Bordeaux vin­tages: 1989 vs 1990

These two su­perb vin­tages came at just the right time to ride the surge of in­tense mar­ket in­ter­est in Bordeaux’s top wines. Jane An­son looks back at what made them such a stand­out pair­ing, and re­vis­its wines from six of the most prom­i­nent prop­er­ties

Decanter - - CONTENTS -

Jane An­son com­pares these two great and con­sec­u­tive vin­tages, tast­ing wines from six highly rated prop­er­ties

IT WAS GOOD to be Borde­lais in the 1980s. Some­thing shifted with the bril­liance of the 1982 vin­tage – a quick­en­ing of in­ter­est from in­ter­na­tional con­sumers, a con­fi­dence from château own­ers to leave grapes longer on the vines and in­creas­ingly to drop fruit and cut yields, risk­ing vol­ume in search of ripeness, con­cen­tra­tion and qual­ity. The con­tin­ued run of good vin­tages in 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1989 got money flow­ing into the châteaux on a reg­u­lar ba­sis for the first time in decades, and made it­self felt through in­vest­ments in château re­pairs, bet­ter cel­lars and the em­ploy­ment of wine con­sul­tants.

The first vin­tage of the new decade seemed to con­tinue the good run, with 1990 again de­liv­er­ing the con­di­tions needed to pro­duce ex­cep­tional wine. But that year was where the good times stopped, pretty much un­til 1995. That four-year gap added fur­ther mys­tique to the 1980s vin­tages, but es­pe­cially to the fi­nal flour­ish of 1989 and 1990, which to­day is viewed as one of the great­est vin­tage pair­ings of all time.

And if there’s one thing that Bordeaux loves more than pro­claim­ing a vin­tage of the cen­tury, it’s be­ing able to de­clare the one-two knock­out of a vin­tage pair. From 1928 and 1929, right through to 2015 and 2016, pit­ting one vin­tage against an­other en­cour­ages in­ter­est, drives pas­sion, pro­vokes ar­gu­ments, and no doubt does noth­ing to hurt sales.

Wa­ter­shed era

The fas­ci­nat­ing thing about 1989 and 1990 is that they don’t fol­low the usual pat­tern. Typ­i­cally, when you are com­par­ing two vin­tages in Bordeaux, they are op­pos­ing pairs: the so­lar 2009 against the cooler 2010, for ex­am­ple, or the hot and dry 2000 against the fresher, more el­e­gant 2001. It begs ques­tions like, which year favoured the Left Bank, which the Right Bank? How did Mer­lot stand up against Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon?

These two vin­tages, rather than be­ing op­po­sites, in fact had many sim­i­lar­i­ties. Both 1989 and 1990 had hot and dry grow­ing sea­sons that saw a good-sized crop of small berries with rich tan­nic struc­ture and fairly low acid­ity. They are the kind of years that Bordeaux loves, and that can de­liver wines of longevity, which just seem to power through the decades. Both were seen as ex­cep­tional from the start, even if 1990 was over­shad­owed for a few years by its older si­b­ling.

At the same time, Bordeaux was un­der­go­ing one of its pe­ri­odic shifts in the late 1980s. Con­sul­tants Jac­ques Bois­senot and Pas­cal

Ribéreau-Gayon were tak­ing over from Emile Pey­naud, who had done so much to rev­o­lu­tionise wine­mak­ing from the 1960s through to the 1980s. The more gen­er­ous bud­gets of these years meant that tem­per­a­ture con­trol was wide­spread in the cel­lars – un­like in 1982 and 1983 – and the more care­ful grape sort­ing meant it was eas­ier than ever to make the most of the good con­di­tions.

Given all of these fac­tors, it’s def­i­nitely worth dig­ging out any old bot­tles that you have, or can track down, be­cause the chances are you’re go­ing to find some great sur­prises. But is one of these two vin­tages hold­ing up bet­ter than the other? And where ex­actly should you be look­ing to in­crease your chances of en­joy­ment?

Vin­tage 1989

The Bordeaux oenol­ogy school opened its yearly sum­mary with the words: ‘1989 will leave an un­for­get­table mem­ory for most wine­mak­ers’. At the time, 1989 was the warm­est vin­tage of the 20th cen­tury, with sun­shine lev­els sec­ond only to 1961 and heat equal to 1947. April was pretty much the only dif­fi­cult month in the en­tire grow­ing sea­son, and it gave way to a sum­mer and au­tumn that were warmer, drier and sun­nier than the pre­vi­ous 30-year av­er­age. Bud­ding was 10 days ear­lier than av­er­age, flow­er­ing 15 days ear­lier, and by mid-Au­gust vine­yards were show­ing the ear­li­est colour change for 40 years. The har­vest was the ear­li­est since 1893. Neg­a­tives in­cluded the drought that af­fected young vines and any over-loaded vines. There were also touches of hail, and some block­ages meant slow phe­no­lic ripeness, so châteaux needed to be care­ful with pick­ing dates, although the very high sug­ars were less of a threat than in the past be­cause of the al­limpor­tant tem­per­a­ture con­trol.

