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Killer heatwave profits Bordeaux

By Fred Tasker

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Remember the news reports in the summer of '03 of the monster heat wave withering Europe and the French grape growers crowing that all those super-ripe grapes were going to create the finest vintage of the century?

Well, those wines are here, and Americans will love them. They're ripe, packed with fruit, mellow of tannin and ready to drink.

The influential Wine Spectator magazine gives Bordeaux a preliminary "A-plus" rating, calling the vintage "exotic and powerful." In fact, the wines are reminiscent of those of a certain sunny Western U.S. state. You might even call it a "California vintage."

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But not to their faces.

"A California vintage? Well, yes and no," hedges Gilles Maligne, of Chateau de Fieuzal in Bordeaux's Graves region. "The grapes were very ripe, but they had enough acid."

"California? Maybe a little bit," concedes Daniel Cathiard, of Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte. "This is not typical for us. We had over-mature grapes. But they made wines that are pleasant and round."

The searing heat and drought 2-1/2 years ago meant the French had to work extra hard to make Bordeaux wines with the mineral qualities and acid-tannin structure they prize. Chateau Olivier picked grapes mostly from its vineyards with clay soil, which held enough moisture to keep the grapes from desiccating. Grapes growing in its vineyards with gravel soil were demoted to secondary wines -- meaning a 20 percent drop in production.

At Chateau Pape-Clement, even the best bunches of grapes had some that were desiccated. "We had to sort by hand to pick out the bad ones," said Bernard Magrez.

So even if the Bordelais are not accustomed to offering America such round, ripe wines, they're happy to make the most of it.

"The warm summer produced very ripe grapes, so the wines are ready to drink right now," says Olivier Bernard, of Domaine de Chevalier. "Ordinarily, you have to wait five or 10 years."

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