Why the 2003 rieslings are so good

Shortly after keying last week’s column on the glories of the 2003 rieslings, I received a note from Petaluma’s Brian Croser. Like the other makers referred to in the column, Brian expressed excitement at the quality but, at the same time, was aware of what scepticism might attach to claims of two consecutive vintages of a lifetime in 2002 and 2003.

Writes Croser, “I know you are looking sceptically at these words and are probably thinking ‘good spin’ to follow the unfollowable, the wonderful 2002 vintage”.

As usual, Croser’s press release carried more meat than most. His analysis of ‘heat summation’ (a measure of solar heat available to vines during the growing season) for the past three vintages sheds considerable light on vintage 2002 and 2003 quality.

“The heat summation from October 2002 to the end of January 2003 was just short of a record set in 2001”, he writes. Now, as riesling gives its best aromatics and flavours under comparatively cool ripening conditions, we immediately begin to wonder what’s so good about such a hot vintage.

Croser continues, “Then the autumn arrived, a full five to six weeks early. February and March were cooler than average and March and April were significantly cooler than the same months in 2002 which was the coolest summer on record. This early heat blast up to veraison [when grapes begin to change colour and soften], followed by chilly ripening and fruit flavour development phase, has sculpted an unusual and enchanting wine”.

He concludes, “The table actually proves there is very little difference between the long term average heat summation and vintages 2002 and 2003 for the February to April critical ripening phase”.

Now, heat summation is measured as ‘the number of degrees Celsius by which the average mean temperature for the period exceeds 10, multiplied by the number of days in the period’.

Croser’s figures for Petaluma’s Hanlin Hill vineyard in the Clare Valley reveal heat summation for October to February for 2001, 2002, 2003 and the long-term average as 2074, 1569, 1924 and 1773 respectively. Clearly, 2001 and 2003 were hot and 2002 cool.

But the figures for the February to April ripening period – 805, 746, 755 and 759 – show a still hot 2001 vintage with 2002 and 2003 slightly cooler than but very close to the long-term average.

Heat summation for October to January show where the real blast of summer lay for 2001 and 2003 and just how unusually cool was vintage 2002. The figures are: 1269, 823, 1169 and 1014 for 2001, 2002, 2003 and the long term average respectively.

While these exact figures apply only to one vineyard, the general trend, I believe, may be extrapolated across the Clare and Eden Valleys. They tend to support the view that wines from the cooler 2002 vintage tend to be a little more restrained in the fruit department and possess more assertive acidity. This suggests good cellaring potential

In contrast, the 2003s seem to offer more up front aromas and fruitiness than the 2002s did at the same age. This, too, is consistent with early heat followed by cool ripening. However, the wines have reasonable structure, too. So there are bound to be some long living examples amongst the 2003s, too, even if the general trend is to early drinking pleasure.

The figures also tell us a little of why these two legendary riesling areas are not so hospitable to chardonnay. Chardonnay, like riesling, develops its most intense flavours under comparatively cool ripening conditions. However, it ripens earlier than riesling and in Clare and Eden that means before the onset of suitably cool autumn weather. Both regions make workmanlike chardonnays, but you’ll look long and hard to find anything in the league of riesling.

And what of the so-called ‘riesling renaissance’ still being talked up in the press? From what I can see, there’s no such thing. In the bumper 2002 harvest, Australia’s total harvest was just 28756 tonnes compared to chardonnay’s 252166. By 2005 the tonnages for each variety are tipped to reach 302000 and 36000 respectively.

Clearly, riesling is and is likely to remain a niche variety. But that’s very good news for those tuned into it because it will continue to deliver more quality and flavour for your dollar than any variety, white or red.

Annie’s Lane Clare Valley Riesling 2003, $14 to $18
This is just one of many absolutely delicious, early-release 2003 rieslings beginning to hit the market. As a major, widely distributed product (it’s part of the Beringer Blass group), Annie’s Lane is frequently discount fodder. Hence, the wide gap between ‘normal’ retail and ‘special’ pricing. I saw this in a line up of 12 other 2003’s and liked its rich musky/floral aroma and similarly generous, very fresh and zesty dry palate. The screw-cap seal guarantees pristine, fruity freshness now and should protect the wine for many years if you prefer the rich, honeyed flavours that come with age.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2003 & 2007

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