To say that 2003 was a hot vintage in France is something of an understatement. It was the year of the heatwave, the summer that, when I holidayed with my grandmother in France, was so hot we had to lift her into the pool to keep her cool. Days were 43 degrees; night temperatures were not much lower.
When the wines were released, there was much hype but, realistically, only a handful have made it to ten years. Most producers have long advised that their wines be drunk up and my Brussets, for example, are long gone (with every bottle enjoyed, it must be said). Most Chateauneufs will not be at their best now either.
Why is this? Quite simply, the summer was too intense. Instead of the normal 100 days between flowering and harvesting, only 70 were needed to ripen the fruit. However, the tannins lagged behind and acidities were low (although alcohol was, inevitably high) so, whereas in their youth the wines were fully flavoured with plenty of ripe fruits, the structural elements were all over the place in all but a few wines.
One of those few, it transpires, was Raymond Usseglio's 2003 "Cuvee Imperiale" which, for some reason seemed appropriate for a Tuesday night wine - last night, fact. I am really not sure why I gauged this wine as being "appropriate" but sometimes the really special bottles need to be appreciated a deux rather than en masse. If nothing else, you get a second (even third) glass that way.
This really was a great Chateauneuf, perfectly integrated with the tannins enriching the thick velvety texture. The fruit is secondary now but still full of peppery spice and cherries. Delicious.
The good news is that Stef has been improving this wine in the vintages since 2003 to the point where even Parker is having to admit that it is one of the very best wines of the appellation (Parker seems to prefer liquid jam to the more elegant style of the wines from Raymond Usseglio et Fils).
And for Wednesday night? Well, it happens to be my son's 14th birthday and tradition has it that we will have something from 1999. Barolo perhaps? Or maybe Burgundy? Or perhaps a 1999 Imperiale from Raymond Usseglio.