Rhône Valley wines from the 2003 vintage encourage a pronounced divide among critics. Incredible summer-long heat made for atypical results -- whether those results are lauded or shunned depends on which expert you consult.
The wine aficionados who favour big fruity expressions, concentrated or heavily extracted wines seem to take to 2003 yields like a duck does to water. Others who are let down by meek acidity often claim the vintage's results favour an uninteresting, if not entirely flat, product.
I find myself among the latter group of voices. And the Benjamin Brunel Rasteau Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2003 is a case in point. It has a lovely caramel nose, but you can sense immediately that it is hot. On the palate, the fruit isn't too baked to render admirable shades of dark cherry, blackberry and cassis. Still, it all seems a little too cooked for my tastes. The unique wilted and twisted bottle for this 2003 concoction has never seemed more characteristic.
But then, I do not tend to drink and appreciate wine on its own. Generally, when taken with food, wines of crisp acidity fare much better than those of low-level acid. So that tells you a bit about where I'm coming from, i.e. not a big fan of Grenache much. A hearty meat pie, a salad, a cuisse de canard laquée with flageolets in a tomato and veal demi-glace... none of it especially sings when paired up with this burly Rhône. It is particularly unattractive when next to cheese like Gruyère -- it's too fruity and heady for that. It's not even something to drink when munching on fresh artisanal bread.
LOOKING AHEAD: AVERAGE CONDITIONS, BETTER VINTAGE?
Love it or hate it, it's now the time to move past the 2003s and look towards the 2004s. Benjamin Brunel 2004 has been available for purchase for some time now and just looking at the percentage of alcohol on the bottle label, you can guess that it's a better example of the frequently congenial Southern Rhône style.
After a wet and disastrous 2002 vintage and the heatwave of the 2003 season, almost everyone agrees with Thierry Usseglio, prominent Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer when he says that 2004 is "almost a normal year whose wines will be much more interesting than the 2003s".
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France. 13.5%