4/5, but Robinson offered a meagre 12/20 and labelled it ridiculous more reminiscent of late-harvest Zinfandel than a red Bordeaux'. Responding via his website, Robert Parker (who is expected to award the wine a massive score when his notes are published at the end of April) said he had tasted Pavie four separate times, and, recognising everyone's taste is different, Pavie does not taste at all (for my palate) as described by Jancis.' He went on to write that Robinson has a lamentable and perplexing history of disliking not only all of [Gerard] Perse's wines, but virtually all of the garagiste wines of Saint-Emilion'. Browett and the Farr team declined to score the wine and said it was impossible for us to judge'. Browett added: As an example of a rich, massively concentrated wine, it's amazing. But as a classic Saint-Emilion, it's absurd.' Jean-Franois Mau, managing director at ngociant Yvon Mau, said that, in general, early fears of swarthes of New World-style wines were unfounded: Even in those areas producing generic Bordeaux, particularly those on clay soils, it is a good vintage.' He added that he had high hopes of an increase in demand. Hardy at Majestic said that [if producers] get their pricing right, the 2003 vintage could spark a real resurgence for Bordeaux'. Whether any increase in sales will be enough to stave off the rumoured impending bankruptcies among numerous minor chteaux and ngociants is another matter. As for whites, Sauternes and Barsac had a great year with high levels of botrytis, Michael Schuster rating it similar to the highly rated 2001 and better than 1997. Elsewhere, white Graves survived the heat better than expected, although low acidity has proved to be a problem for some producers.