Vin­tage 1990

Some frost on 27 March par­tic­u­larly af­fected St-Emil­ion (made worse by an early bud break after a warm Fe­bru­ary), but was com­pen­sated by lots of se­condary bud­ding, mean­ing this was the sec­ond year run­ning with a gen­er­ous crop. 1990 had a less even flow­er­ing and a more drawn-out colour change than 1989, which meant a later har­vest. But look deeper and there were a lot of su­perla­tives. July and Au­gust were drier and hot­ter than in 1989, and grape ripen­ing in the con­tin­ued heat of Septem­ber was helped hugely by two short bursts of rain on 14-15 Septem­ber and again on 22-23 Septem­ber. Al­co­hol lev­els were of­ten higher in 1990 than 1989 as a re­sult of the hot sum­mer, and there were also some stuck fer­men­ta­tions, but gen­er­ally the wines were show­ing pow­er­ful, ma­ture tan­nins and rich fruits right from the start.

Then and now

I re­cently pre­sented a hor­i­zon­tal of 1989 and 1990 wines at 67 Pall Mall – a pri­vate

‘The 1989s had more mo­ments of bril­liance, with both Cheval Blanc and Mou­ton Roth­schild right up there’

mem­bers’club in Lon­don that has a cel­lar with more than 4,000 wines on the list and ac­cess to plenty of bot­tles with great prove­nance.

We tasted through a fas­ci­nat­ing line-up of 10 wines, five from each year, of Châteaux Cheval Blanc, Figeac, L’Evangile, Léoville Bar­ton and Mou­ton Rothshchild. And to round out the tast­ing with an­other pair­ing, I have added in the same two years of Léoville Poy­ferré that I opened in the same week.

One of the in­ter­est­ing things we found, look­ing back on them with al­most 30 years un­der their belt, is that hav­ing two ex­cep­tional and sim­i­lar years of sim­i­lar age shows that Bordeaux is far more com­pli­cated than just vin­tage alone. Ter­roir, choice of grape, vine­yard per­son­al­ity, viti­cul­tural choices; all of these things come into play and are eas­ier to dis­cern when com­par­ing vin­tages where many of the con­di­tions were sim­i­lar.

These were also fas­ci­nat­ing years for the in­di­vid­ual es­tates. 1989 saw the in­tro­duc­tion of a sec­ond wine at L’Evangile, and 1990 was its first vin­tage un­der 70% own­er­ship by Do­maines Barons de Roth­schild (Lafite) – full own­er­ship came only in 1998 (see ‘Pro­ducer pro­file’, p84). 1989 was also the first vin­tage at Mou­ton made en­tirely un­der Baroness Philip­pine de Roth­schild, fol­low­ing the death of her fa­ther Baron Philippe the year be­fore.

Thierry Manon­court was over at Figeac and Anthony Bar­ton was get­ting into his stride at Léoville Bar­ton, hav­ing taken over from his un­cle Ron­ald in 1983, but he was still keep­ing things tra­di­tional with no green har­vest­ing – un­like neigh­bour­ing Léoville Poy­ferré, where crop thin­ning and green har­vest­ing had been in place since the mid-1980s.

Cheval Blanc was still with the Four­caudLaus­sac fam­ily, un­til the Al­bert Frère/Bernard Ar­nault pur­chase in 1998. They in­tro­duced sec­ond wine Le Pe­tit Cheval in 1988 (sell­ing off a third se­lec­tion in bulk), then green har­vest­ing in 1990. Co­in­ci­den­tally or not, the 1990 Cheval is a leg­endary bot­tle that to­day sells for about dou­ble the price of any of the other wines we tasted (a case would set you back £10,000 or more – if you can find one).

Rel­a­tive mer­its

And what of the bot­tles we opened and tasted? For a start, so many of them proved ex­actly why peo­ple love old Bordeaux. They re­tained a fresh­ness and a firm but yield­ing tan­nic struc­ture, even at 30 years, and played with the clas­sic sig­na­ture notes of age­ing clarets, re­veal­ing by turn men­thol, eu­ca­lyp­tus, cedar, melted black fruits.

The 1990 seemed more steady per­haps, with stun­ning den­sity and rich tex­ture, while the 1989 had more mo­ments of bril­liance, with both the Cheval Blanc and the Mou­ton Roth­schild right up there. Per­haps the 1990 is tast­ing marginally bet­ter on the Left Bank

‘Both 1989 and 1990 have enough fruit and struc­ture that they should re­main at this level for an­other decade at least’

to­day, and 1989 still de­liv­er­ing over on the Right Bank (where Figeac and L’Evangile de­serve a spe­cial men­tion).

These are wines that are very much in their drink­ing win­dow, although there is no great rush to drink them up if you have them in your cel­lar. Both vin­tages have enough fruit and struc­ture that they should re­main at this level for an­other decade at least, with per­haps the 1990 hav­ing the slight edge in terms of fu­ture de­vel­op­ment.

If I had to pick out one château from the six on dis­play, it would have to be Cheval Blanc – a re­minder that while Caber­net Franc is seen as a blend­ing grape, in the shadow of Mer­lot and Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon across much of Bordeaux, in the right hands it can blos­som into some­thing ut­terly ex­cep­tional.

Jane An­son is a De­canter con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor, Bordeaux cor­re­spon­dent and au­thor of the book Bordeaux Leg­ends

Be­low: har­vest at Ch‰teau Figeac

Above: Anthony Bar­ton and ca­nine com­pan­ion at Château Léoville Bar­ton

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